Bad Hobbits Die Hard: how to make a better Top 10 movie list

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released around the world this month. Never mind the top tens, this film will skew the box office stats for 2014 and 2015. Image: John Bell as Bain and Luke Evans as Bard. Photo: Mark Pokorny. Warner Bros

Tis the season to make Top 10 lists. Why? Because we are hurtling with unavoidable haste toward the end of another calendar year. It’s almost impossible to get through the day without some kind of Top 10 ranking grasping for our attention. And we all know it won’t go away until December 31. But when it comes to Top 10 movie lists the calendar year is a very poor basis for comparison.

The Kinomatics project – which we’re both involved in – has been rethinking the use of the calendar year for the study of the film industry. The calendar year certainly has its benefits. It is easily justifiable, it fits with most other forms of data collection periods, and you don’t really have to explain its use as a temporal division. But does it suit cinema data?

Cinema exhibition really doesn’t conform to the calendar year. Its seasonal nature is quite different. As a result, we have chosen to abandon the calendar year as the basis for our analysis and evaluations.

The reason the calendar year hasn’t been used in our research is its evident lack of suitability in accounting for big movie release dates. For many countries the day after Christmas (Boxing Day) is a critical release date for blockbuster movies and the Boxing Day trip to the cinema is a ritual almost as longstanding as the Boxing Day Test and the Boxing Day Sales.

This year in Australia you will have to wait until after Santa’s visit to see the much anticipated hit Big Hero 6, the franchise fodder of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb; and Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner.

In 2013, the week leading into Christmas (traditionally one of the slowest weeks in a cinema) generated less than A$14 million around the country. One week later, beginning December 26, a record A$49.9 million (out of an annual total of A$1.01 billion) was earned.

Using a calendar year to determine industry performance means that this critical period for calculating showtimes and revenue is split between two entirely different assessment periods (since the lucrative release period between December 26 and January 1 occurs in the previous calendar year). We wanted to remove this division (and therefore the calendar year) from our understanding and analysis of cinema data.

Adjusting our annual analysis to start on December 26 worked well for gathering data about most films. However, it failed to account for one extraordinary factor: the massive international release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The sheer weight of anticipation, marketing, international spread, and box office for this one film compelled us to manipulate our year so that it incorporated a full, global Hobbit release – from December 10, 2012 to December 9, 2013; what we now call, The Hobbit Year.

We have a calendar year, a financial year, a year of the monkey – and on December 22 we start the Shire Year. Why not a Hobbit Year?

Working with cinema data on a Hobbit Year basis has the additional benefit of encompassing those other major releases that start on Boxing Day. It is also extremely handy that the following Hobbit films have had similar opening dates.

And while unfortunately this year Australians will have to wait until Boxing Day to catch the final instalment of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, it does start its global release on December 10.

A Hobbit Year of movies looks very different to a Calendar Year – the table above shows the Top 20 films in terms of number of screenings for both types of “year” respectively . In addition to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, several films only appear in one ranking: Life of Pi, Grown Ups 2, Silver Linings Playbook, Elysium, We’re the Millers, GI Joe: Retaliation, and A Good Day to Die Hard.

These differences are based on either the Hobbit Year inclusion of those blockbuster movies released prior to the new year, or Calendar Year exceptions that cling to a spot in the Top 20 when Boxing Day releases are out of the picture. The significant difference that just a few weeks can make demonstrates the critical nature of seasonality in the entertainment industries.

For movie producers, critics, and movie lovers, December (not January) is the season to be ranking.