The persistence of 'Dragon': It's a beautiful (but increasingly rare) thing when a movie has legs

train-your-dragonImage Credit: DreamWorks AnimationRemember when movies had legs? For those (few) of you who don’t know the term, that’s Hollywood/insider/Variety-speak for what happens when a movie sustains its popularity — and its box office grosses — over a whole series of weeks, drawing bounteous and enthusiastic new audiences week after week after week, so that its connection to the public effectively takes on a life of its own. Okay, you say, big deal; it’s a very standard term — and a very common thing. People talk about movies having legs all the time. Well, yes, they do. But how often does it really happen? I would argue: Not nearly as often as we think, or say, it does. I would also observe that the relative scarcity of good old-fashioned movies-with-legs says something about where our heavily hyped movie culture is now at.

It did happen over the last month with How to Train Your Dragon, the DreamWorks Animation hit that, in a rare feat of sustained popularity, just topped the box office in its fifth weekend of release. There were, to be sure, other factors at work. The Back-up Plan, Jennifer Lopez’s return to romantic comedy after five years, performed below expectations, and so did one other new movie, the stuff-blows-up-real-good comic-book revenge pulper The Losers (though in that case, the expectations may have been nowhere but in the heads of the film’s producers). Nevertheless, Dragon‘s grosses have remained dazzlingly robust, so that it’s now getting ready to cross the $200 million mark. And that wasn’t necessarily predicted. The movie had to battle Clash of the Titans for 3-D screens, and because it didn’t receive the kind of media love-in that Pixar films do, it had to work harder to earn the perception that it’s a terrific, inventive, rousing movie (which it absolutely is). But audiences have fallen for it, and they keep going.

Why do I say that this doesn’t happen more often? Because the way that our blockbuster movie culture now works, the vast sums of money that movies make are more or less orchestrated to be frontloaded. Movies can still win crowds by word of mouth, but they no longer need to; saturation advertising does the trick nearly as well. And that means that even when a movie makes a lot of money, it can be hard, if not impossible, to measure how much those grosses truly reflect audience enthusiasm.

As an example, take How to Train Your Dragon vs. Clash of the Titans. Dragon, in its opening weekend (March 26-28), made $43.7 million. Clash, in its opening weekend (which was one week later, April 2-4), made $63.9 million. In other words, Clash, by all obvious and objective data, looked like the far bigger movie — and, just as significant, the one with more heat. But now that close to a month has passed, and Dragon has, in fact, made a grand total of $33 million more at the box office than Clash has (in the end, the difference between them will probably be even greater), my question is this: What did those initial boffo grosses for Clash of the Titans really measure? Genuine enthusiasm for the movie on-screen? Or an initial eagerness to see it that wasn’t necessarily matched by the word of mouth that followed? And yet the lack of ultimate enthusiasm for Clash was effectively camouflaged by that tidal wave of money during its first two weekends. Clash is a bona fide hit, but it is not, in any organic, old-fashioned sense, a movie with legs.

So why does this matter? Because knowing which movies people genuinely love, as opposed to the ones that they simply line up for in a rote way, has always been an essential part of popular movie culture. The universe of independent and specialty films makes it a lot easier. There, with far less advertising in play, movies, almost by definition, have to earn their popularity or die, and the films that have legs benefit dramatically from that fact. They go wider, enjoy a longer theatrical life span, and make more of a dent in our cluttered media landscape. With big Hollywood movies, though, it’s increasingly easy to feel that the system has been gamed, that popularity is something that can be bought. What can’t be bought, or conjured through advertising, is true audience love. Money can’t buy you legs.

So which movies can you think of that have genuinely had legs? And which movies have been huge without legs?


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  • nick

    I was thinking about this as well. I can only recall two other films in recent memory that have done this (Avatar and The Hangover). Good work Dragon!!!

    • www.ICStoopid.com

      How to Train Your Dragon has different meanings….lol

    • Marshall

      Can’t forget “The Blind Side” … gag.

    • Beth

      The Devil Wears Prada had legs as did Mamma Mia! I think Julie & Julia did, too. The fact that all three did boosts people’s box office expectations for Meryl Streep. Prior to this, they viewed her as an award magnet but not necessarily a box office winner.

      But back to the topic, movies with legs are increasingly rare. The original Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark ran for nearly a year in theaters. DVD releases stop that today but it’s pathetic that most films get only a handful of weeks before disappearing regardless of whether they’re good or not.

      Even more rare are films with legs like How to Train Your Dragon that are #1 weeks later after other films have topped the box office. I can’t think of one of those for a long time.

      • Raymond

        You can add It’s Complicated to that list.

    • Terry

      Owen talks in the article as if AVATAR and THE BLIND SIDE didn’t exist. AVATAR was a “preordained” blockbuster hit that actually kept going, and going,and going…7 weeks at # 1, and minuscule drops week after week,and had it not been for ALICE taking away most of its 3D screens, it would’ve already grossed 800 million in the USA. THE BLIND SIDE did the same thing but in a much smaller scale. MAMMA MIA! in 2008 had amazing legs, as did last year’s Julie And Julia.

      • kelsey

        Re: Avatar. You’re definitely right. But I think the point is that Dragons ended up surprising a lot of people by its longevity, whereas Avatar’s came as no surprise. People *expected* Avatar to do very well, which it did, just as they expected Titans to do well, which it did – up to a point. Dragons returned to the #1 spot while Titans fell behind.

        I have no rebuttal to make regarding The Blind Side, so maybe you’re right on that score.

      • @Terry

        So, Avatar was preordained AND had legs!

      • *This@@Terry

        More like Avatar had been preordained with massive amounts of money and hype that overwhelmed people and made them fork over their money. (IE, 250-500mil total budget plus 10 years of hype)

  • Colin

    I think that “New Moon” is the perfect example of a movie that did not have legs. It made over $150 million in its first weekend, if I remember correctly, yet it failed to cross the $300 million mark, meaning that over 50% of its total gross came from 1 weekend. Meanwhile, “Avatar” only made around $70 million in its first weekend, and finished as the highest-grossing film in history (inflation not included).

    • Poo

      That film did not make $150 domestic its first weekend.

      • springs

        Actually, I’m pretty sure that it did.

      • thin

        It didn’t quite make $150M, but it was close to it. http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=weekend&id=newmoon.htm

      • Safety

        In fact, it made close to 70 million on its openning DAY. Check out boxoffice tracking sites if you want verification. I recommend boxofficemojo. So yeah, New Moon is the perfect example, except those films only target a very small niche market, instead of trying to appeal to larger audiences, thus stifling its growth potential or chance for greater cultural relevance (not that its totals, especially when compared to its budget, are anything to sneeze at). So its intentionally very limited targeting, I’d say, is its saving grace in this argument.

    • Wickeddoll

      “Twi-Hards” have the books and DVDs to keep them happy. They know they won’t have to wait very long to get the films on video. Plus “Twilight” has a very limited audience. Young fans may not be able to afford repeat viewings, and older fans only need see it once, for the most part.

      • DarkLayers

        “Very limited.” The audience is mostly female, but there are a lot of adult women. Around 50% of the moviegoers were 21 or older, so it’s not just teenage girls.

      • not a fan

        how did you guys from talking about “how to train your dragon” to “Twilight trio”? anyhow have not seen the dragon yet but as I was just thinking to myself twilight is made for “girls” (this includes gay men, school grls, young women and some 40+ women) After seen the first one in the cinema and watched the trailer on youtube I have decided to give the twilight thing a miss because it’s target audiences are “immature” at heart. fantasy is good but not like that.

    • DarkLayers

      You can argue “New Moon” didn’t have legs, certainly to a lesser extent than “Avatar”, but the first weekend’s gross made up 48.2% of its total gross, not over 50%, as you say. Moreover, only three films made crossed the $300 M at the domestic box office, so how much of a failure is that, especially when the film cost less than $100 M? “New Moon” made $296 and over $700 M when you include the global box office. In the US, it came within $10 M of “Harry Potter,” which over twice as high a production budget. It was the fourth highest grossing film of last year. You can argue the film didn’t have legs for sure, but painting it as a flame out is a bit much, when it was that profitable. And $142 million is below $150 Million.

      • Nirveeze

        I’m sorry, but the difference between the actual and what was said is so miniscule it’s splitting hairs.

        Disney’s actually had experience in this with The Little Mermaid, and Titanic and Avatar are completely missing from the article, shame, as they are the biggest example of box office legs. I believe Titanic’s biggest weekend was around 29 mil, and it became the highest grossing film of all time.

      • DarkLayers

        Actually, 50% is a golden number in some circles. When it’s 50+, that implies most can be explained by the opening weekend as opposed to some. If the difference between say 143 and 150 is so insubstantial, then why is it so noteworthy that “New Moon” fell short of 300 M? The difference between New Moon’s total gross and 300 M is smaller (~4-5M) than NM’s opening weekend gross and 150 M. If the latter is meaningless, why is the former so important?

        And “Titanic” was not the highest grossing film of all time. “The Sound of Music” and “Ten Commandments” did better controlling for inflation. (“Gone with the Wind” and “Star Wars” did too, but they had re-releases which helped a lot.)

  • Lili

    The biggest for me have been Home Alone, Jurrasic Park and Speed… they stayed on the big screen for almost half a year! (i know there are a lot more, but those are the ones coming up in my mind)

  • zoe

    There’s Something About Mary was one. Does Titanic count as well?

    • bobboloo

      Yes, it does.

      THE BEST EXAMPLE, WITHOUT A DOUBT, IS E.T.:THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL

      It stayed in the TOP 10 for 35 WEEKS!

      and

      It held the #1 SPOT for 16 WEEKS!

      Insane.

  • The Ween

    LOVED How to Train Your Dragon. So sweet, yet very exciting.

    My Big Fat Greek Wedding had great legs!

    • Matt H

      I didn’t really love My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but that’s EXACTLY the film I thought of, too. Didn’t it almost top the box office in something ridiculous like it’s 11th week in theaters, or something?

  • matt

    One word: Titanic. $30 million dollar opening weekend leading to a $600 million dollar total gross just does not happen any more. Avatar’s drops from weekend were overall much steeper than Titanic’s, but the former was boosted by 3D ticket prices and inflated 2D prices.

  • Una

    When I think of a film with “legs,” I always think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which never hit number one, but managed to gross over $200 million at the box office anyway through word of mouth.

    • Dave

      Amen Sista! Speaking as a big dumb male, I usually snort at romcoms. However, I ended up loving MBFGW. Yes, it was word of mouth that dragged me and my soon-to-be wife to the film. I think the whole mismatched cultures angle is what hooked us. My wife is white and (somewhat)Protestant I am African American and (somewhat)Catholic. Shame Nia Vardalos has yet to come up with anything else as good.

    • TGH

      MBFGW is the most over-rated mess I’ve ever seen, I could not believe people liked it – but yes, it had great legs. Titanic is the definition of a movie of great legs, other than old stuff like ‘Gone with the Wind’.
      Recently, what about ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘500 Days of Summer’?

  • Jeff

    Paranormal Activity definitely

  • Jack

    Scream was totally a word of mouth movie that had legs for months.

  • Contessa

    Dirty Dancing anyone?? Probably one of the biggest hits ever to come from word of mouth advertising.

  • D

    The Sixth Sense had legs. People had to go see it before someone ruined the ending.

    • bill

      To me, that comment suggests a big opening weekend performance rather than having legs.

      • Lisa Simpson

        No, it had legs, just as “The Crying Game” did. Both benefitted from audiences not wanting to spoil the endings for people who hadn’t seen the movies.

      • Joe

        Nope – it only opened to around $30 million and then stayed on. It’s not as big a story as some of the others people have mentioned, but considering it’s a thriller/horror film, it’s quite impressive. Right up there with Scream (someone else mentioned it, too)

  • lefty

    The Hangover for sure.

  • Mike

    It was school vacation week in the Northeast. Sure that helped the #s.

    • bobboloo

      Actually, it didn’t.

      This weekend was by far the worst of the year and one of the worst for this timeframe in the past decade

  • Joey

    The Blind Side seemed to have great word of mouth too. Didn’t hurt that it came out at holiday time.

    • RyanK

      Yes definitely. I was going to say that if someone hadn’t already.

    • Jose

      Not only that, it also opened alongside New Moon!

  • Darrin

    I just saw ‘Dragon’ the other day in 3D – absolutely loved it. Very fun movie with great visuals.

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