The fall movie season is just starting, and we already have a breakout hit. Gravity's box office tally stands at $129 million after just 11 days, a total Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros must be ecstatic about. That box office figure by itself won't shatter any records. For example, The Avengers made $381 million at the domestic box office across its first 11 days.
But Gravity shares similarities to Avatar, a movie that had an opening weekend box office far from Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, but rode stunning visuals and positive word of mouth to a prolonged run of huge weekends. By the time it left theaters, Avatar was the highest grossing film in movie history.
While Gravity won't break Avatar's all-time box office record, it is set to follow the same strategy and become Hollywood's most intriguing film of 2013. Also, it has ignited talk of whether or not 3D film-making can make a comeback.
3D goes mainstream
Avatar's success is credited for kick-starting 3D cinema. The movie wasn't the first to use 3D -- the technology began seeing traction in 2006 -- but it established 3D movies as a force.
The table below shows just how powerful Avatar's effect was on the 3D box office. Keep in mind that Avatar was released in late 2009.
|Total Box Office (Billions)||$9.6||$9.6||$10.6||$10.6||$10.2|
|3D Box Office (Billions)||$0.1||$0.2||$1.1||$2.2||$1.8|
The Avatar effect is unmistakable; 3D box office explodes in the year of its release, then doubles in 2010 as Avatar stays in theaters and other movies make hasty 3D conversions.
Yet, by 2011, with Avatar out of theaters and other films converting to 3D in post-production as an afterthought, consumers grew tired of the technology. Avatar was such an outsized sensation because not was it a great movie, it was produced with 3D in mind from the start.
The trend of 3D disillusionment is pretty stark. While Avatar saw 71% of its opening weekend box office gross come from 3D screenings, blockbusters in 3D this year were well behind. World War Z saw just 34% of its opening weekend sales come from 3D.
Or, look at Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Pixar films. In 2010, Toy Story 3 opened with 60% of its opening weekend gross in 3D. This past summer, Pixar's Monsters University saw its opening weekend gross at just 31% of total box office. That's an interesting apples-to-apples comparison -- there is no real difference between Toy Story and Monster University's use of 3D. The difference is moviegoers tiring of the format and seeing little reason to pay up for 3D showings.
Gravity to the 3D rescue?
When it opened two weekends ago, Gravity broke the downward slide of 3D box office declines emphatically. Its opening weekend was estimated at 84% of all box office grosses coming from 3D showings, a figure that bested even Avatar.
What was behind Gravity's monster showing? Again, we have a movie created with something visually stunning in mind, the kind of film where 3D is an enhancement rather than an afterthought.
James Cameron, the director behind Avatar, called Gravity the "best space photography ever done." But of course he loves Gravity, it's a film with a history painstakingly similar to Avatar.
A making just like Avatar
How difficult and ahead of their times were Gravity and Avatar? Variety relays a story where Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron was told it'd take 5 years before the required technology to film Gravity would be available. That advice was right -- it took 4 1/2 years -- but Cuaron was stubborn and stuck with the movie in spite of it being dropped by Universal amid concerns the movie would prove too expensive. He overcame every obstacle in his path, finding a new studio to back the film, and creating a custom LED "light box" to bring his vision to theaters.
That's a tale eerily similar to Avatar. James Cameron wanted to make the film after Titanic finished filming, but the technology required was more than a half decade away. It wasn't until late 2005 that filmmaking technology had progressed far enough that Cameron could begin work on Avatar. Even with technology advances, the movie took a reported $300 million to produce, and Cameron had to shop the film around after distributor, 20th Century Fox, grew concerned that Avatar would prove impossible to create and too expensive.
Word of mouth drives huge results
Beyond both being films that overcame huge technical hurdles to become marvels of 3D cinema, Gravity and Avatar share similarities at the box office.
Let's look at a comparison between Avatar, Gravity, and The Avengers in their first two weeks.
|Movie||First Weekend||Second Weekend||% Drop||Final Box OfficeTotal|
|Avatar||$77 million||$76 million||-2%||$761 million|
|Gravity||$56 million||$43 million||-23%||TBD|
|The Avengers||$207 million||$103 million||-50%||$623 million|
Both Avatar and Gravity opened outside the summer blockbuster season. Both had smaller opening weekends, but extremely solid holds in their second weekend. Both are unique films that encourage moviegoers to see them before they leave cinemas. All of these factors contribute to a long run where each film earns high multiples over their opening weekend gross relative to a movie like The Avengers.
Avatar's insane final box office total was partially a function of how little competition it faced. It largely owned 3D screen for nearly three months until Alice in Wonderland was released in early March 2010.
Gravity would won't be so lucky. Avatar came out when 3D wasn't as popular; only 20 films were released in 3D in 2009. Last year, the number was 38. Also, it came out at the end of the winter movie season instead of the fall, giving it a long run of little competition. In Gravity's case, it'll have a strong hold over 3D screens through October, but Thor: The Dark World will move into theaters on Nov. 8, limiting Gravity's 3D monopoly to about a month.
Can any films build on Gravity's 3D momentum?
Gravity not being able to live up to Avatar's box office record isn't the point. Movies like Avatar are a once in a decade phenomenon. The more important point is that a critically beloved movie about one woman's isolated survival in space, a movie bereft of aliens or the usual blockbuster themes of space movies, is the first real must see 3D movie since Avatar hit the scene four years ago.
Gravity could finish 2013 as the third highest grossing film in the calendar year at the domestic box office, finishing with over $300 million in box office receipts. What's interesting is that 3D is a huge draw overseas; Avatar collected more than 70% of its box office internationally. Gravity has opened in select international markets, but has plenty of expansion remaining. The movie doesn't even open in the United Kingdom until Nov. 8. With 3D holding stronger in international markets, its biggest payday could be yet to come.
With every passing day, Gravity is building momentum , becoming a cultural sensation. Like Avatar, it's becoming a movie that defines the year in cinema.
The temptation will be to look at Gravity's box office totals and predict that 3D has made a return. The problem is that Gravity, like Avatar before it, is a movie that took tremendous risks to create a truly unique film experience. 3D has been dying because its a largely risk-less endeavor. Studios can pay $10 million to $20 million to convert their movies to 3D and make added hundreds of millions thanks to the higher ticket prices of 3D movies.
Recreating the success of Avatar or Gravity will take some guts, some risks. That's something that is in short supply in Hollywood, even after Gravity becomes the box office sensation of 2013.
Eric Bleeker, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.