The ongoing saga of North-Korea comedy The Interview—cancelled, un-cancelled, and finally released online—seemed to enter its final stages yesterday, when Sony announced that the film had grossed $15 million from online sales and rentals, to go along with $2.85 in box office revenue. This is being hailed as a success that might save film division head Amy Pascal's job. But in looking at Sony's own internal projections for the film, it's hard to reach that same conclusion.
Back over the summer, according to emails contained in the cache of documents released by hackers earlier this month, Sony executives settled on box office projections for a number of their upcoming films, a group that included—in much more innocent times—The Interview. In an email sent on July 26, Sony film executive (and president of Columbia Pictures) Doug Belgrad honed in on the following box office numbers for the studio's new Seth Rogen project:
What you see here is a set of numbers representing the projection bracket for The Interview's box office intake. On the low end, Belgrad saw the movie grossing $60 million domestically; on the high end, maybe $110 million. (The "25" on the other side of each fraction is the international projection gross.) In the middle is a $75 million "base" projection, a number that was cemented in an email Belgrad sent a week later.
In deciding to move The Interview to Christmas Day, the studio tacked on a potential gain of $5 million to the movie's projected gross.
It doesn't appear that executives ever projected what The Interview might make in its first weekend in theaters, so we can't say for sure how its eventual take of nearly $18 million stacks up to whatever the studio's pre-hack, pre-cancellation expectations were. But what we can do is compare The Interview's opening weekend with what films that end up grossing between $75 and $80 million at American box offices typically make in their first weekend.
One place to start is with old Sony movies. There's another document in the leaked Sony emails that lists the studio's 30 most profitable films since 2006, which includes exact box office data as of this year. Of those 30 films, three made between $73 million and $80 million domestically, according to Sony (in ascending order): Zombieland, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and 21. Here are how those three films did in their opening weekends, according to Box Office Mojo:
This is an example of only three movies, but by this standard The Interview fell short of what you might see in the first weekend from a film that ends up grossing somewhere around $75 million. (This Is It, the posthumous Michael Jackson concert film produced by Sony, brought in $70 million domestically and $23 million in its first weekend.)
There is, of course, plenty of other data to consult. Last year, according to Box Office Mojo, 11 movies grossed between $16 million and $18 million opening weekend. Of those films, none totaled more than $71 million in domestic gross, except for The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a huge outlier at $116 million in eventual gross. (It should be noted here that Sony's internal box office numbers suggest that the data at places like Box Office Mojo is generally correct, but usually off by a few million dollars in either direction.) If we toss out The Wolf of Wall Street, the average total gross of those 10 other films was right around $50 million, which is far below Sony's worst case scenario for The Interview. Going back to 2012, movies in the $16 to $18 million range opening weekend ended up making $49 million total on average, so this appears to be the gross range Sony should be looking at.
If we look again at reverse totals—how movies that grossed between $70 and $80 million did in their opening weekends—we see the same dynamic. Last year, films that ended up grossing in that range did an average of $24 million opening weekend. In 2012, that number was $22 million. That said, there are a number of movies in those groups–Jack Reacher, Parental Guidance, Sony's own The Smurfs 2—that were in the $16 million to $18 million range on opening weekend that ended up hitting Sony's initial projected number for The Interview.
There are mitigating factors here, chiefly that The Interview was a limited release at theaters this past weekend. According to Buzzfeed, its per-theatre average was $8,613, a rate that's more in line with wide release movies that have grossed somwhere in the $25 million to $30 million range on opening weekends over the last few years. But on the other hand, the controversy surrounding the movie is arguably largely responsible for that limited release per-theatre number, so it's unlikely it would have performed that strongly had the movie been released widely, and normally.
The economic future of The Interview is murky. Sony's decision to release it digitally is unprecedented for a film of this size, so looking back at previous movies can only illuminate us so much. Maybe the film's buzz will continue on, and like, say, Argo, which grossed $19 million in its opening weekend, The Interview will cross the $100 million barrier and be a wild balance sheet success for the studio.
But it seems more likely that the film will fall short of Sony's lowest internal numbers. In that first email, on July 26, Belgrad described his low projections this way:
Let's put The Interview in the "other unanticipated issues" category.
[image via Getty]