Every so often, a completely unassuming and relatively tiny but well made film comes out of the woodwork and utilizes tremendous word-of-mouth to explode in the domestic box office. In recent years, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Juno, (2007), Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) all benefitted from great word-out-mouth.
This year, The Help has swept up at the box office since its debut on Wednesday, August 10th, earning over $137 million domestically to date. This tremendous run reminds the Hollywood powers-that-be that a small-ish, feel good, under-marketed film can be the “David” to the studio tent pole “Goliath’s,” provided that it captures positive word-of-mouth. Since The Help has already firmly planted itself among some all time box office greats, today we’re going to analyze what this picture has accomplished, and how its success positively affects the future of relatively smaller films.
Before we dive into what this picture has accomplished, here are four need-to-know facts about the picture:
1) Budget, Distribution & Financing
The Help had a budget of $25 million. The picture was financed and released by Disney, and co-financed by Participant Media.
2) Source of Material
The Help was based on author Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel of the same name, a book that was rejected by over 60 publishers before it finally found a publishing house.
3) Release Date
The film released on about 3,100 screens on Wednesday, August 10.
4) The Audience
According to exit polls ordered by Disney, The Help has an audience that is 74% women, 60% of which are 35 years old or older.
Okay, now that we have the basic information in place, lets analyze the meteoric rise of this little film that could.
The First 48 Hours Signaled Good Things To Come
One fact that most independent filmmakers may not know is that the success of most films can usually be determined in its first day of release. While this is not always the case, the first day, whether it’s solid or weak, can trigger a chain reaction to its initial performance.
The Help broke out of the gate in its first day of release on Wednesday, August 10 and earned a surprisingly healthy $5.54 million, and then went on to earn another $4.33 million on Thursday, August 11, giving it a total of $9.87 million in its first 48 hours. Since most small films would be ecstatic to earn nearly $10 million in any week, much less in two pre-weekend weekdays, the success in the initial two days clearly signaled good times on the horizon for this historical drama-comedy.
First Weekend Almost Rises Above The Planet Of The Apes
With $9.87 million in its rear-view mirror heading into Friday, August 12, The Help earned $26.05 million in its first weekend, coming in second at the box office to Rise Of The Planet of the Apes (2011). Thus, the “little drama that could” totaled $35.92 million in its first five days of release, giving it strong “legs” to run forward at the box office.
*The success of the first five days forced the powers-that-be to take notice of a film that nobody expected to do anything more than a few modest weekends at the box office and a slightly better than mediocre DVD and cable release. Thus, the-powers-that be may take notice of like- minded projects, based on how The Help performed in it’s first five days.
A Rise to #1 in Week Two
In its second weekend, The Help captured the top spot at the box office, earning $20 million, and totaling $71.3 million in its first 12 days of release. Furthermore, the picture only declined 23% from its opening weekend of $26.05 million, which is considered to be an excellent sign of continued positive word-of-mouth. The film also became the first release since early January to rise to the top spot at the box office, after starting at a lower spot. True Grit (2011) was the last film to do it.
Week Three Delivers Second Week at #1
In its third weekend of release, The Help stayed at #1, earning $14.5 million, a decrease of only 27% from its previous weekend. The 19-day total was $96.8 million, surpassing the domestic box office total of Julie & Julia (2009), a recent female-driven drama based on a novel.
August 2011 Plants The Help in the $100 Million Dollar Club
The Help earned $102.6 million in its 22 days of release in August. $100 million + of that total was reached by day 21, which made it only the second film in 2011 to hit the $100 million mark at in its first 21 days.
Week Four – Labor Day Weekend – keeps ‘The Help’ at #1
The Help rocked again during it’s fourth weekend of release, making $14.6 million from Friday-Sunday, and $19.881 million including Labor Day Monday. The $19.881 million total slid into the number four spot of the biggest Labor Day weekend grosses of all time:
Halloween (2007) $30.591 million
The Sixth Sense (1999) $29.271 million
Transporter 2 (2005) $20.104 million
The Help (2011) $19.881 million
By staying at #1 for the third straight week, The Help became the first release since Inception (2010) to hold on to the #1 spot for at least three weeks in a row. Furthermore, it’s 25 days consecutive days at #1 is the lonest such streak, since The Sixth Sense (1999) kept the top spot for 35 straight days. Not bad for an under-marketed sleeper film that lacks star-power and a heavy marketing campaign.
*By week four, studios were probably open to acquiring projects that mirror the budget and genre of The Help. I say “probably,” because by no means are studios going to change the way they do business just because of one small film’s success. In fact, they may just see The Help as an aberration and not a trend. But, when an “aberration” makes $137.1 million in its first 33 days of domestic release, the studios see it as a viable way to seize a part of the moviegoer base that most of them are not paying attention to.
Week Five Dips Back to Second Place
After three weeks at #1, The Help earned $8.7 million in its fifth weekend, giving it a domestic total of $137.1 million as of September 11. That cumulative total puts The Help in seventh place on the all-time list of dramas released in the summer. Here’s the top seven:
- Forrest Gump (1994) $329.694 million
- Saving Private Ryan (1998) $218.540 million
- Pearl Harbor (2001) $198.542 million
- Gladiator (2000) $187.745 million
- The Perfect Storm (2000) $182.618 million
- Apollo 13 (1995) $173.837
- The Help (2011) $137.093 million
As you can see in the above list, the other six films listed are mega-budgeted, mega-hyped and mass marketed studio films with incredibly eye-pleasing production values, mind-blowing stunts and special effects that defined the best advancements available at the time. Thus, the mere fact that a film like The Help has earned its keep to be alongside such large productions, is proof that audiences will definitely support a well made film, regardless of it’s bells and whistles, or lack thereof.
I know today’s article has thrown a lot facts and figures your way, but the main thing to take away is The Help has given all independent filmmakers hope to find a home for their projects. Remember, this film was made and released without a big time director, big time budget or big time marketing campaign. All it had going for it (which is a lot) is great source material (the novel) a strong script and a poignant story. The Help had all that, as well as great word-of-mouth. Of course, it didn’t hurt that most of The Help’s competitors over the have been truly underwhelming films, but then again, luck is always part of any success.
Here’s to all of your films grabbing similarly amazing word-of-mouth and enjoying the same success The Help has earned. Thank you for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. By the way, I’m @Lonelyseal on Twitter!