Birds of Prey's Box Office Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opened in theaters last week and if you looked at the internet and the news soon after you'd probably think the Margot Robbie-starring DC Extended Universe film was an absolute and utter failure. That's what the headlines have been declaring, noting the "disappointing" box office receipts, calling the female-centric film a "flop". Most reports take the time to compare the film to other superhero films while they note – accurately – that the film simply hasn't hit the highs some other films have. But when it comes to the real story about the "success" of the film – now rebranded as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey in the face of the box office numbers – it is about more than just one weekend at the box office.

Let's get the numbers out of the way first because even with being just part of the story they are relevant. Birds of Prey brought in $32 million domestically during its first weekend in theaters, a number that was shy of the $50 million projection. The overall global earnings, however, are around $81 million. Considering that the film had an estimated overall budget of between $82 and $100 million, Birds of Prey either has already recouped or is very close to recouping its budget in just one weekend. While there are other costs to consider, it seems fairly likely that Birds of Prey will not only reach its break even mark but exceed it as well.

So we're clear on the numbers that the box office and can probably declare this a too soon to tell situation, but what about the rest of the story? The biggest thing that many people aren't taking into consideration is that comparing Birds of Prey to other superhero films is a little disingenuous. Birds of Prey was never going to do the kind of box office numbers that Joker was and it wasn't designed to. When you look at specifically DC film releases, Birds of Prey is meant to be a smaller film. With the exception of Harley Quinn, the characters of the film are largely unknowns unless you are a comics fan. That is naturally going to create a smaller audience for that initial debut but opens up the potential for excellent word-of-mouth growth as people who arguably more familiar with the characters report back positively about the film.

While we're on the subject of Birds of Prey as compared to other DC films, Birds of Prey didn't have a lead in the way other more box office-successful DCEU films had and by lead in we mean two different things. The first is significant establishment via other films and the second is the idea of buzz. Looking first at establishment via other films we can see this most clearly with the films most directly connected to Man of Steel. 2017's Justice League benefitted from both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman as those two films helped set up the superhero team-up film The film also benefitted from Wonder Woman, which itself benefitted from the introduction of Gal Gadot's version of the character in Batman v Superman. Aquaman also benefitted from the interconnected structure of those films. Being part of that larger whole was a huge boon for all of the films in that cluster. All Birds of Prey really had in terms of that was Suicide Squad, which itself wasn't really an establishing film.

In terms of buzz, Birds of Prey didn't really have that, either. Joker had two things going for it. First, it's centered around an interpretation of quite possibly the most famous comic book villain of all time. It was going to get attention even if it had just been a guy in a clown suit reading the phone book. Beyond that, though, there was the controversy. Even before Joker hit theaters it was a major topic of conversation. That kind of interest frequently translates to ticket sales for one simple reason: everyone loves a controversy. Birds of Prey didn't have that.

One could argue that the lack of buzz also extends to the film's official marketing, as well.

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But here's the thing that is getting overlooked, an idea being drowned out in the cacophony of voice looking at how Birds of Prey isn't behaving like the traditional superhero movie: it's not supposed to be a traditional superhero movie. It's something that the film itself even says at one point, noting that the way to save Gotham is to work from the inside out, implying that small changes and more compact focus will ultimately lead to major change. Birds of Prey is a first-of-its-kind film, changing how we look at comic book movies from the inside out. It's a loud, R-rated action film that takes relative unknowns from a much larger franchise, drops them into one of the most well-known settings in comics and lets them do their thing from the very beginning. Birds of Prey is a beginning. The real story of Birds of Prey is less about how it stacks up to Joker or Deadpool and more about the fact that it creates a different kind of comic book movie. It's unlike anything we've seen before and echoes of that will reverberate long after the last box office receipts are counted.

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is in theaters now.