With all of the talk about whether or not Wolf of Wall Street is endorsing its behavior (nope) whether American Hustle is a little overrated (yup), and whether or not your kids know the words to “Let It Go” yet (yup), we’ve somewhat lost sight of the genuinely impressive performance of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues . For the record, with yesterday’s $3.9 million gross, it has officially passed the $100 million mark at the domestic box office. In its own skewed way, Anchorman 2 is the holiday season’s quietest smash hit, the Tomorrow Never Dies of 2013.
The Adam McKay film now sits with $101 million in domestic grosses, and it will likely end the weekend with just under $110m. The original Anchorman earned $85.2m back in summer 2004, which would be about $107m in today’s dollars. So not only is Anchorman 2 going to easily sell more tickets than the first film over the long run, it will have done it in a leggier fashion. The first Anchorman opened on July 09, 2004, earning $28.4m against the second weekend of Spider-Man 2 (no kids, the first Spider-Man 2). It earned exactly 3x its opening weekend, a solid figure but below the $114m domestic finish of Dodgeball (3.8x its $30m debut) over the same summer. And even though the film cost just $26m, it earned only $5m overseas. So even with a strong cult following on DVD, Paramount was hesitant to green light a sequel.
The irony of Anchorman 2 is that it didn’t end up exploding out of the gates from years of pent-up demand. Despite a saturation-level ad campaign which included Will Farrell appearing in character at a whole host of news events and commercials, the film opened with a Fri-Sun total of just $26 million. The film debuted with $39m over its Wed-Sun opening weekend, just a touch over the $36m that Anchorman made on its first five days (Fri-Tues) in summer 2004. But as I’ve always said, never underestimate those December legs. The film will have already earned back 4x its $26m Fri-Sun debut by today or tomorrow, with a likely final total of around $125m. That will be 2.5x its $50m budget and were’re not even counting the $25m overseas as of the end of last weekend. Paramount may have been mad to wait so long to greenlight what seemed like a surefire hit, but they eventually did and it paid off in spades. There are two things worth noting about this performance.
First, the small (ish) opening means that studios can’t count of a deluge of now-adult fans to flock on opening weekend to see a glorified class reunion sequel of a film they loved when they were kids (or at least young enough to not have kids too young to sit through a PG-13 live-action comedy). But as long as the budget is in check (Anchorman 2 cost half as much as The Other Guys and noticeably less than the $65m budgets of Blades of Glory and Step Brothers) and your film doesn’t live or die by an uber-competitive opening weekend slot, the fan base will seek you out as soon as they can arrange for a babysitter. Next November 14th’s Dumber and Dumber To should not count on an avalanche of Lloyd and Harry fanatics. But the pre-Thanksgiving release date means Universal is smartly expecting three weeks of solid play as adult fans slowly arrange for babysitters or drop their disinterested offspring off at Hunger Games 3 or Big Hero 6.
Secondly, the deluge of “viral” advertisements, such as those ESPN guest spots or Dodge commercials, didn’t seem to make any difference in the film’s box office. So in that sense, was the time and money Paramount spent on the off-the-beaten path advertising campaign a waste? Yes and no. Obviously Paramount didn’t get a massive debut because the fan base didn’t expand much over nine years. Those ads were an attempt to make sure that every Anchorman fan who doesn’t necessarily read movie websites knew that a second coming was coming. It’s also evidence to the fact that despite every alleged study showing the power of Twitter or Facebook as a movie marketing tool, most general moviegoers still rely on television advertising and theatrical trailers to clue them in on what’s worth seeing. The kids may have shared the viral clips online, but older audiences happened to be watching ESPN when they saw a glorified Anchorman 2 commercial.
The audience that saw Anchorman 2 was arguably the core audience that was always going to see a theoretical Anchorman 2. But that core audience needed to know via old-school marketing that it was coming to a theater near them, which is where the saturation “gimmick” campaign came into play. As we see the constant threats of a Ghostbusters 3 or a Beetlejuice 2, we should take heed from the lessons of Anchorman 2. Keep the budget in check, because you can’t expect too much audience growth. And when planning a next installment for your parents or grandparents’ favorite franchise, make sure those older fans can catch the film at their convenience as opposed to expecting a front loaded opening weekend.
The most important lesson of all of this is that you’d better make sure your long-gestating sequel is actually a good movie. Because if it stinks, word-of-mouth will travel fast enough to cancel the sitter and toss it into the Redbox queue.