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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) at the box office - a reality check

I didn't see the new Ghostbusters movie (and I probably won't bother until it comes to free-to-air television) for the single, simple reason that its trailer didn't hook me. Sorry.

There's been much media discussion as to whether failing to see Ghostbusters - or not liking it if you do see it - somehow makes you a bad (perhaps politically suspect) person. In reaction, there's been much crowing in some quarters about its failure at the box office.

Well yes, it has been something of a failure at the box office, but a reality check is needed here. On a budget of $144 million it has made over $124 million in the American domestic market. It has made an additional $84 million in "foreign" markets, adding to $208 million so far. It's still being shown in cinemas, so its first-release global cumulative result may end up being around $220 million. Some earnings may not yet have been reported; but otherwise, even $220 mill. may be out of reach.

That's certainly too low for a movie with such a budget. It's undoubtedly disappointing to the studios involved. But it's far from the worst result in recent times. Compare, say, last year's disastrous Fantastic Four. Let's not even think about how the new Ben Hur is going. Because it has failed mainly in the foreign markets, where the profit percentage for studios on the box office is lower than in the US, Ghostbusters has arguably done about as well, overall, as Alice Through the Looking Glass ($294.5 milllion globally, but only $77 million of it in the domestic market, on a budget of $170 million).

Of course, so many factors go into the profit and loss on these movies that it is difficult to know in any specific case what is needed for one of them to make an eventual profit. One estimate that I read for Ghostbusters was $300 million globally to break even, though I have also seen a claim that the studio thinks this figure is too high. A blockbuster movie may have received all sorts of subsidies and deals that we don't know about, it will have associated merchandising, there can be theme park attractions tied in, novels and comics tied in, and on and on. It will eventually go to Blu-ray and DVD, and there will be television rights. It can also attract interest in other movies belonging to the franchise, acting as an advertisement to gain them more Blu-ray sales, more television broadcasting, more rentals, and so on. As studio executives have been pointing out, this all affects the bottom line of whether the effort was worth it. On the minus side, advertising costs can be as high as actual production costs.

My rough rule of thumb is that a big-budget Hollywood movie probably needs to make at least twice its production budget in its global total... but that is very rough.

In all, Ghostbusters has seemingly been a commercial failure - significantly enough to make a sequel unlikely any time soon - but not a total commercial disaster. Many big-budget movies end up like that. To some extent, it's a crap shoot for the studios when they invest large sums of money.

As for where it all went wrong, note again the American-versus-foreign box office. The performance in the domestic market is really not all that bad. Many big budget movies fall below their budget figure with their American box-office earnings, but make up for it somewhat with good takings in foreign markets. When you dig into the foreign figures for Ghostbusters, it also doesn't seem to have done all that badly in other English-language markets. Its big problem to date has been its very poor performance in non-English-speaking markets.

Compare X-Men: Apocalypse. In the domestic market it made "only" $155.5 million on a budget of $178 million. That's not good, though again it's probably not disastrous. The negative reaction of the critics doubtless kept attendances down, as, no doubt did certain perceived weaknesses (much as I loved this movie). But anyway, it's comparable to Ghostbusters' American performance, considering their respective budgets. It's not all that bad.

However, unlike GhostbustersX-Men: Apocalypse performed credibly in foreign markets. It clawed in $120 million in China alone, and it looks as if it's going about as well as can be expected in Japan, where it's still playing. So far it has over $385 million from the foreign markets, and its eventual global total will be close to or around $545 million. That's surely a disappointment for Fox, but probably only a minor one; it will be some two-and-a-half times what Ghostbusters eventually makes globally.

So, here's a big difference. X-Men: Apocalypse made that large figure that I mentioned in China, while Ghostbusters was actually banned in China (the authorities there don't like ghosts) and so made nothing. Again, Ghostbusters pretty much failed in large markets such as Russia and Brazil. It is currently going head to head with X-Men: Apocalypse in Japan. The X-Men are not all that big in Japan, so there may not be that much difference in how the two movies perform there when their runs are over, but X-Men: Apocalypse should eventually get $10 million. Overall, the X-Men and their battles have translated pretty well, yet again, to the Asian markets in particular.

The significant failure of Ghostbusters stems from a combination of somewhat disappointing (but not in themselves disastrous) results in the domestic market, lack of access to China, and the (seeming) fact that its humour doesn't translate well outside of English-speaking countries. That's a prosaic explanation, but it seems about right to me.

[All figures in US dollars, of course.]

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