Ever wonder why the best movies of all time are the best movies of all time? Or how your favorite TV show became the favorite TV show of millions of other people? While there is not one, definitive answer, we looked at some of the ways that success is measured.
Knowing which films are successful and how to measure success is important for anybody who wants to understand the film industry. While determining a film’s success is a complex process, a good place to start is at the box office. The number that is reported on box office charts is a film’s gross. This is the amount that a film earns before any costs are deducted, but not all of the gross comes back to the distributor. Deals with exhibitors differ from film to film, but it is typical for the distributor to take a high percentage of the opening weekend box office, while the exhibitors keep more and more of the gross the longer the film plays in theaters. The money that the distributors receive is called “rentals,” and it usually comes to around 50% of the gross. This means that a film needs to make around double its cost in order to break even. You also have to factor in the P&A (prints and advertising) budget, which can sometimes be as costly as the film’s production. Rising P&A costs make it harder for films to break even, but this can be offset by large ancillary revenues, such as streaming and television.
Each film has its own measure of success at the box office. For example, Us grossed $255 million worldwide from a budget of only $20 million, making it successful even if you adjust for high P&A costs. However, a film that made the same amount but had a production budget of around $100 million may not have broken even theatrically.
Wide release films open in thousands of theaters and make a large portion of their money in the first weekend, while smaller films such as Lady Bird may open at a few theaters and make their money slowly over a span of months as they expand to more theaters. These films often depend on critical acclaim and word of mouth rather than large marketing budgets, which helps keep their break even points down. Lady Bird's domestic gross of $49 million may not seem like much compared to wide release studio movies, but the $10-million-budgeted film was A24’s biggest hit yet, and with its $89 million worldwide gross it was undoubtedly seen as a big success on its own terms.
While it is rare for low-budget independent films to see blockbuster success, some of the most profitable movies ever made have been micro-budget horror movies. The Blair Witch Project was made for $60,000 in 1999 and grossed $248 million worldwide, and in 2009 Paranormal Activity, which cost only $15,000, made $193 million. While the marketing costs of the films cost many times the films’ productions budgets, they still both saw extremely high returns on their investments.
A film can be successful even if it does not make tens of millions of dollars, and prestige matters when looking at success. Low-budget movies that do not become breakout hits may still be considered successful, especially if they are highly acclaimed. Booksmart grossed $25 million worldwide from a $6 million budget, and even though the film did not reap huge profits, the rave reviews and awards recognition added to its luster.
The most successful films tend to have strong holds from week to week, which can indicate positive word of mouth and lead to a high multiple, the ratio of a film’s final gross to its opening weekend gross. Avatar broke no records with its $77 million opening, but it dropped by less than 10% in its second and third weekends and continued to have small drops under 30% for months, leading it to break the all-time box office record, ending up with a multiple of 9.7. However, if a film has a large enough opening weekend, its hold and multiple are less important. Avengers: Endgame fell by 58.7% in its second weekend, which is typically not a great hold, but after a $357 million opening weekend, the largest in history, it still went on to become the second highest domestic grosser ever, despite large drops each week and a multiple of only 2.4.
Knowing how a film will hold after its opening is hard to determine and may depend on many factors, but a film’s CinemaScore can give you a good sense of a film’s word of mouth, which is an important factor for how a film performs week after week. CinemaScore performs market research and polls audience members for wide release films, assigning a letter grade to them. A highly coveted A+, as given to Girls Trip and Green Book, indicates excellent word of mouth, while Gigli, which had the largest second weekend drop of any film to be released on more than 2000 screens, had a D- CinemaScore.
Limited release films do not often get a CinemaScore, but the buzz of a limited release film can be indicated by the per theater average. This divides the weekend gross by the amount of theaters the film is playing in. The top per theater average from 2019 came from Parasite’s opening weekend, averaging at $131,072 from three theaters, and the film only skyrocketed from there.
Award wins and nominations are also a lifeline for smaller films. While the Oscars ceremony comes after most films have come close to running their course in theaters, the hype around award season can propel many films into the conversation and let them find larger audiences that they may not have had in another time of the year.
While domestic box office is an important piece of the pie, over the past few decades, international box office has grown to be as important as domestic box office for many Hollywood films. While there are films that make most of their money domestically, most notably comedies that are culturally specific, big blockbusters have increasingly been geared towards global audiences and often make between 50% and 70% of their money globally. Girls Trip, the breakout comedy from 2017, made 82% of its $140 million domestically, while Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw made 77% of its $759 million internationally.
Box office does not necessarily tell the full story of a film’s success, and many films have an afterlife beyond theaters with ancillary markets, such as streaming and television rights. For big films, there are still hundreds of millions of dollars to be made after a film leaves theaters. This means a film does not necessarily need to break even in theaters to make a profit. However, ancillary revenues are often proportional to theatrical revenues, so a film that performs poorly in theaters has little chance of making it up through streaming and television rights. One way a film can get a major boost in its ancillary revenues is by receiving major awards.
As streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon, are making more and more films and not releasing data on how many people are watching them, how can we determine what counts as a successful film for a streaming platform? The truth is that we really can’t, but in the absence of hard viewership numbers, we can look at acclaim, such as a film’s critical response and awards reception and buzz, which is indicated by the IMDbPro MOVIEmeter; this is key because IMDbPro offers unique insight into the "performance" of a streaming movie or TV. When Netflix makes a movie like Marriage Story, the goal is not necessarily to profit off the single film, but to boost their brand. With six Academy Award nominations and 94% positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the film added prestige to Netflix’s library of original films. If you take a look at its MOVIEmeter on IMDbPro, you will see that at its peak, it was the third most-viewed film or show on IMDb, and it remained in the top 30 for around two months, making it one of the most buzzed about movies during that time.
IMDbPro users get full access to box office data provided by Box Office Mojo, giving you a comprehensive look at the theatrical film marketplace. With over 40 years of box office numbers, you have access to a vast range of domestic and international numbers, allowing you to stay updated on how films are performing right now and dive into historical data. Through our box office charts, you can search through the top performing films of all-time and for specific years, months, weekends, and days, in addition to many other categories such as genre, franchise, rating, holiday, and more. With this data, you will be able to track the industry, analyze trends, and create comps for your own projects.
One thing to keep in mind when comparing box office data is inflation. When you look at the top grossing films of all time, you will see that they are primarily from the past decade. However, when you adjust for inflation, you will get a very different story with few modern films making the list. Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is the top domestic grosser with $1.9 billion, compared to only $1 billion for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, the domestic leader without adjusting for inflation. It is estimated that around 202 million tickets were sold for Gone With the Wind, compared to around 108 million tickets sold for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens. While Gone With the Wind tallied up its total over multiple releases that spanned decades, it is estimated that around half of the American population saw the film in its original 1939 release. While it is interesting to compare numbers from different eras, it has little practical use, as films released in very different theatrical marketplaces, not to mention in an era before computers, televisions, video games, and other competitors to cinema, simply can’t be compared.
Determining the success of a television show can be difficult as access to the revenues coming in from advertisers isn’t publicly available. Instead, we know a show’s ratings, and even the ratings only tell us part of the story. Ratings, which are conducted by Nielsen, can give us an approximation of the percentage of households watching the show. This percentage is not exact, but rather extrapolated from a sample group that is tracked. Higher ratings lead to higher advertising revenues for a show, so ratings are how we determine the success of a show. However, different networks have different expectations for their shows, and different kinds of shows have different ratings benchmarks with different timings and seasons affecting the expectations as well. Ratings are typically reported for the 18-49 demographic, as advertisements are geared towards that age group, and they cover everybody watching live or with a DVR the same day. With the ratings, estimates are made on total viewers.
Hit shows today typically see lower viewership than hit shows in previous eras. In the 1990s, shows such as Seinfeld and ER had over 30 million viewers at their peak. However, top shows from more recent times like The Big Bang Theory and NCIS averaged at around 20 million at their peak. For most shows, though, a few million viewers would be considered a success.
Ratings tend to be higher on broadcast shows compared to cable. The broadcast networks include Fox, NBC, CBS, and ABC, and major broadcast shows including NCIS , The Good Doctor, Young Sheldon, and This is Us all have averaged over 10 million viewers a night. Cable networks, which include AMC, FX, and USA, have lower expectations. While it is possible for a cable show to do those numbers, as The Walking Dead did, it is extremely rare. AMC’s biggest success after The Walking Dead is Breaking Bad, and the show averaged at under two million viewers until its fifth season.
Breaking Bad shows how much potential shows have for growth and how important streaming has become. The show averaged at 1.23 million viewers in its first season and only marginally improved in its next two seasons. Prior to the fourth season, the first three seasons came onto Netflix, allowing audiences to catch up on the series, and the show subsequently saw a large ratings boost. The second half of the final season averaged at over six million viewers, and the finale had over 10 million viewers.
With an ever-increasing percentage of viewers watching shows via streaming, it is harder than ever to know just how successful a show is. Many of the biggest shows today are on streaming platforms, and their numbers are not publicly available. Also, many shows are given a richer afterlife thanks to streaming, with shows expanding their audiences even after they are no longer on the air. IMDbPro’s MOVIEmeter can let you know how much a show is trending, which can give a hint at which streaming series are attracting the most eyeballs.
For some shows, the biggest money lies in syndication. Syndication is when a show’s re-runs are sold to another network, and this often happens after a show reaches 100 episodes. When Seinfeld’s syndication rights were sold in 1998, TBS paid $200 million for them, and such massive deals are still being made. Netflix paid over $500 million for worldwide streaming rights for five years, following the six-year $130 million deal Hulu made for domestic streaming rights. The billions of dollars in syndication and streaming revenues are only for the biggest shows, but even smaller shows have huge profit potential after they air.
As with films, prestige is a factor to a show’s success as well. Even if a show’s ratings are not through the roof, the perception of its success goes up when it pulls in Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. Awards add to the brand value of a network, and they can add to the long term viewership of a show, so a show underperforming in its ratings may be worth renewing if it takes some trophies home.
While the success level of a show may be hard to determine, one general rule of thumb to follow is that if a show keeps getting renewed season after season, then it is definitely doing something right.