Birds of Prey Box Office Tells Different Story Than Media Narrative

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is underperforming at the box office, but it is not the flop or failure it's being made out as.

Margot Robbie as Harley and Ewan McGregor as Roman in Birds of Prey

Last weekend a passion project Margot Robbie spent almost five years bringing to fruition hit theaters. It did so while honoring her original vision for an R-rated Harley Quinn “girl gang movie” that owed as much or more to ‘90s crime thrillers as it does the modern superhero movies. More impressive still, it did this while also being produced, directed, written, and led throughout the cast by women.

Yet even though it opened at number one in the U.S. and around the world, the only thing most of us in the media have talked about is how Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) underperformed at the box office—that or how theaters have rebranded it with the more SEO-friendly Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. And it’s true: there is an obvious disappointment in a superhero movie reported to cost $84.5 million opening at $33 million—well below even WB’s lowball projection of $40 to $45 million going into the weekend.

Even so, there tends to be massive generalizations in reporting on box office numbers, particularly for films with passionate fanbases, which sometimes lead to narratives that don’t fully reflect reality. Or even more unfortunately, they’re intended to influence reality. Hence with just being in theaters a little more than a week, a picture like Birds of Prey can be totally evaluated by its box office numbers instead of its qualities, and then dismissed as a “bomb,” a “flop,” or maybe even a club that certain segments of fandom use to cudgel others.

That has more or less been the narrative for the past 10 days, which has now already moved onto the stunning box office over-performance of Sonic the Hedgehog. Indeed, the little blue furball zoomed past all projections and finished Presidents’ Day weekend with over $70 million at the box office. That is cause for celebration at Paramount Pictures and among the industry as a whole, but already vanishing into the margins is another story regarding Birds of Prey.

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An interesting thing happened when Birds of Prey made $19.7 million over the four-day; it dropped only 48 percent. In fact, that 48 percent is based only on the three-day cume of an estimated $17.2 million. It’s a smaller number, to be sure, than what WB would’ve wanted out of a second weekend for an R-rated superhero movie they likely hoped would perform similar to Fox’s Logan if not Deadpool. But it nevertheless suggests the filmmakers behind the risky Harley Quinn movie should take comfort: the audience that is showing up likes it. A lot.

For context, 48 percent is a very good holdover for a would-be blockbuster in its second weekend. Better still when that does not include the boon of a four-day weekend. Whereas most superhero movies average around a 55 percent box office drop, Birds of Prey is ahead of the curve. By comparison, R-rated superhero movies Deadpool 2 and Logan dropped 65.4 percent and 56.9 percent, respectively, and similar villain themed movie Venom dropped 56.4 percent. Even Marvel Studios stalwarts like Spider-Man: Far From Home and Avengers: Endgame saw respective drops of 51 percent and 58.7 percent.

Granted some of those, particularly Avengers, can only drop bigger amounts due to how heavily frontloaded their record-breaking opening weekends are. In other words, Birds of Prey can drop smaller because it opened smaller. However, the fact remains that it is dropping a smaller amount than all other non-Joker R rated superhero movies. This suggests that the audience who digs watching Robbie’s Harley Quinn leer at a breakfast sandwich before smashing some dude in the face with a mallet is satisfied and telling everyone they know—allowing it to outperform its deceptively muted audience CinemaScore of a “B+.”

It also confirms Birds of Prey is no box office bomb. A disappointment? Yes, any superhero movie that opens to less than 50 percent of its production budget (never mind publicity and advertising costs) will not be judged as a hit. And yet, the movie appears to be on track for a box office multiplier of well above a 2.5x (meaning how much it grosses divided by its opening weekend). Most superhero movies have between a 2.4x and 2.5x multiplier, but if Birds of Prey continues to have healthy drops for the rest of its run (and the only other major R-rated February release is The Invisible Man on the 28th), then it should end up with a multiplier closer to a 3x. Or rather, it should gross between $90 and $100 million domestically.

When coupled with an international cume that doesn’t yet include Japan (it opens there in March), Birds of Prey could be looking at anywhere between $230 and $260 million worldwide, and that’s without playing in China due to the current coronavirus outbreak.

Those are, again, not amazing numbers, nor are they a resounding vindication for Warner Bros. as they decide whether to make more Harley Quinn-centric films (I for one would love to see Robbie’s Harley team up one day with Poison Ivy, be it as a film or HBO Max series…), much less parts of social media who want to claim the movie is a sleeper hit. However, they are solid numbers and could as much as triple Birds of Prey’s purported budget.

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This is worth noting given the cacophony of noise surrounding all movies, especially of the superhero variety. Despite internet trolls hoping this is a movie that finally proves geek and superhero fare shouldn’t be made with a female audience (or director) in mind—which also requires them to ignore Wonder Woman and Captain MarvelBirds of Prey is not a flop nor is it an indictment of action movies with women behind the camera. In fact, one could even argue the most damning thing these numbers suggest is that the older male audience who goes to R-rated superhero movies has a more tangible bias against female-led franchises than the broader and younger PG-13 crowd. Or maybe they just didn’t like Suicide Squad.

Either way, this is a movie that did middling box office for its budget, but hopefully an argument in its own right for R-rated superhero and action films that are actually mid-budget. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson made an old school crime movie about gangsters (and one former gangster moll) in superhero garb. If it cost with inflation what a mid-budget gangster-action movie had in the 1990s, $230 million worldwide would’ve been an unequivocal success. Nevertheless, Birds of Prey is crossing $200 million globally while starring a cast of badass women who never had to pander once to the male gaze. They even found space for a gonzo tribute to Marilyn Monroe, another blonde producer who pushed for the movies she wanted to make.

Whatever else it earns, the audience that is showing up clearly thinks it’s pretty badass, and that shouldn’t be ignored because of box office numbers.