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Midnight Movies: Big-Budget Flicks' New Box-Office Strategy

Sarah Weinman, DailyFinance

Midnight movie screenings used to be the domain of cult classics or underground word-of-mouth hits. But over the past several years, midnight has increasingly become the hour for big blockbuster openings — a strategy that's proving to boost both ticket sales and buzz.

Twilight Eclipse
Summit Entertainment

Fans of the Twilight franchise — the multimillion-dollar vampire books by Stephenie Meyer and the mega-successful films that have ruled the box office for the last couple of years — were not going to wait until the afternoon to see the latest film in the series, Eclipse, on its June 30 opening.

Thousands lined up for hours or even days ahead of the opening to see the movie as soon as midnight struck.

Their collective impatience resulted in an impressive box office record: Eclipse grossed more than $30 million dollars from midnight screenings alone. The collective power of 4,000 screens and a captive audience shattered the previous midnight screening record of $26.6 million held by Eclipse's predecessor, New Moon, which was released last Thanksgiving, and looks certain to hold until next year's sequel, Breaking Dawn: Part One, due out in November 2011.

A Rabid Fan Base Is Key to Midnight Success

That staggering number is just another record-breaking statistic for 2010's year at the movies, which has seen total box office gross to date closing in on an all-time record of $7 billion, a 3.9% uptick from this time last year. Making a direct correlation between midnight screening gross and overall box office success, however, doesn't always work.

Current box office darling Inception took in $3 million at midnight, while Avatar grossed a very similar $3.5 million at 12:01am screenings. Avatar, of course, is the highest-grossing movie of all time, having taken in $2.7 billion worldwide to date, while Inception has easily crested $200 million domestic gross this summer — an order of magnitude off of Avatar, but still very respectable.

There have been successful midnight movie launches in the past - fans of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back lined up to see the movie when first released in 1980. But, according to Brandon Gray, founder of tracking service Box Office Mojo, the midnight blockbuster opening only emerged as phenomenon in the last decade or so, starting with a different Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace (1999). "That movie was intended to shatter records, and with a heavy fan base camping out, it became one of the major events in terms of midnight openings."

Since then, said Gray, the biggest midnight openings, as in those in the range of $10 million to $20 million (or, in Eclipse's case, much more) "are those with a rabid fan base," like the Batman and Harry Potter franchises. The most recent Batman movie, The Dark Knight, sold out midnight screenings weeks in advance.

"When you have a fan-driven movie, they want to see it as soon as possible. That's why theaters have accommodated them with midnight screenings." Studios and theaters now stretch a movie's opening weekend even further for the most highly-anticipated blockbusters with select Thursday night showings at 8:00 and 10:00pm.

Will This Weekend's Trifecta Win at Midnight?

Of course, even if there is a rabid fan base, there is no guarantee that a midnight screening will be a success. Iron Man 2, reportedly had "disappointing" midnight numbers yet it still made $128 million on its opening weekend. And Toy Story 3, Summer 2010's biggest box office winner, made negligible money at midnight - but then again, it's a movie meant for kids who should have been sound asleep at the time.

By the same token, a strong midnight opening may not pan out overall even if word of mouth is strong. That's why Gray doesn't think this weekend's trifecta of potential blockbusters — The Expendables, Eat, Pray, Love and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World — will produce significant midnight openings. Gray's skepticism about Scott Pilgrim, which is based on the comic book novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley and has become a hot topic on Twitter, seems a surprise. His justification has precedent, however: the comic book movie Kick-A** also had similar buzz but ultimately disappointed.

"I would imagine [Scott Pilgrim] would have a higher midnight-to-opening day ratio than the other titles [out this week], but it's just not likely to be significant enough for midnight screening grosses to be reported," Gray said. But if Pilgrim, arguably the last movie falling into the "rabid fan base" camp, beats expectations, the inevitable sequel may produce those boffo midnight screening box office grosses studios count on and hope for more and more.