Graphing UK box office performance

The UK Film Council box office archive has a large amount of financial data on the performance of films released in the UK, including the weekend gross, total gross, the number of screens, etc. Unfortunately this data is only available for several weeks for UK films, as once a film drops out of the top 15 weekend grosses data is no longer provided. This does, however, make it possible to understand how UK films perform at the box office, and how the few non-UK films that last more than a few weeks in the top 15 compare against them. This data can be very revealing.

For example, although individual films may make or lose money according to their budget and their success in finding an audience, most UK films released in the UK follow the same pattern of decline in their weekend gross (the 3-day weekend from Friday to Sunday) and growth in their cumulative total gross. (Here I have removed any gross from preview screenings to make direct comparisons between patterns in the 3-day gross easier). In general, the decline of the 3-day gross over successive weeks follows an exponential pattern while the growth in the cumulative gross follows a logarithmic pattern. We can see that the longer a film is on release the less money it is able to wring from its audience, and that over time the graphs for both the weekend and total gross flatten out. This makes it possible to see the importance of the opening weekend to a film in a way that it is not really possible by simply reporting the record breaking figures. As I will show below, the opening weekend records are of less interest than the relationship between consecutive weeks on release.

This gives rise to a distinctive graph shaped like a blade or a bird’s beak, and in Figures 1 to 4 such graphs are provided for four UK films. The trendlines are exponential for the 3-day gross and logarithmic for the cumulative total gross, and in each case the coefficient of determination is provided. These four cases illustrate a general pattern that can be used to describe the box office performance of British films, but occasionally the 3-day gross may be better fitted by a power regression curve (where the decline after the opening weekend is very steep [e.g. Venus (2006)]), or a logarithmic curve (where the decline is marginally less than might be expected [e.g. Miss Potter (2006) – although the difference here is very marginal: R2 (exp) = 0.9364, R2 (log) = 0.9665]).

Figure 1 Box office data for Quantum of Solace (2008)

Figure 2 Box office data for The Duchess (2008)

Figure 3 Box office data for Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging (2008)

Figure 4 Box office data for The Dark Knight (2008)

While the above graphs may be thought of as representing the general pattern of performance for UK films at the UK box office, visualising data in this way makes it possible to identify those films that buck the trends in gross performance. For example, in Figures 5 and 6 we have two films (Atonement [2007] and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas [2008]) that experienced a far less severe decline in their 3-day gross. In both these films, the 3-day weekend gross declines in a linear pattern indicating that, unlike The Dark Knight say, these films were able to draw an audience in a much more consistent fashion over the first eight week of their release. In fact, for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas the weekend gross increases from week 3 to 4. However, in both cases the total gross continued to grow at a logarithmic rate suggesting that this continuing strong performance was not replicated during the period Monday to Thursday for each week of release.

Figure 5 Box office data for Atonement (2007)

Figure 6 Box office data for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

On other occasions, we can find exceptional patterns that indicate the very strong success of films at the box office. Mamma Mia! (2008) was the top performing film at the UK box office in 2008 and is the number grossing film in the history of the UK cinema. Plotting the 3-day and cumulative total gross for this film requires two graphs (Figure 7), and reveals that the 3-day gross declined at an exponential rate, while the total cumulative gross grew at a linear rate. This suggests that the weekend box office performance is of less importance to the sustained success of Mamma Mia! than the attendance of audiences during the week.

Figure 7 Box office data for Mamma Mia! (2008)

Avatar (2009) looks set to beat Mamma Mia! to the all-time number one spot at the UK box office by Sunday after only 8 weeks on release. Looking at the linear trend for the total gross this is hardly surprising (Figure 8). What is remarkable is the absence of any trend for the 3-day gross data. This is due to the timing of the films release in the UK: the film was released on 18 December 2009 (excluding previews) and so it crossed the Christmas holiday period. This is important as, unlike the rest of the world, cinemas in the UK are closed on Christmas Day, and as this fell on a Friday in 2009, with the Boxing Day bank holiday held over to Monday 28 December, the ability of the audience to access the film at the weekend was severely restricted. This is why there is a large drop from week 1 to week 2 followed by a large increase to week 3. The film has proved to be remarkably resilient at the weekend with a rise from week 4 to week 5, and over the period of release so far it is only the Christmas weekend when the 3-day gross has fallen below £4.7 million. Due to the continuing sustained performance at the weekend there is no trendline that can be adequately fitted to the data. Avatar really is unlke any film released at the UK box office.

Figure 8 Box office data for Avatar (2009)

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on February 4, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Analysis, Film Industry, Film Studies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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