On September 15, 2000, I attended the Opening Ceremony for the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. I’d always wanted to experience the Olympics in person, and thanks to my friend Don Franken, the founder of and executive director of the Methodfest Film Festival, I was there with him and his friends. The Opening Ceremony was like a never-ending Super Bowl Halftime Show, with one visually stunning stunt after another. Then, I spent the following two weeks watching a cornucopia of heart-stopping Olympic events that turned into some of the fondest sports memories of my life. For me, there’s nothing quite like watching the American Flag be raised while our National Anthem plays as our athletes climb onto the podium and claim their gold medals. It is an unforgettable moment of pride that everyone should experience at least once.
Since the Olympics in London is in full swing, today we’re going to examine how Olympics-related films fare at the box office. So, without further ado, here’s a six-pack of wonderfully made Olympic themed motion pictures that every film buff should lend their eyes to, whether you’re a sports fan or not.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Sport – Running (Summer Olympics)
This Columbia Pictures released British drama is about two British sprinters competing in the 1924 Olympics. One is a Scottish missionary who runs for God, and the other is a Jewish student who runs to escape the severe racism he experiences.
The picture opened in only three theaters on September 25, 1981. However, it earned $68,907 on those three screens, averaging an incredible $22,969 per screen. Furthermore, the “wide release” earned $3,434,399, on 753 screens on its opening weekend, good enough for third place at the box office. “Chariots of Fire” went on to earn an astonishing $58,972,904 at the domestic box office. It also went on to be nominated for seven Academy awards, wining four of them, including “Best Picture.”
The September 25 release was an excellent strategy, because it was after the summer blockbuster season, but before the holiday films and heavyweight Oscar contenders. By unleashing “Chariots of Fire” more than a month before most other Oscar-worthy films, Columbia allowed their British gem to build strong word-of-mouth before it sprinted into the brutal competition of the holiday releases.
Side Note: “Chariots of Fire” is probably best known for its musical score by Vangelis. The theme song, actually named “titles,” was widely known as the “Chariots of Fire” theme. After a five-month climb on the Billboard top 100 charts, “Titles” rose to become the #1 song in America for one week.
Cool Runnings (1993)
Sport – Team Bobsled (Winter Olympics)
This Buena Vista (Disney) release about the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team is the most financially successful Olympic film ever lensed. This crazy little John Candy comedy cost $14,000,000 to make, and went on to earn $68,856,253 domestically and another $86,000,000 internationally, totaling $154,856,253 worldwide. Released domestically on October 1, 1993, the film enjoyed an opening weekend of $7,046,648 in 1,376 theaters, #3 at the weekend box office. Its widest release was 1,832 theaters.
Side Note: These days the Olympics alternate every two years, (summer games in 2012, winter games in 2014, summer games in 2016, winter games in 2018). However, when the Jamaica Bobsled Team competed in 1988, both the winter and summer games were played in the same year.
Sport – Running (Summer Olympics)
This Buena Vista (Disney) picture was the first of two to be released about runner Steve Prefontaine. After taking the running world by storm, Prefontaine was a disappointment at the 1972 Olympics in Munich when he failed to earn a medal. He then vowed to win gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but met his untimely death on May 30, 1975.
The film, albeit brilliantly made, was also a disappointment. Its $8,000,000 budget garnered only $589,304 on 201 screens at the box office. That’s an average of only $1,548 per screen. Furthermore, $311,253 of its total came over opening weekend. The other odd thing about a January release is that Academy Award voters almost surely forget about winter releases, because so many more “contenders” are released before the end of the year. Of course, there are exceptions.
Side Note: “Prefontaine” was released on January 24,1997, which was the Friday before the Super Bowl. Thus, most sports fans were thinking football, not running.
Without Limits (1998)
Sport – Running (Summer Olympics)
This Warner Brothers film was produced by Tom Cruise and starred Billy Crudup as Prefontaine. Like “Prefontaine” (1997), this picture was also a dire financial failure. It’s $25,000,000 budget only laced $777,423 at the domestic box office at 110 theaters. Released on September 11, 1998, it’s opening weekend made $56,180 on five screens, earning a respectable $11,236 per screen. However, “Without Limits” was ultimately quite limited with regards to its appeal to filmgoers.
Warner Brothers chose not to spend too much on P&A for “Without Limits,” and they probably released the film theatrically in September in hopes of receiving Oscar nominations. Subsequently, Donald Sutherland received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine’s coach and the co-founder of Nike.
Side Note: The $11,236 per screen average on the limited release opening weekend for “Without Limits,” earned less than half of the $22,969 per screen average that “Chariots of Fire” enjoyed in its limited release seventeen years earlier).
Sport – Ice Hockey (Winter Olympics)
I absolutely love this film, because it reminds me of when I was twelve years old watching the USA Men’s Hockey Team complete the “Miracle on Ice” by defeating the USSR 4-3, at the 1980 Olympic games in Lake Placid, New York.
“Miracle,” a Buena Vista (Disney) picture, earned $64,378,093 at the domestic box office, but only $67,615 internationally, totaling $64,445,708. Yes, you read that right; “Miracle” only made one tenth of one percent of its worldwide gross internationally. The film was released on February 6, 2004, (the Friday after the Super Bowl) earning $19,377,577 in 2,605 theaters on its opening weekend. That’s a per screen average of $7,438. Additionally, the 19.377 million over its opening weekend was good enough to secure the silver medal at the box office.
Side Note: The USA’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the USSR was not the gold medal game at the 1980 Winter Olympics. In fact, Team USA had to beat the USSR to reach the gold medal game, which they also won, by beating Finland, 4-2.
Munich – 2005
Political Drama (Summer Olympics)
“Munich” was released by Universal Pictures and directed by Steven Spielberg. This $70,000,000 budget earned $47,403,685 domestically and an additional $82,955,226, totaling $130,358,911 worldwide. The film’s “limited release” bowed on 532 screens on December 23, 2005, earning it $4,152,260, a $7,805 per screen average. That total earned “Munich” the #8 spot at the weekend box office. On January 6, 2006, the film went “wide,” earning $7,566,065 on 1,485 screens, a $5095 per screen average. The film’s widest release was 1,498 screens. “Munich” was released two days before Christmas to garner Academy Award consideration. The strategy worked, as the picture was nominated for five Academy Awards, including “Best Picture.” Unfortunately, “Munich” failed to win an Oscar.
Side Note: DreamWorks released “Munich” internationally.
Distribution Observations From the Six Films Listed
Of the six films discussed, four of them, “Chariots of Fire,” “Prefontaine,” “Without Limits” and “Munich,” are Summer Olympics related, while the other two, “Cool Runnings” and “Miracle,” are based on stories from the Winter Olympics. Furthermore, the Winter Olympics based films are also the top two domestic box office performers, 1) “Cool Runnings” $68,856,253 and 2) “Miracle,” $64,378,093. However, it should be noted that in dollars adjusted for inflation, the $58,972,904 earned by “Chariots of Fire” in 1981, might surpass the money earned by “Cool Runnings” in 1993 and by “Miracle” in 2004. Three films, “Chariots of Fire,” “Prefontaine” and “Without Limits,” were running based, but only “Chariots of Fire” was deemed “a hit,” while the other two tanked financially. Lastly, the Disney distribution arm formerly known as Buena Vista, (now renamed Disney or ABC depending on the division) released three of the six films we examined, “Cool Runnings,” “Prefontaine,” and “Miracle.” Disney his said “yes” to Olympic material more than once, and they’ve made numerous other sports films.
So, if you have one in development, consider the house of the mouse as a place to take your story.
That’s what I have for you today in the 116th edition of “Going Bionic.” I thank you all for lending me your eyes and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. I hope you enjoy the Olympics, and if you get bored, I can always be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.