“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” opened last weekend to a disappointing $90.1 million. That’s down $24 million from the debut of the third movie and a whopping $45 million behind the opening of the second film. Inflation and boosted 3-D ticket prices also indicate that the drop is even steeper in terms of pure audience size, because it takes fewer people buying tickets to spend $90 million in 2011 than it did four or five years ago.
The logical explanation for this decreased audience is that it’s the fourth film in a series that is obviously worn out. Or there’s a far less likely explanation: Blame the 3-D ticket prices.
The argument, made by a Wall Street analyst and relayed by David Lieberman at Deadline, is that attendance for the movie “would have been higher” if more screens showed the film in 2-D.
The evidence? He notes that about 38% of the $90 million in box-office revenue for the film’s opening weekend came from non-IMAX 3D screens. That’s much lower than the average last year, when 54% of the opening revenues for DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek Forever After, and 57% of the initial sales for the studio’s How To Train Your Dragon, came from non-IMAX 3D screens.
This is an interesting theory, but it sounds like a wild misreading of the data. I’ll admit at the outset that I don’t have the exact breakdown of 2-D/3-D screens and the detailed per-screen numbers for “Pirates,” but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard the argument that the number of 3-D screens should account for a higher percentage of the box office revenue. I think the numbers should be viewed the opposite way: If a movie like “Thor” opens with $65 million and the 3-D doesn’t account for its fair share of revenue, that doesn’t just mean audiences are simply tired of or ignoring the format (though that’s increasingly likely, given the ubiquity and meaninglessness of 3-D, and audiences going to “Thor” and “Pirates” are less likely to choose the 3-D screening now that it’s well-established 3-D is meaningless in most films). It also means that if 3-D weren’t around, “Thor” would almost definitely open with a far smaller box office take because the audience simply isn’t that large.
It’s the same thing with “Pirates.” The argument that “Pirates” earned less than 40 percent of its box office from 3-D screens doesn’t mean that the movie would have been bigger without the 3-D screens. It means that this opening would have likely been far smaller had 2-D been the only option. 3-D isn’t hurting the final gross; it’s artificially inflating it by creating numbers that don’t accurately reflect audience demand. (This isn’t unique to 3-D, by the way. Studios tout their box office figures each year without a single mention of inflation, as if comparing an opening from 2011 to an opening from 2001 is even remotely fair.)
As for “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” both of those opened before at least one theater chain doubled their 3-D screens. The overall number of 3-D screens has risen considerably over the last year, but “Dragon” particularly didn’t open with a huge amount of 3-D screens. It opened just three weeks after “Alice in Wonderland,” which was still holding onto some of those 3-D screens, and which had in turn snagged them from “Avatar.” (The “Shrek” sequel was another example of audiences tiring of the film and opting to stay home; the final box office gross, which was a low for the franchise, was proof of that. The same thing is going to happen with “Pirates,” which is probably going to set a franchise low at the domestic box office.) There is the very real fact that audiences are tiring of 3-D, but that only means they will choose the 2-D route, not ignore a film altogether.
Moreover, this theory seems to assume that there are audience members eschewing “Pirates” because they can’t find a 2-D option. While the number of theaters showing 3-D has vastly increased, I still find it hard to believe the average moviegoer has zero 2-D options in their immediate area. A movie that opens on 4,155 screens (like “Pirates”) and earns this amount of money isn’t going to be sold out around the clock. Audiences could find the 2-D screenings if they were truly interested. It’s far more likely that they simply weren’t going to see “Pirates,” and those who opted for 3-D just helped drive up the opening gross above where it should and would have otherwise been.