Legend has it that movie ticket sales take a hit during the Olympics, when all eyes are on the two-week sports mega-event.
As the Rio de Janeiro summer games gear up to start in less than two weeks, TheWrap and comScore have teamed up to put this Olympics-box office myth to the test — and assess the potential fallout for high-profile projects like Warner Bros.’ “Suicide Squad” and Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” reboot set to open in early August.
Running the figures on movie receipts collected during the past five summer games, we compared them with year-prior, non-Olympic-cycle figures. (See the chart below.)
What we found is that during some Olympic periods, the box office actually went up a few percentage points, while it dropped marginally many other years.
No solid correlation can really be made between the Olympic games and box office returns, experts told TheWrap.
So why do the Olympics get blamed for bad box office? “It offers up a nice dog-ate-my-homework excuse,” comScore senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “This happens pretty much every Olympics cycle if there’s downturn at the movies.”
But, Dergarabedian confessed, “The studios might be half right.”
(Given that Fridays and Saturdays are dramatically higher-grossing days at the box office, the above chart is “normalized” to compare Friday to Sunday each year.)
One studio insider told TheWrap that the Games can have a very minor impact on box office, but only temporarily — on key nights and moments, like the opening ceremonies or if there’s a popular rivalry.
Moreover, experts said studios have historically avoided putting out top titles during the Olympics cycle for fear they won’t break through the clutter of constant athletic coverage — but that the fear is not based on any measurable metric.
Ticket sales have more to do with the quality of the product and fan anticipation around the titles themselves than the effect of any large scale event, Olympics included, insiders added.
In 2012, for instance, box office dropped more than 20 percent during the London games compared with the same period a year prior. The highest-grossing movie in theaters during that period was “The Bourne Legacy,” which was the lowest grossing movie of the series by far and the only film open in that time frame to break $100 million in total domestic returns.
In addition to “Legacy,” was Warner Bros.’ Will Ferrell comedy “The Campaign,” Sony’s Meryl Streep drama “Hope Springs,” and the much-reviled “Total Recall” remake, also from Sony.
That same period in 2011 ushered in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Smurfs,” “The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” — all of which went on to surpass $100 million in domestic grosses. It was simply a stronger slate in that frame.
“All it takes is one or two movies in a short time frame to change the whole complexion of the box office,” said Dergarabedian.
But this year, studios appear to be undeterred by the Rio games.
Warner Bros. has set its high-profile DC supervillain movie “Suicide Squad” to open on the same day as the opening ceremonies — on Friday, August 5. And early tracking on the movie’s opening weekend could land in a monstrous, record-breaking range of $115 million.
“We chose the date because of our instinct said there’s a live and available audience and movies around it were no competition,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. EVP of domestic film distribution. And he said the studio has zero trepidation about the Olympic games.
Universal’s “Jason Bourne” — already pegged as another potential summer blockbuster — will be entering its second weekend in theaters when the Rio games start. And the same goes for STX women-led comedy “Bad Moms.”
Other movies opening during this year’s games include Disney’s reboot of “Pete’s Dragon,” Paramount’s “Ben-Hur,” Sony’s R-rated animated comedy “Sausage Party” and Warner Bros.’ “War Dogs.”
And that’s not counting other wide releases and holdovers including “Star Trek Beyond,” “Ghostbusters” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”
“It’s not that people are so ensconced in their living room watching the Olympics that they don’t go anywhere else, to the detriment of all other entertainment,” Dergarabedian said. “It just doesn’t work like that. If this argument was true, any large-scale event would cause the box office to go down.”
Any effect the Olympics could have on moviegoing is infinitesimal. But Dergarabedian conceded that a Michael Phelps or Mary Lou Retton-level human interest story, one involving a gold medal sweep that captivates national interest, could nudge the numbers. But only for a day or two.
“‘Suicide Squad’ is still going to knock it out of the park,” Dergarabedian said. “People who want to see it aren’t going to say, ‘I have to stay home to watch the Olympics.’ It’s not gonna happen.”
For the record: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the star of “Hope Springs.”