Entertainment Magazine

Box Office: The Psychology of Disaster Movies, Or Why San Andreas Sold So Many Tickets in Los Angeles & San Francisco

Posted on the 03 June 2015 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

When Dwayne Johnson appeared on The Graham Norton Show to promote San Andreas, the avuncular British host tossed the muscle-bound star a seemingly obvious question: Won’t it be kind of hard to sell this movie in California? Yes, we know this is just a movie. Johnson plays a California rescue worker who steals a helicopter and heads out to find his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) and adult daughter (Alexandra Daddario) after a severe earthquake. Science has already debunked the severity of the earthquakes in San Andreas and the extent of the damage they visit upon Nevada and California, but the truth remains that in a very general sense the events in the movie could actually happen. The San Andreas fault is a ticking time bomb, and when it goes off it could trigger not just one big quake but a series of them. Seismologists estimate a 21-59% likelihood of the “Next Big One” hitting the area sometime in the next 30 years, but unlike weatherman with tornadoes and hurricanes scientists won’t be able to offer much advanced warning for severe earthquakes.

That’s some scary shit, especially when the disaster footage and ever-growing list of the dead from this year’s 7.8 magnitude quake in Nepal is still fresh in our mind.  Just this past weekend, Japan felt the effects of a 7.8 quake which struck hundreds of miles off its coast.  As Norton joked, the Brits can watch San Andreas and have a bit of a laugh, but Californians can watch the mass destruction on screen and possibly complain, “Hey, that’s my house falling into that sinkhole!” Johnson politely laughed, ultimately saved by a comedic exchange with Snoop Dogg, seated on the couch with him as a fellow guest on the talk show. Norton pointed out that Snoop Dogg actually lives in California, asking him if he had any kind of earthquake preparedness bag under his bed at home. The rapper sheepishly admitted he didn’t, but re-iterated that he would definitely see the movie to see Dwayne Johnson do his thing. Then they all basically joked about all the marijuana Dogg has in his house.  Talk show gold!


‘Twas a silly bridge anyway

Apparently, Dogg’s reaction as a Californian was not unique. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 19 out of the top 20 theaters for San Andreas this past weekend were located in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas even though both of those cities are largely destroyed in the film. In fact, when broken down by region or state the film exceeded expectations in those areas which could be directly impacted by earthquakes in real life (California, Nevada, Arizona) and underperformed in areas where that’s not as much of a concern (the Northeast, Midwest, Canada). Internationally, the disaster flick also overperformed “in earthquake-prone Mexico, opening to a stunning $10 million, the top opening of all time for a disaster film and the No. 2 debut for a Warner Bros. title.”

San Andreas destruction

Home sweet home

What the frak? Even the studios are surprised. WB’s president of domestic distribution said, “You never see this. Some of the naysayers said people living in these places would be too scared to see San Andreas. Obviously, they were wrong.” A rival studio executive cut to the chase, “These are the places where I would have expected people to say, ‘No, thanks. I don’t want to see this movie.’ ”

Why did this happen? Why did San Andreas have such a big weekend largely because it caused a significant spike in attendance in those areas where the subject matter should have felt a little too close to home? THR chalked it up to “morbid fascination,” and pointed out that according to CinemaScore exit polls, “38% of ticket buyers in North America were drawn in by the subject matter. An equal reason was Johnson.”

The Rock is a big box office draw, described by WB’s distribution prez as “a four-quadrant, larger-than-life movie star. He works like no one else I’ve ever seen.” San Andreas’ $54.5m domestic opening is his biggest outside of the Fast & Furious franchise. Forbes just called him the “red bull for cinematic universes,” pointing out how his presence seems to consistently save franchises, be it The Mummy films, G.I. Joe or Fast & Furious. However, when he’s stepped outside of the franchise umbrella he’s had a more inconsistent go of it, mostly helming in-offensive, soft-performing family films (The Game Plan, Tooth Fairy, Race to Witch Mountain) and mid-budget, old school action fests (Faster, Snitch, Pain & Gain). Last summer, Hercules and its $100m budget was his first real big-budget solo effort, and it was a big domestic whiff ($72m) which fared far better internationally ($170m). Now, San Andreas made nearly $120m worldwide in its first three days, easily on track to crush Hercules.

Rock San Andreas
The Rock had a lot to do with that, but for every person who was in the theater to see Dwayne Johnson lay the smack down on the San Andreas fault’s candy ass there was another person who was just there because they wanted to see things fall down and go boom. Human beings apparently can’t resist staring at a car wreck, and disaster movies indulge that impulse without inconveniencing us with thoughts like, “Oh, maybe I should go pull that person from that flaming wreck.” Plus, they offer pure spectacle, with a lineage dating back to the historical Roman epics produced in Italy at the dawn of cinema to the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 1970s (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport) to the tornadoes (Twister), volcanoes (Volcano, Dante’s Peak) and asteroids (Deep Impact, Armageddon) threatening Earth in the late ‘90s.

In recent years, the disaster film has grown to be a catch-all phrase applied to any films with scenes of mass-destruction, such as World War Z, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down, Pacific Rim, and Man of Steel. The way they tend to cluster inevitably leads journalists to call up social scientists to ask why it is exactly that we love disaster movies. What do we get out of them? Dr Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, told Psychologies.co.uk, ‘When there are too many unknowns, we anchor ourselves by contemplating catastrophe. That way, we know one thing for sure: our own lot’s not that bad. It offers us a little security in an insecure world.” University of Kansas (go Jayhawks!) sociologist John Hoopes told LiveScience, “They allay individual fears of human mortality…[because] it’s not going to happen at the same time. We’re not all going to die at the same time. When there is a looming disaster, everything else goes out the window. You don’t have to take care of these other responsibilities because the world is about to end.” LiveScience was also told by an Oregon State University emeritus professor, “These are representations of a future where a complex world becomes simplified.”

In Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, Stephen Keane argues that disaster movies are borne out of times of crisis, “Whether human or environmental, alien or accidental, most of all disaster movies provide for solutions in the form of a representative group of characters making their way towards survival. Particularly where audience identification is further facilitated by well-chosen use of Hollywood stars, the question of who will survive is central to the basic narrative pleasure of disaster movies.”


1996’s Twister

So, basically, it’s a tantalizing escape where the world becomes remarkably simplified and the presence of an easily identifiable star at the center gives us a certain sense of safety (they won’t kill The Rock, right?), but for Californians how is flocking to see a fictional representation of a very real threat to their safety an escape? I can’t answer that because I’m not a Californian. I grew up in Kansas, and I can say that I was remarkably curious to see Twister when it came out in 1996. Sure, the state is smack dab in the middle of “Tornado Alley” meaning you hear about tornadoes all the time, somewhat similar to how Californians are likely at least aware of the ever looming threat of the San Andreas fault. I lost count of the number of times I had to huddle under the stairs in my house with my brothers because there was a tornado warning and we didn’t have a storm shelter. I have seen several scary looking funnel clouds in my lifetime, and even one very small tornado far off in the distance on the highway. All of that actually made me want to see Twister even more. I wanted to see how it would look on film, where I could simply marvel at the force of nature (well, technically, just CGI whizardry) without being scared. It was almost cathartic. I also wanted to maybe see if the film could offer any tips for real life tornado encounters, and … well, it’s a movie. Of course it doesn’t. I mostly remember how funny it was seeing Cary Elwes’ storm chaser positioned as the bad guy simply because he (dun, dun, dun) had corporate funding! J’accuse!

At the very least, San Andreas does offer a bit more of an education than Twister, since according to seismologist Lucy Jones, “San Andreas nicely shows that knowing the fundamentals of first aid, how to ‘Drop, Cover, Hold On,’ that tsunamis can be preceded by a draw-down of the ocean, that landlines work when cell phones are out and that having a ‘plan B’ all can make life easier and safer after a big earthquake.” Plus, you know, shit blows up, skyscrapers tumble and The Rock races a freakin’ speedboat up the side of a tsunami!

This Weekend’s Actual Box Office Top 10 Totals (5/29-5/31)

1. San Andreas (Debut)

  • Production Budget=$110m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$54.5m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$60m
  • Worldwide Debut=$114.5m

2. Pitch Perfect 2

  • Production Budget=They’re not telling
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$14.8m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$10.4m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$147.5/$80.7m/$228.2m

3. Tomorrowland

  • Production Budget=$190m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$14.3m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$29.3m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$63.6m/$70m/$133.6m

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

  • Production Budget=$150m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$14.1m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$21.6m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$116.4m/$165m/$281.4m

5. Avengers: Age of Ultron

  • Production Budget=$250m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$11.4m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$17.6m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$427.5m/$894.2m/$1.32b

Age of Ultron is now the sixth-highest grossing film of all time, sure to soon pass The Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($1.34b) on the list and become the fifth-highest grossing film.

6. Aloha (Debut)


  • Production Budget=$37m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$9.6m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=None
  • Domestic Debut=$9.6m

This is the lowest opening of the summer to date for a major studio release.  Crowe’s last movie, We Bought A Zoo, had a nearly identical opening before sticking around long enough to end up with $75.6m domestic, but Aloha‘s B- CinemaScore (C+ among adults over the age of 50) suggests such a fate seems unlikely.  As Rentrak’s senior media analyst told Variety, ““I think audiences are always rooting for Cameron Crowe to succeed, but since the heyday of his first five films as director (“Say Anything,” “Singles,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous” and “Vanilla Sky”) he has had a rough time finding an audience for his unique vision.  Sophisticated moviegoers who are generally the bread and butter target for Crowe. They actually read reviews and are not easily swayed by marketing efforts and in this case the universally negative critical response really hurt the film’s chances.”

7. Poltergeist

  • Production Budget=They’re not telling
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$8m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$6.6m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$38.5m/$19.1m/$57.6m

As per usual with horror movies, Poltergeist took a big tumble (-64%) in its second weekend, on par with recent horror remakes Carrie (-62%) and Evil Dead (-63%).

8. Far from the Maddening Crowd

  • Production Budget=They’re not telling
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$1.45m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=Less than $1m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$8.4m/$10.2m/$18.6m

9. Hot Pursuit

  • Production Budget=$35m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$1.4m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=None
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$32.3m/$1.4m/$33.7m

10. Home

  • Production Budget=$135m
  • Weekend Gross (Domestic)=$1.2m
  • Weekend Gross (International)=$2.7m
  • Domestic/International/Worldwide=$170.5m/$198m/$368.5m

What Left the Top 10?: Furious 7 (Current total: $349.2m domestic/$190m budget), Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Current total: $67.7m domestic/$30m budget)

What’s Up Next?: Entourage (for some reason), Insidious Chapter 3 and the Melissa McCarth action-comedy Spy, which is already out overseas and doing well.

Sources: BoxOfficeMojo, THR

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