How ‘Godzilla’ Defied the Experts and Tracking to Blow Away the Box Office (Video)

Monster remake shattered pre-release projections by more than $20 million with its $93 million weekend

Pre-release tracking specialists, analysts and even the filmmakers and studio behind “Godzilla” were all wrong about “Godzilla” — and the latter two couldn’t be happier.

The remake of the iconic Japanese monster movie blew away their projections — by a jaw-dropping $20 million-plus — on its way to a spectacular $93 million No. 1 debut at the box office this weekend. That, coupled with the $103 million it took in from overseas, was cause for jubilation at Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros, who co-financed.

The opening also brought a degree of hope and optimism to Hollywood in that it reinforces the notion that, even these days, there are X factors that can cause a movie to beat tracking. But how did it happen, particularly today when every aspect of marketing and promotion data, social media and competition is measured, sliced and diced on grand and granular scales?

Also read: ‘Godzilla’ Breathes $93 Million Atomic Heat at Box Office

Tracking, it should be noted, is intended to be a marketing tool and not a barometer of box-office potential. Nonetheless  it’s widely seen as such and that can create discrepancies. Last summer saw of string of tracking misses, but none on this scale. In this case, it wasn’t so much that the pre-release analyses were misguided or incorrect. It was more a case of “Godzilla” being in general bigger — and that seems somehow appropriate — than anyone realized going in.

Comparisons with other films were difficult, because this wasn’t a superhero movie. Last summer’s “Pacific Rim” was the most comparable, and that was a domestic disappointment.  “Godzilla” had outsized buzz on social media, but so did Guillermo del Toro‘s giant robot rumble. 

The advance ticket sales were strong, but not over the top. Made for $160 million, “Godzilla” didn’t carry the $200 million-plus budgets that many summer blockbusters do, and that may have muted some industry expectations, too.

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There’s no single factor that explains the huge overperformance, but there are several that made a difference:

Early Birds: Thursday night screenings have become critical when it comes to launching would-be blockbusters. The hardcore fans that turn out — and their subsequent social media evangelizing or damning — can have a lot to do with how Saturday and Sunday goes. Warner Bros. maximized its Thursday shows by starting what were once called “midnight screenings” at 7 p.m. In this case it worked. The outsized $9.3 million they generated got “Godzilla” off to a great start, and the strong early buzz set the tone for the weekend.

IMAX and 3D: With its size and scope — and a gargantuan raging reptile squashing whole cities — there hasn’t been a movie as well-suited for the premium formats since “Gravity” (another Warner Bros. movie), and moviegoers figured that out. Twelve of the top 15 locations for “Godzilla” were IMAX theaters, and the format delivered more than $14 million — or 15 percent — of the grosses over the three days. Premium Large Format screens accounted for 9 percent and in total, 3D ticket sales made up an eye-popping 51 percent of the grosses. The 3D number is way above that for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (40 percent) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (43 percent), and the ticket upticks made a difference.

Bryan Cranston: Legendary and WB marketers had him front and center in the commercials and trailers, but the former “Breaking Bad” star is far less prominent in the movie. The idea of seeing him in his first major post-Walter White role had to have brought some fans to theaters; if they ultimately felt a little misled, that’s OK. Cranston’s big, scaly co-star stole the show, as planned. Keeping the monsters under wraps throughout most of the campaign to build anticipation was another smart play.

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The right competition: “Godzilla” was so dominant that its $93.2 million total was greater than the other nine movies in the top 10 combined. Runner-up “Neighbors” actually held well — down just 47 percent from its big first week — but Universal’s R-rated frat vs. family comedy is attracting mainly couples. Sony’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” was in its third week and aimed for families. Jon Hamm notwithstanding, the baseball movie “Million Dollar Arm” skewed older and was all but a niche play. That left young males for “Godzilla” and they turned out: 40 percent of the audience was under 40 and 58 percent was male.

Springboarding off the skeptics: Examining the enduring appeal of “Godzilla” would take another post. But it’s safe to say that the creature — introduced in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic from Toho — is as beloved as a giant lizard can be. There was bound to be skepticism surrounding Hollywood’s latest run at him, considering Roland Emmerich‘s critically reviled 2000 redo. But director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein‘s take on “Godzilla” showed a respect for his radioactive roots and a passion to re-create the tone of the original film. That made a difference, particularly with the millions of middle-aged fans who appreciated the original, according to Legendary President and Chief Creative Officer Jon Jashni. “Audiences that know and love the brand are even more discriminating, and nostalgia exists in direct proportion to skepticism. If the skeptical person holding the movie to a higher standard is won over, that can create over-compensating in terms of word of mouth.”