Sci-Fi at the Box Office - By SFMZ Webmaster | 2010
While Sci-Fi films seem to be shunned by the Oscars for the most part, the box office has been a bit more generous with praise, or at least monetarily. Since it's introduction in cinema history, the Sci-Fi genre has grossed close to 40 billion dollars, according to the-numbers.com.
This amount towers over the Horror genre, Westerns, and the Thriller/Suspense genre which have earned 15.5 billion, 1.99 billion, and 22.6 billion respectively. But Sci-Fi cowers in the shadows of Romantic Comedies earning 76 billion and the Action genre at 68.3 billion. The popularity of sci-fi film oscillates with highs and lows over the decades of cinema history.
Going back to the 1930's, sci-fi enjoyed mild success with Flash Gordon, the Frankenstein films, King Kong, The Invisible Man and a few others. But the late thirties saw box office flops such as H.G. Wells' Things to Come along with others that scared filmmakers into virtually eliminating the genre all through the forties. It took the Atomic Age, the 1950's, to revive the sci-fi genre.
With a few exceptions such as The Thing and Forbidden Planet, unfortunately the fifties were dominated with cheesy B movie quality. There were notable but isolated sci-fi box office winners in the sixties and part of the seventies such as Fantastic Voyage and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It was 1977 that sci-fi finally made an impact at the box office when a young director named George Lucas introduced us to the Star Wars universe. Since then, sci-fi has never really experienced a severe slump in popularity.
The eighties had its share of sci-fi B movies, but it also saw a number of highly profitable films such as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Star Trek films, Aliens, The Terminator, Star Wars VI, Back to the Future, Predator, and Total Recall.
The same could be said for the nineties which gave us theater packing movies like The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, more Star Trek, Twelve Monkeys, Independence Day, and Jurassic Park. Entering the new millennium, the 2000's were a little on the quiet side, but this decade brought in high end ticket sales in the sci-fi genre including A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Jurassic Park III, Star Wars prequels, I, Robot, The War of the Worlds, and more Matrix.
Sci-Fi: The box office king of all genres
The Sci-Fi box office champ is James Cameron's Avatar released in 2009. Not only does it reign over the Sci-Fi box office, it is number one over all genres, earning an amazing 2.74 billion (not adjusted for inflation). With it's appeal to the family audience, presented in digital 3D, and positive reviews, it remained the number one movie for seven weeks on its first run.
Cameron's previous film Titanic held on to the box office record for over a decade with 1.8 billion, but nearly doubling that amount with Avatar, his sci-fi adventure on Pandora could potentially remain number one for a generation or more. Positive reviews are not necessarily a prerequisite for a sci-fi film to reach the box office top list.
If you were to Google 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace reviews', you wouldn't have to dig very deep to find a truckload of scathing reviews. Yet, Phantom Menace is currently ranked number two in box office for the sci-fi all time list, earning 849 million.
Perhaps the very first successful sci-fi film regarding box office would be Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, which earned $615,000 in the U.S alone. The budget of the film is not an easy thing to find. Researching the web, the closest figure I could find regarding the budget is 1.3 million "Reischmarks."
According to a RM to U.S. Dollar conversion, that would be approximately $300,000. Also unknown is the film's worldwide gross, but it was released in Germany and other European countries. With the U.S. revenue combined with the unknown other countries revenue, it wouldn't be a stretch to think that the studio received a profitable return.
Metropolis was almost 2 hours long, a rarity not just for the fledging sci-fi genre, but for any genre of that time. U.S. and some theaters in other countries were reluctant to show a film that ran longer than 90 minutes. According to Wikipedia, "Before it was shown outside Germany, the film was cut and re-edited, changing many key elements.
Metropolis suffered as the original version was thought to be too long. This affected the rhythm and pace of the original film. As a result of these changes, few people outside of Berlin saw Metropolis as Fritz Lang originally intended; the version shown to European and American audiences in 1928 was disjointed and illogical in parts."
A little sci-fi film that roared at the box office
A big budget and a nine digit figure in gross is not necessarily a watermark for what makes a sci-film successful at the box office. Neil Blomkamp's 2009 District 9 (produced by Peter Jackson) collected a gross of 200 million dollars, certainly not near the astronomical numbers of Avatar or the Star Wars films.
However, with a budget of 30 million dollars, considered to be a shoestring budget compared to other major productions made today, it's ratio of budget to gross is quite impressive. I've read that a studio receives 45 to 55 percent of the total gross (theater chains don't show the films for the studio out of the goodness of their hearts), though I haven't been able to confirm this quote, but it does sound logical if you weigh in all the hands that touch the film from studio to theater.
If this equation is valid, that means the studio (TriStar) received approximately a 105 to 110 million dollar gross return. Their net profit would be in the range of 50 to 60 million dollars if you figure in other expenses such as marketing costs.
On the other side of the spectrum, classic sci-fi greats such as Blade Runner which resides in many of the top sci-fi lists, performed rather poorly at the box office. Blade Runner's success was gained mainly from the VHS tape and DVD industries.
With a budget of 28 million dollars, Blade Runner grossed only 32.9 million. Figuring in the 50-55% percent studio return figure mentioned above, Ridley Scott's sci-fi hallmark lost millions (approximately 9-12 million) on its first release.
The film's lack of performance at the box office could be attributed to the film critic community's poor reviews and it was released the same month as the blockbusters E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn. A director's cut and a final cut were released in 1992 and 2007 respectively, however both were limited releases and their audience attendance was insignificant.
The Mega Franchises
It probably goes without saying that the most successful sci-fi franchises at the box office would be Star Wars and Star Trek. After three decades plus, the original Star Wars (A New Hope) is still in the top ten sci-fi film list regarding box office gross all time. When figuring in inflation, George Lucas' sci-fi adventure is currently ranked second (including all genres) with an adjusted gross of 1.4 billion dollars.
Episodes one through six have accumulated an astounding 4.2 billion dollars (non-adjusted worldwide including multiple releases). Additionally, all six episodes of the Star Wars saga are in The Top 35 Sci-Fi Films Worldwide Gross All Time Adjusted For Inflation list, highlighted in green, on your left.
The Star Trek franchise has been fairly popular throughout its 30 year run for the most part, but it wasn't as profitable - with almost twice the number of films (11) as the Star Wars franchise, its collective worldwide gross non-adusted was in the range of 1.6 to 2 billion dollars.
The franchise experienced declining interest in later films such as Nemesis, which suffered a substantial loss at the box office. J.J. Abrams' 2009 release which focuses on the crew's beginnings, rejuvenated the Star Trek universe, bringing in an impressive gross of 385 million dollars.
Where's the Love?
With a handful of Oscars in the visual effects/art direction categories and zero best picture wins throughout the Academy Award's history, sci-fi films seem destined to find praise mainly at the box office. There are other award organizations such as the Saturn Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, various critic award organizations, and others that seem to be more generous in handing out accolades for the sci-fi genre. Perhaps someday a director will create a sci-fi film that boldly goes where no sci-fi film has gone before, that galaxy far,far away known as the Oscar Best Picture Award.