The Greatest Showman opened in December, 2017, in the midst of a crowded field; The Last Jedi has opened just a few days earlier, and it’s hard to imagine any Star Wars movie not sucking all of the air out of the room. The studio, 20th Century Fox, had modest expectations for the success of their musical movie, but it didn’t even reach those. In its first weekend, The Greatest Showman brought in only $8.8 million.
In the movie industry, the opening weekend provides an indicator of how well a movie will do. If you go to a website like Box Office Mojo, they obsessively track a movie’s box office ratings and are able to very accurately predict the long-term financial future of a movie after the first weekend. Typically speaking, a movie can expect a moderate-to-steep decrease in ticket sales in the second weekend.
With a whopping $84 million budget, and a measly $8.8 million takings in their first weekend, The Greatest Showman was facing catastrophic financial loss. After the first weekend, it seemed there was virtually no scenario where the studio could make their money back.
Every once in a while, you’ll find a movie with only a 30 percent decrease in ticket sales from the first weekend to the second. Usually this is caused by a combination of two factors: An increase in critical praise (as usually scored by a percentage system on the website Rotten Tomatoes), and an increase in positive audience response (often tracked through a grading system developed by the research firm CinemaScore). This isn’t exactly surprising, right? If critics love a movie and audiences love a movie, it stands to reason its mass appeal should make it successful. The Greatest Showman, however, did not have those two things coming together.
Most critics despised the movie, scoring just a 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The audience, however, loved it. When audiences were polled walking out of the movie, the average viewer gave it an A. But remember what the best-case scenario usually is? A 30 percent decrease from weekend one to weekend two. But this movie? It was an anomaly. In the second weekend, tickets sales almost doubled. And the run of success continued. In the end, the movie had a global box office gross of $434 million.
Vox writer Alissa Wilkinson explained the phenomenon of The Greatest Showman and how it stacks up historically:
One of [the] measures is a movie’s multiplier, calculated by dividing its total domestic box office returns by its first-weekend returns. This helps demonstrate the movie’s staying power with audiences past the first weekend and indicate strong word of mouth. Few films have multipliers that rise above single digits; the highest multiplier of all time belongs to Titanic, which opened to $21.6 million but finished its 10-month run in theaters with a multiplier of 21.
Any guess on what the multiplier might be for Showman? Well it didn’t catch Titanic, but it came in second all-time with a multiplier of 19.8. The movie went from disaster to darling in just a few weeks.
But what did the movie have that critics paid no attention to? The soundtrack was written by the writers of the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and the movie La La Land. In other words, the people writing the songs had just received a Tony and an Oscar and this was their next big move; a musical starring Hugh Jackman about a group of misfits who become a family. Grandiose, family friendly, PG musical movies don’t tend to get produced very often. This was a movie about a three-ring circus, with obvious hooks in the songs that went on for days, endless positivity, and bright colors everywhere. There was clearly a gap in the market, and The Greatest Showman filled it (whether critics wanted to admit that or not).
Part of what it means to take innovation seriously is to pilot and iterate, getting the feedback of lots of people as you go so we can defeat the Curse of Knowledge. But we also have to acknowledge the places that can lead us in the wrong direction. Consider, for a moment, how critics play into innovation. People with influence and a critical report are one of the key things that hold innovation back, even as we are in the final stages. But often critics are the carries of the curse. Their “expertise” keeps them from seeing different ways of doing things. At the end of the day, innovation is rarely for critics. Innovation is for those who need it.
What if Peter had listened to the critics and not gone to Cornelius’ house? Then Christianity could still be made up entirely of ethnically Jewish people. What if William Tyndale had cowed to his critics? Then the Bible wouldn’t have been translated into English as the printing press was taking off. What if John Bunyan had listened to the criticism about his “plain style?” Then Pilgrim’s Progress would never have become one of the most influential works of the last five hundred years. What if Hannah More heeded the criticism of conservative commentators around the topic of an unmarried woman with a voice and an agenda? Then the slave trade wouldn’t have been abolished for at least another hundred years.
It doesn’t mean we don’t consider criticism. Being able to listen to, reflect on, absorb, and then iterate is a hallmark of a great leadership.
But it does mean innovation will almost always happen in spite of critics. Nothing comes into the world universally praised.
The Greatest Showman didn’t need a giant opening to be a hit, or for it to be critically adored. It just needed a few rabid fans who would spread the word. Almost all kingdom innovations start small, and like a seed with forest potential, grow over time and then begin to multiply.