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Comparing UK vs US 2008 Box Office

The Oscar nominations have been announced, leading to wailing and keening and gnashing of teeth that The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for Best Film and Christopher Nolan for Best Director. Trying to predict the whims of the Academy is almost impossible (as Niels Bohr said: ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.’), even though it doesn’t stop us from trying [2008] [2006] [2005]. Rather than ponder the possible winners (I’m in the process of seeing as many of the nominees as possible in the hectic awards season), I started thinking about the argument of popular films versus arty award films due to the thorny problem of The Dark Knight – one of the most successful films of the year with excellent critical acclaim but ignored by the Academy.

Here are the top twenty films by box office (to date) for 2008 in the UK and the US:

Top box office UK 2008 [via The Guardian]

  1. Mamma Mia! £69m
  2. Quantum of Solace £50.8m
  3. The Dark Knight £48.7m
  4. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull £40.2m
  5. Sex and the City £26.4m
  6. Hancock £24.7m
  7. WALL•E £22.7m
  8. High School Musical 3 £22.7m
  9. Kung Fu Panda £20m
  10. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa £19.9m
  11. Iron Man £17.2m
  12. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian £11.6m
  13. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor £11.4m
  14. Sweeney Todd £10.9m
  15. The Spiderwick Chronicles £10.6m
  16. Step Up 2: The Streets £10.5m
  17. Four Christmases £10.2m
  18. Juno £9.7m
  19. Wanted £9.6m
  20. Cloverfield £9.5m

Top box office USA 2008 [via Box Office Guru]

  1. The Dark Knight $531.0m
  2. Iron Man $318.3m
  3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull $317.0m
  4. Hancock $227.9m
  5. WALL•E $223.8m
  6. Kung Fu Panda $215.4m
  7. Twilight $184.6m
  8. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa $178.3m
  9. Quantum of Solace $167.5m
  10. Horton Hears A Who $154.5m
  11. Sex and the City $152.6m
  12. Mamma Mia! $143.8m
  13. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian $141.6m
  14. The Incredible Hulk $134.5m
  15. Wanted $134.3m
  16. Marley & Me $133.9m
  17. Get Smart $130.3m
  18. Four Christmases $119.7m
  19. Bolt $111.8m
  20. Tropic Thunder $110.5m

It’s interesting to see the influence of national pop culture in the differences. James Bond does much better in its homeland UK than in the USA, where presumably they haven’t had the entire collection of films shown every bank holiday weekend throughout the past 30 years. Get Smart was a sufficiently well-loved television show from the 1960s to be turned into a film, and did very well in the USA, but it is nowhere on the UK list, where only people who saw the show on Channel 4 even vaguely remember it. The same could be used to explain the success of Horton Hears A Who in the USA – people in the UK don’t have a Dr Seuss link to their childhood.

Although there are many similarities in the list, there are some distinctly notable differences that highlight the gap between the two countries separated by a common language. It is a delight to see Sweeney Todd so high on the UK list – a dark musical from Tim Burton doesn’t sound like a natural blockbuster, but it was a well-made film. It’s also cheering to see Juno so high on the UK list (even though it was technically a 2007 film in the US, it didn’t do that well). Cloverfield did surprisingly well, too, which must add to its success and its intriguing marketing campaign.

There are oddities and bemusements. I can’t think of any reason why Step Up 2: The Streets did so well in the UK; it defies all analysis. It’s a shame that Four Christmases did so well in both countries – it seems you can’t go wrong with a Christmas comedy with famous people release just before Christmas, even though it was awful by all accounts. And why did High School Musical 3 do so well in the UK? Even though Mamma Mia! was the real success of the 2008, it doesn’t mean that this would translate to all musicals, even ones aimed at teenagers.

The other factor that comes through strongly is family: if you make an entertaining movie for young kids, the people will come. WALL•E, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Bolt (and The Spiderwick Chronicles in the UK) all do well, even if the quality varies. The supposed ideal audience demographic is the teenage boy (which can account for some of the box office of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hancock and Wanted), but that is obviously not the whole picture. I do feel sympathy for the people who have to analyse these figures and try to understand what people want to see – it seems almost impossible because there is no logic behind what people will go and see in the cinema.

Now, if they only they were able to do this comparison for comics sold in 2008 …

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