Nothing can compare to seeing a film on its opening weekend: the hordes of costumed fans, armfuls of popcorn, breathless anticipation and the thrill of being one of the first viewers make it an experience to cherish. However, a poor start at the box office can erode a movie's earnings potential and mean it's quickly forgotten. Film distributors all jostle for the top spot, and have come up with creative ways to skew the figures in their favour.
The most widespread manipulation is using preview screenings to extend the opening weekend to four, five or even ten days before the actual Saturday and Sunday. The number of these screenings can vary radically, from a handful at a small art house cinema to hundreds across the country. This strategy gives the impression of a far stronger box-office performance than may actually be the case.
For instance, X-Men Apocalypse garnered positive headlines after it earned about £7.35m during its opening weekend (20-22 May) in the UK. However, preview screenings accounted for £2.07m or 28% of the total, according to the British Film Institute (BFI). The bloated earnings and favourable media coverage may well have convinced more people to watch the film.
Another example is The Huntsman: Winter's War, which took just over £3m in its opening weekend (8-10 April) and snatched the top spot. But this included about £1.45m from 479 previews; exclude those earnings and it would have lost out to Zootropolis, then in its third weekend. That’s quite embarrassing for a film with an enormous $159m (£110m) budget.
Film distributors employ more blatant - and potentially illegal - techniques to boost their box-office earnings. For instance, Beijing Max Screen was recently punished for manipulating the box-office receipts of Ip Man 3. The Chinese company bought over $8.6m-worth of “ghost tickets”, according to news agency Xinhua. This is far more serious than merely extending an opening weekend, but both strategies are designed to manufacture excitement, dupe moviegoers and pad profits.
Fierce competition among film distributors is likely to lead to more and more preview screenings, making it harder for the press and general public to gauge the actual popularity of a film. The strategy also makes it easier for box-office records to be broken, rendering them meaningless. If authorities don’t clamp down on the technique, even more devious strategies may follow.