You can’t judge the financial success of a movie by how much money it takes at the box office.
The worldwide box office for John Carter was $283 million. That looks like a massive financial success until you take into account the production cost of $250 million and estimated marketing costs of $100 million.
Achieving success in the movie business is tough: exhibitors take a big slice of the box office, distributors charge hefty fees and marketing costs are expensive, so a movie needs to return around three times the cost of production just to break even.
A quick way to estimate a movie’s financial success or failure is to divide the worldwide box office by its production budget. That gives you the cost to box office ratio (CBR).
For example, the Johnny Depp movie, Transcendence took $103 million at the worldwide box office but cost $100 million to produce, so it has a CBR of only 1.03, a long way from the break-even point of 3. It lost a ton of money.
You can’t depend on name actors to turn your movie into a box office success either.
Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea crashed with a CBR of 0.34; Hugh Jackman’s Pan has a miserable 0.85; Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis a disastrous 0.30; Cate Blanchett’s Truth a tiny 0.65; George Clooney’s Tomorrowland a very disappointing 1.1; and Liam Neeson’s Run All Night just 1.44.
And you can’t depend on A-list directors.
The directors who made The Matrix, also made Jupiter Ascending which barely managed a CBR of 1.04. The director of Finding Nemo made John Carter with a CBR of 1.1; and the director of Avatar and Titanic, the two biggest box office hits of all time, also made The Abyss with a CBR of 1.3.
These actors and directors are extraordinarily talented and highly skilled. Their work is no less talented and no less brilliant in the movies that fail than in the ones that succeed.
So what is it that makes all the difference? What can you depend on?
A movie’s financial success depends on a single thing that happens to the main character in the first act. That one thing determines whether the story will work or not, it determines whether it will satisfy audiences or not, and it determines whether the movie succeeds at the box office or not.
That one thing is that important, but it’s astonishing how often studios, talented filmmakers and star actors don’t even notice it’s missing in the movies they make.