Canadian cinema box office

August 13, 2010

Now here’s a topic which you don’t see a great deal of writing about, at least not here in Australia – or in the USA for that matter:  the movie box office in Canada.  The post below has been adapted  from my PhD thesis, which is due for completion later this year (2010).

Few commentators have attempted to disaggregate the North American movie box office figures, but it is important to note that when people talk about “American” movie box office figures – which are typically quoted in all of the media – they actually include Canada and are thus for both countries.  However, the Canadian response to films can sometimes be quite different from the American (to be specific, “the United States of America” or USA) response, with the gross figures disguising some useful variations.  As an example, let’s examine how two controversial films released in 2004 – The Passion of the Christ (directed by Mel Gibson) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (directed by Michael Moore) fared in the USA and Canada, and how those figures actually differed.

Canadian journalist Peter Chattaway points out that as of April 2004, the Canadian population was 31,825,416 and the United States population was 293,713,183, totalling 325,538,599 – giving Canada then about 9.7% of the total North American population (or film “market”) at that time.  Analysing the 2004 figures based on the Canadian film website, he concluded that Canadians responded more strongly than Americans to British films and not nearly as well to ethnic or “Ben Stiller” comedies such as Dodgeball.  In particular, they really liked “American-politics-bashing films like Fahrenheit 9/11”, which had obtained up to 15% (50% higher than expected, or approximately $18 million) of the North American box office – compared to some 10% of the population.  By comparison, in Canada the film The Passion of the Christ only grossed 7% (30% less than expected, approximately $26 million) of the North American box office.  (See the Chattaway articles in Canadian Christianity and Arts and Faith).

The result of these differences is that the gross North American figures actually understate the relative popularity of The Passion in the USA specifically (by approximately 3% or up to $11 million) and overstate the relative popularity of Fahrenheit 9/11 by approximately 5% (or up to $6 million)[1].  Thus for some films, examining the amalgamated North American box office and making conclusions (especially cultural or political) on that alone can be misplaced, as the figures can hide what are sometimes substantial Canadian-United States country differences.  It is also important to note that if Canada were listed separately in the international box office tables – such as Box Office Mojo (where it does not appear separately), it would be listed as the second most significant market for both films and for most films that are released theatrically.

This has some relevance for comparisons to Australia, as Canadian and Australian geography are frequently compared (both countries having a relatively dense population living along a small rim of land with a vast and mostly unpopulated interior).  The Australian and Canadian box office response to The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11 were much closer than either one to the American (USA) response.  This is a concept worth testing across a range of other films and entertainment products.  But the conclusion is likely to be the same:  Australia and the USA audience responses often appear to be slightly closer than they really are in part because of the consistently mitigating effects of incorporating Canadian figures.


[1] These percentages are estimates only, based on gross North American box office.  For detailed Canadian box office figures which Chattaway bases his analysis on, see (for The Passion of the Christ) and (for Fahrenheit 9/11)