Why King Kong isn’t a Financial Flop

It has been remarkable watching the “King Kong is a bust”  meme take hold. I first saw it on the Drudge Report — Matt Drudge: the one-man Memeorandum — the day after the movie opened last week, but it has since spread everywhere, with there this widespread belief that director Peter Jackson’s mammoth new film is failing financially.

I disagree. Leaving aside the film’s artistic merits, or your view of its lack thereof, people are misunderstanding the numbers here. Yes, King Kong didn’t set any records on its opening day (a Wednesday) or its opening weekend, but that is largely meaningless.

Why? A couple of reasons, the most important of which is that the film is 187 minutes long  and a long film cannot be played as many times in a given evening at your local multiplex as a shorter film. There’s no non-wormhole way around the problem, the upshot of which is that you can play a typical hundred-minute film almost two times for every time you can show a King Kong. Given that theaters don’t charge more for longer films, and given that the number of theaters is fixed in the short and medium run, the implications for a longer film’s short-run box office take is direct.

So, how should we think about King Kong’s box office? As the following table shows, King Kong actually had among the best opening weekends of any long-ish film in recent memory. For example, it outperformed Titanic, which went on to a not-flop-like $600mm domestic box office.

(Yes, Kong underperformed the opening weekend of Pearl Harbor, but the latter film’s crumminess (as shown by the RT (Rotten Tomatoes) column in the table) dragged it to a sub-$200mm take. And yes, Kong also underperformed Jackson’s longer Return of the King in that film’s opening weekend, but RotK had a built-in audience as the final film in a trilogy.)

movie box office by length and theaters

Not to belabor the point, but my estimate is that King Kong will do a domestic box office of $400mm to $500mm, and a total international box office of something like $1.2 billion.

A financial flop? I think not.


  1. Justice Litle says:

    The naysayers also underestimate the wide variance in “shelf life” for hollywood movies. As the home theater experience gets better and better, more people are avoiding the theater entirely and waiting for DVD. This makes the shelf life factor even more critical… and if King Kong is half as good as critics’ reviews suggest, it will be making the bucks for a long time to come. Quality is translating to longevity, rather than overnight burst.

  2. I enjoyed your analysis but it didn’t answer the main point: Given the opening weekend take will the film eventually be profitable?
    Given the lack of buzz at my workplace and with my kids I would guess the total take from it’s screen distribution in the US will be about $200mm thus placing it far from “blockbuster” status.
    Good blog. I read it every day.

  3. “As the home theater experience gets better and better, more people are avoiding the theater entirely and waiting for DVD.”
    This might be exacerbated in Kong’s case by the length of the film. People may figure they might as well wait and watch it in comfort with the convenience of hitting ‘pause’ to use the bathroom or get more munchies.
    Perhaps Hollywood ought to bring back the Intermission, when movies are this long.

  4. I was watching the marketing blitzkrieg throughout the holiday season about Kong. There was this one guy who said that for the movie to break even, it should have $500 Million in sales. It is at $ 422 Million right now with the release of the DVD I could say it will eventually make money or break even.

  5. Franklin Stubbs says:

    Associated Press: “Released as a single DVD and two-disc set on March 28, the Peter Jackson film logged Universal’s best first-week sales in studio history, in six days selling 6.5 million copies for a take of more than $100 million.”

  6. Incredible how people still think this flick was a flop. King Kong has now pulled in $547m in global box office, plus another $100m in first-week DVD sales, for a total of $647m. Some flop.

  7. I always wonder at those “first week sales” numbers. Are they just sales to the retailers and video stores for rental – as they stock up on the item – or it is actually sales to the public. At $20 per DVD – that would be 5 million units sold in the first week.