While all eyes were on DUNE this weekend, another high-profile film hit theaters. Of course, I’m talking about Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH.
For box office watchers, DISPATCH marks an important milestone. Up until now, we’ve been trying to make sense of how the pandemic-era box office compares to pre-pandemic historicals. With each new release, we gain a better understanding of what the theatrical world looks like. At least among wide releases.
When it comes to specialty film, few filmmakers have as large or as passionate a fanbase as Wes Anderson. Any release from his is a big deal. So, DISPATCH is easily the biggest specialty film since theaters re-opened.
It is also the first of a string of high-profile, awards-seeking, smaller titles. Netflix has several, including THE HARDER THEY FALL, DON’T LOOK UP. BRUISED, TICK, TICK…BOOM and THE POWER OF THE DOG. Neon has SPENCER while Amazon has BEING THE RICARDOS and THE TENDER BAR. A24 has THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH and to make but a few.
As the first film out, DISPATCH will go a long way towards helping us understand what a good number is for a specialty film in this pandemic era.
The table above shows the box office data for Anderson’s previous film. The table is sorted by theater average (in blue), the single most important metric when looking at specialty films. Theater average is simply opening gross divided by theaters playing the movie (in red) – it’s a measure of seats sold per venue.
Most specialty films open in five or fewer theaters – a couple in New York and a few in Los Angeles. That was the case for nearly all of Anderson’s films. For that kind of micro release, you like to see a theater average of at least 20,000. Reaching $50,000 is amazing, $100,000 is rarefied air, and $200,000 – like THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – is essentially unheard of.
In fact, to this day, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL holds the record for the largest week one theater average of any non-animated release at $202,792.
Returning to Anderson’s current film DISPATCH, it debuted with a theater average of $25,000. That seems pretty weak given the $200,000 debut of BUDAPEST. But, as you can see above, DISPATCH opened in 52 theaters or ten times as many as his other films. So how do we account for that?
The best way to understand if $25,000 is good or not is to compare it to other films with similar screen counts. The table below shows lists all the movies since 2011 that opened in 40 to 70 theaters. Once again, the films are sorted by theater average in blue.
The first thing you notice is that not very many films have opened this way over the past decade. The second thing you notice is that DISPATCH did incredibly well, easily topping the list.
Where the film goes from here is the next big question. If you look at the column to the far right, you can see that GIFTED is the highest-grossing film on the list, having made it to nearly $25M in total. If DISPATCH topped out at $25M, it would be Anderson’s lowest-grossing film in over a decade.
So, the complete story of DISPATCH has yet to be written, but the opening chapter is quite impressive. So while we dissect the grosses for DUNE and whether it made enough for Warner Bros. to move forward with the planned trilogy, let’s not forget the very fine opening for Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH.