The Master smashes per-screen record, rest of box office still in decline

Paul Thomas Anderson’s kinda-sorta-about-Scientology epic The Master broke the record for per-screen average this weekend, earning $145,949 from five locations in New York and LA and beating out Moonrise Kingdom’s $130,749 per-location average in its opening earlier this year. (BoxOfficeMojo notes parenthetically that Kevin Smith’s Red State technically earned more per location, but did so using premium-priced tickets and a concert-style opening at Radio City Music Hall). But it wasn’t all good news for studios, because while the box office as a whole was up 27% over last weekend on the strength of Resident Evil: Retribution’s $21.1 million, it was still down 18% from the same weekend last year, and this weekend was the second worst of the year. At the risk of sounding overly reductive, outside of New York and LA, it was another weekend of movies no one really gave too much of a sh*t about and so they mostly stayed home. The ones who did show up gave Resident Evil a C+ Cinemascore, and that’s a self-selecting group of people who purposely paid money to see a Resident Evil movie.

Thus you have an interesting dichotomy. The weekend’s top wide releases largely represent the old strategy – led by Resident Evil 5 and a 3D re-released of Finding Nemo – of trying to squeeze every penny out of properties with built-in audiences, even as those built-in audiences slowly get bored of the product. The Master, meanwhile, is the second film to hit theaters from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. Ellison, the 26-year-old daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, started by investing in movies like True Grit, and has since gone on to start Annapurna, financing such films as Lawless, The Master, Killing Them Softly, and David O. Russell’s next project.

One way to look at her is that she’s a bratty heiress playing around with her family’s money. The other way to look at her is that she’s a movie fan like us in the privileged position to finance the kind of movies she wants to see. I say this all the time when I’m not making cheap dick jokes, but the movie business has a ton of competition these days, and if it’s going to survive, people need to stop competing for a shrinking market (by churning out lazy sequels and remakes) and start actually expanding that market. The only way to do that is to get people excited about movies again. Excitement for going to the theater has been on the wane for some time now, even as everyone goes nuts for TV dramas like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad et. al. It seems like such a simple thing, but the Annapurna Pictures strategy seems to consist of trying to create a good product, and not just a profitable product. And that seems important to the viability of the medium in the long term. Anyone who does it will tell you, making movies is a terrible way to make money. So it follows that if you are going to do it, it should probably be because you like it. I’m not saying the Annapurna strategy – of financing movies that seem exciting and new, as opposed to the old, hey-you-pigs-seem-to-like-slop-so-here’s-some-more-slop strategy – is the future, but… it’d sure be nice if it was, wouldn’t it?

[numbers via BoxOfficeMojo]