Box office gross and the popularity of movies


Box office gross can be used as a measure of the popularity of a movie, and the traditional measuring the popularity of films on general release is to rank them week-by-week according to their 3-day box office gross. The film with the greatest box office gross for the period Friday-to-Saturday is ranked as number one, and so on. The opening weekend of a film is accompanied by much fanfare (when it is successful) and has been used as an indicator of the potential total gross of a film over the course of its release. However, films are available for the audience to see seven days a week, and this method of ranking films does not reflect this. Much of the available box office data goes unused, while cinemagoers who chose to see a film on a Wednesday find that their choice is not included in the measurement of the popularity of a film until its release is ended and the total gross for a film is compared to others at the end of the year or in an ‘all-time box office’ list. Could a method of ranking films based on the total weekly gross of a film (i.e. the total gross from Monday-to-Sunday) be a better measure of the popularity of a film?


To compare rankings based on the 3-day gross period (Friday-to-Sunday) and the total weekly gross (Monday-to-Sunday) data was collected for the UK and the US for four weeks in 2008 chosen at random: the weeks ending 17 February [1], 4 May [2], 27 July, and 26 October. Box office data was collected for the top fifteen films in each country based on their 3-day gross ranking. Data was collected from the UK Film Council box office archive for the UK, and from Box Office Mojo for the US.


The results for the UK box office over the four weeks chosen are presented in Tables 1 to 4, and for the US box office in Tables 5 to 8. For each film, each table lists the week of release, the 3-day gross and the ranking of the film by this figure, the total weekly gross and the ranking of the film by this figure, the difference between these two rankings (Δ = Rank [3-day gross] – Rank [Total gross]), and the ratio of the 3-day gross to the total weekly gross. (There is quite a lot information in these tables and they are clearer to read when displayed large on the screen. To do this just click on them).

Looking at the 3-day gross ratios for the British films, we can see that it is typical for a film to gross less than half its box office at the weekend. The exception here is the week ending 4 May 2008 (Table 2), where the values for the 3-day gross ratio are greater than 0.5, and this may be due to the fact that this is the weekend before the May Bank Holiday that immediately followed. Use of the 3-day gross ratio may not be reliable in the UK because audiences do not attend at the weekend, and the ranking may be based on approximately half or less-than-half of the films total box office gross for the week.

Generally, the ranking for most films in the UK remains unchanged, and so the method used is not a matter of urgency. Table 2, for example, shows only minor discrepancies between the two methods, and this may again be due to the proximity of the weekend to a bank holiday.

There are some stand-out differences. The most obvious example is The Bucket List (see Table 1), which is ranked sixth by its 3-day gross of £602248 (a disappointing opening weekend by any measure for such a film), but thirteenth when we take into consideration the total grosses of all the films. This was not a film that found favour with British audiences, who were clearly choosing to spend their money elsewhere, and the 3-day gross ranking fails to reflect this. At the same time, Jodhaa Akbar was ranked tenth by its 3-day gross, but as a film released on only 46 screens its ranking on this score does not reflect its popularity with audiences throughout the UK. (For this week the second smallest number of screens for a film on release was 121 for There Will Be Blood). Its ranking of fourteenth for the weekly gross would better reflect its limited availability when compared to other films. There Will Be Blood and Sweeny Todd also show large differences, with the former ranked four places too high, and the latter four places too low.

Such large movements as these also raise the issue of films that make it into the top fifteen films on the basis of their 3-day gross ranking, but which would not do so if the total weekly gross was taken into account. At the same time, National Treasure 2 would have been ranked first instead of second. If box office gross can be used as a measure of popularity, then this film was the most popular in the UK for the week ending 17 February 2008, and not Jumper.

If we look at the ranking of Mamma Mia! in Table 4, we can see that by its 3-day gross it is listed behind Igor, The House Bunny, and Taken; but on its total weekly gross, it would be ranked ahead of all these three films. None of the four films in this example were on their opening weekend, and so the false ranking of the 3-day gross clearly distorts the perception we can form of their popularity: Mamma Mia! was the most popular of these four films, but its audience chose to attend during the week and not at the weekend and so it ranked at nine instead of six. This is a clear example of how use of the weekend figures does not accurately reflect what films audiences are watching.

Table 1 UK box office gross for week ending 17 February 2008

Table 2 UK box office gross for week ending 4 May 2008

Table 3 UK box office gross for week ending 27 July 2008

Table 4 UK box office gross for week ending 26 October 2008

In the case of the UK films we saw some large discrepancies, but this is not the case in the US. This may be due to the fact that the 3-day gross ratio for films at the US box office is typically greater than 0.5, and so films take the majority of their gross over a week during the period Friday-to-Sunday. This suggests that there is an important difference in the way in which British and American audiences consume films: British audiences got to the cinema during the week (Monday-to-Thursday), while American audiences prefer to go at the weekend. As the 3-day gross ratio is generally greater than 0.5, the rankings based on the weekend box office data are a more reliable of statistic of the popularity of a film with its audience. Only two films in all four weeks are displaced by three or more positions: The X-Files: I Want to Believe (see Table 7) is three places higher on its 3-day gross ranking than its week ranking; and Pride & Glory (see Table 8) is ranked four places higher on its 3-day gross ranking than its week ranking. Both these films were on their opening weekend, and as films on release at the same time took the majority of the gross at the weekend, the weekend gross in these two cases – and unlike in the UK – can be considered a reasonably accurate reflection of audience choice. However, where large differences (such as that for The Bucket List in the UK) do occur, it is worth investigating the relationship between a film and its audience at great length.

Table 5 US box office gross for week ending 17 February 2008

Table 6 US box office gross for week ending 4 May 2008

Table 7 US box office gross for week ending 27 July 2008

Table 8 US box office gross for week ending 26 October 2008

An obvious objection to the approach outlined here is that it is unfair to compare a film that has been on release for only three days with a film that has the opportunity to gross for a full week. However, we might also object to the use of the 3-day gross as a means of ranking films as this ignores the performance of a film across the whole week and focuses only on one part of the data. Use of either the 3-day gross or the weekly gross may then be regarded as problematic, but the virtue of the latter is that it does not ignore box office data (i.e. the total weekly gross) that we have to hand. As we can see in the examples above, for most films in the UK, the majority of their weekly box office gross occurs during the period Monday-to-Thursday, and the use of the 3-day gross for ranking does not reflect the actual behaviour of audiences. Therefore, the assumption that the 3-day gross accurately reflects the popularity of a film may not be justified. The opening weekend is an atypical event for a film with the greatest publicity effort devoted to making a big splash and gaining the greatest proportion of a film’s box office before tailing off as a film sheds screens, and this also distorts the ranking of films by this measure. The use of the weekly gross means that our assessment of the popularity of a film is (to a greater or lesser extent) insulated against such one-off events, and thereby represents a better measure of a film’s performance. It is also important to bear in mind what it is we are trying to achieve in using box office gross to rank films: we wish to understand how audiences are behaving, what films they are choosing to see, what they are prepared to spend their money on, what they like or do not like. The audience has a free choice of when to visit the cinema and what film to see there, and they may choose to wait until the weekend to see a new film, or they may choose to avoid the weekend to go at a quieter time or to take advantage of special offers (e.g. Orange Wednesdays). The weekly gross figure is a better measure of this free choice for the audience than the 3-day gross, which wastes much of this information. The variability of ticket prices across a week is also taken into account by using the weekly gross: while exhibitors may lower their prices during the week they may also raise them at the weekend, and this effect can be minimised by including the data for the periods Friday-to-Sunday and Monday-to-Thursday, rather than one or the other. We might reasonably expect cinema admissions to be a more reliable measure of the popularity of a film than the fluctuating price of a ticket, but this information is typically not provided on a week-by-week basis by government and industry sources.

An alternative method combining the two rankings (such as the average rank) leads to the problem of how to resolve ties in the new ranking. The simplest approach would be to simply ignore the tie and to cite both films as having equal ranks. For example, in Table 1 Jumper has an average rank of 1.5, and so does National Treasure 2. Allowing both these films to be considered the most popular films in the UK in that week could solve this problem. However, this would perhaps make marketing a film somewhat more difficult: claiming to be the ‘number one film in the UK’ loses its shine somewhat if someone else can make the same claim as you.


This paper has looked at the use of box office grosses as a measure of the popularity of movies. The use of the 3-day weekend gross as a means of ranking films is questionable, and may lead to a distorted view of a film’s box office performance. The total weekly gross may provide a more reliable measure of what is popular with audiences due to its more complete use of the available data and the ability to spread potentially distorting effects out over time. The use of different measures of popularity for different countries may be appropriate depending on the behaviour audiences.


  1. In the US this is President’s Day Holiday Weekend. The data referred to here are taken from the 3-day weekend of Friday-to-Sunday only.
  2. In the UK, this is the weekend before the May Bank Holiday (5 May 2008).

About Nick Redfern

I graduated from the University of Kent in 1998 with a degree in Film Studies and History, and was awarded an MA by the same institution in 2002. I received my Ph.D. from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006 for a thesis title 'Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002.' I have taught at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. My research interests include regional film cultures and industries in the United Kingdom; cognition and communication in the cinema; anxiety in contemporary Hollywood cinema; cinemetrics; and film style and film form. My work has been published in Entertext, the International Journal of Regional and Local Studies, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal, and the Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Posted on April 15, 2010, in British Cinema, Film Analysis, Film Industry, Film Studies, Hollywood, Motion Picture Distribution, Motion Picture Exhibition and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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