Did Texas Make 50 Shades a Record-Breaker?

Valentine’s Day weekend offers plenty of opportunities to spend money: expensive dinners, chocolates, flowers and diamonds. This year’s holiday offered one more—Fifty Shades of Grey. The premiere of the controversial film, based on the novel by E. L. James, came the day before V-day. And whether out of excitement or morbid curiosity, people flocked to the theaters in droves, earning the film $81.7 million at the opening weekend box office. More than the money, however, the rush earned 50 Shades the title of 4th biggest R-rated premiere in movie history, as well as highest-grossing Presidents’ Day weekend opener ever.

How a film does on opening weekend shapes the conversation around its success. But what do these numbers actually mean? Is the amount of money a film pulls down on opening weekend really a marker of America’s feelings, or just a way to say if the studio made their money back? Turns out, it depends on where you live.

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Figure 1. When do you usually go: Opening Weekend

Obviously, not everyone runs out immediately to see a new movie. But in some places, opening weekends are a bigger priority than in others. According to Experian data published in 2014, there are regional preferences for when people see a movie—on opening weekend, within the first two weeks, or even later. The data doesn’t break down by specific film, by genre or even by season; it’s a macro trend for all films across the entire country for the entire year.

The data suggests that the Northeast, for instance, really couldn’t care less about seeing a movie on opening weekend. In the counties shaded lightest—primarily New England and the northern Midwest—less than 3% of moviegoers see a movie on opening weekend. The Southwest, on the other hand, finds opening weekend much more important. Laredo, Harlingen and El Paso counties—all in Texas—have the highest proportion of opening-weekend junkies in the country, followed closely by Bakersfield and Monterey-Salinas, California. In fact, Texas, New Mexico and Southern California are about the only places in America that care to see movies ASAP. After that, the wind of interest blows steadily from south to north.

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Figure 2. When do you usually go: After Second Week

Sure, there are people in the Northeast who will stand in the midnight lines, and people in Texas who prefer to wait. But even though the proportion of people in Texas who waited more than two weeks to see a movie is, at its lowest, still 5% higher than the proportion of people who go on opening weekend, the fact that such a small section of the country is buying such a large portion of opening weekend movie tickets means we have to rethink what these numbers mean.

Have these trends continued into the New Year? More specifically, has 50 Shades played to the trends? If so, when it comes to the film’s 2015 Valentine’s weekend success, either we are to assume that the Southwest has a disproportionate interest in BDSM, or simply a greater interest in spending their weekends in a movie theater. If the Southwest is significantly more likely to see a movie on opening weekend than the rest of the country, as the 2014 Experian data suggests, maybe opening weekend revenue isn’t predictive of a movie’s worth, but only whether it appeals to a few counties in Texas.