With many cinemas around the world still closed, how do we judge a film's success?

James Cameron's 2009 film 'Avatar' regained the crown of highest-grossing film ever over the weekend. But how was that measured?

Zoe Saldana star as Neytiri in scene from James Cameron sci-fi thriller Avatar.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
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The news that James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar regained the crown of highest-grossing film from Avengers: Endgame over the weekend, thanks to a successful re-opening in Chinese cinemas, may be welcome to the director ahead of four long-awaited sequels, but what can it tell us about the movie industry right now?

In a world where Covid-19 has negated the metrics by which a film's success is usually judged, and global box office returns are a distant memory, how do we judge a film's success at all?

'Avatar' versus 'Tenet' at the Chinese box office

Avatar grossed $21 million in China over the weekend. Christopher Nolan's Tenet is, so far, the highest-opening film in the US market since the pandemic began, earning $9.5m domestically on its opening weekend last August. When Tenet was released in the US, however, only about 70 per cent of cinemas were open, with restricted capacities, and all those in top-earning New York and Los Angeles were closed. The situation has worsened since, with about half of US cinemas open in February, and capacities as low as 25 per cent, depending on individual state rules.

Tenet fared much better on its Chinese debut, grossing $29.5m, so should we look to the Chinese box office as a tool for measuring cinematic success on a global scale while we await the full return of other major markets? After all, the country's cinemas have been widely open since last July, and most no longer have capacity restrictons.

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Elizabeth Debicki, left, and John David Washington in a scene from "Tenet."  (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)
Elizabeth Debicki, left, and John David Washington in a scene from 'Tenet'. AP

If we want to look to the Chinese box office for the most successful film of the pandemic era, however, we shouldn't be looking at either Avatar or Tenet, but the Chinese historical war flick The Eight Hundred, which was the highest-grossing film of 2020 globally, with almost $500m in ticket sales.

Chinese box office figures are, understandably, skewed towards the nation’s own films, which historically haven’t had the same global reach as the most successful Hollywood releases. Of the 20 top-grossing Chinese movies between 2005 and 2020, only 1 per cent of revenue came from outside the mainland. With many of those usually-world-conquering Hollywood films either being held back or released straight to streaming services, the box office of a single country where cinemas are operating almost normally, but with extremely limited new content, is hardly internationally representative.

Streaming success and viewing figures

Yet, even using the global box office as a measure of success may be outdated. Streaming had already revolutionised the industry before the pandemic hit, and with 29 nominations for Netflix and 11 for Amazon among this year's Oscars contenders, that looks set to continue.

With streaming platforms usually giving a limited cinema release only to films with Academy Awards aspirations, and sharing a reticence to release their own viewing figures, the relevance of the box office seems significantly diminished.

This combination photo shows poster art for best picture Oscar nominees, top row from left, "The Father," "Judas and the Black Messiah," "Mank," "Minari," bottom row from left, "Nomadland," "Promising Young Woman," Sound of Metal," and The Trial of the Chicago 7." (Sony Pictures Classics/Warner Bros. Pictures, Netflix, A24, Searchlight Pictures, Focus Features, Amazon Studios, Netflix via AP)
Poster art for best picture Oscar nominees in 2021. AP

US research agency Nielsen did begin releasing viewing figures for streaming platforms last December, but they appear flawed. Firstly, they only cover the US market. Secondly, they rate films by minutes streamed. By this methodology, a critically acclaimed underground hit such as 2020's Host, which clocks in at an economical 56 minutes, would have to attract more than three times as many viewers as three-hour-plus epic Avengers: Endgame to be on level terms.

The weight of critical acclaim

Box office takings and viewing figures aren't the only measures of a film's success, however, as critical acclaim offers an alternative. Serge Zabbal, Mena business director for Empire Entertainment, which distributes films including Sony blockbusters such as the Spider-Man and Jumanji franchises, says he uses "a mixture of global box office and reviews to rate the success of a movie".

Then again, while media accolades may offer a guide in the absence of reliable box office numbers, it's not an infallible measure. Critically adored films often flop at the box office, while those reviled can be top bankers. Critics may know their films, but their tastes are often wildly out of step with mainstream audiences.

If we look back to 2019, the last year when the industry functioned as we knew it, Disney's Aladdin remake scored 57 per cent with Rotten Tomatoes's pool of critics, yet achieved an impressive $86.1m domestic on opening weekend.

This image released by Disney shows Mena Massoud as Aladdin in Disney's live-action adaptation of the 1992 animated classic "Aladdin." (Daniel Smith/Disney via AP)
Mena Massoud played the titular role in Disney’s 2019 live-action adaptation of the 1992 animated classic 'Aladdin'. AP

That same weekend, Olivia Wilde's 96 per cent-rated Booksmart took a mere $6.5m. A big marketing budget, some A-list stardust and a familiar franchise can paper over many cracks.

A film's impact in real life (or on social media)

Another method of judging a film's success that remains relatively untouched by the pandemic is its cultural impact. In days gone by, this might have meant an animated regurgitation of Tarantino's immaculate dialogue in coffee shops, or lightsaber duels in school playgrounds, for example. At the moment, we may have to turn to social media for the most accurate representation of how films are received in the real world.

In this case, as with box office returns, we shouldn't take simple volume as a guide. Netflix's 365 Days was one of 2020's most talked-about films on social media, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Many posts decried its inane script and wooden acting, stating the film was terrible. Others raised the question of how a story about a woman being kidnapped and given 365 days to fall in love with a crime boss was even green-lit in the post-#MeToo era. A recent second wave of attention was about the likelihood of the film dominating the Golden Raspberry Awards on Oscars eve – probably not the reaction the producers hoped for.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 23 JULY 2020. Italian actor Michele Morrone. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Razmig Bedirian. Section: National.
Italian actor Michele Morrone starred in '365 Days'. Antonie Robertson / The National

Zabbal raises another method by which the digital world can be used to measure a film's success. "Take The Queen's Gambit, which had huge online hype," he says. "There, Amazon announced increased sales of chessboards. Google also reported that searches for chess, chess theories or chessboards were up. For now, that's one way you can do it."

Do awards count as a measure of success?

In Oscars nominations week, it would be remiss to omit awards as a means of judging success, but, similar to critical acclaim, the picks for best movie frequently bear little relation to performance, and awards judge on artistic merit, not returns. An Oscars nod may result in a second wind at the box office, as with 2020 Best Picture Parasite, but this doesn't reflect a film's success on its actual release.

Parasite's ticket sales jumped by 443 per cent on US ticketing site Fandango in the week after its Oscars triumph, but it was already available on DVD and streaming platforms by then. Its Oscars wins were undoubtedly a sign of success, but were something of a deserved realignment for a six-month-old film that was, on release, a moderate commercial success at best. Even after the Oscars boost, Parasite only ranks as the 29th highest-grossing non-English-language film of all time.

Given Zabbal's day job of judging the success of movies for one of the region's leading distributors, he's well placed to identify the most successful film of the pandemic era, despite the trying circumstances. He is, however, as unsure as the rest of us. "That's a very interesting question. I don't know if I can answer that."
If the industry is even flummoxed by judging a movie's success right now, perhaps it's time we introduced an entirely new system for the time being.

Since many people have much more time on their hands as they stay at home amid cinema restrictions and limited new releases, maybe they should simply watch more films on TV, away from the influence of critics, box office and social media, and make up their own minds. At least it'll help kill the time until normality returns.