I predicted in my preview ten days ago that Alice in Wonderland would draw big box office. No, it wasn’t exactly a bold prediction, and it was clear to everyone that a lot of money was going to be spent on Alice. I don’t think, however, that anyone could have predicted just how much money it would make in its opening weekend, in excess of $100m domestically. So why did it make so much money, breaking all sorts of records for openings in the first quarter?

By no means do i want to belittle the influence of Tim Burton, and particularly lead Johnny Depp on the takings for Alice. Tim Burton has a big fan base, with a very distinctive style, and despite recent critical failures he will always draw an audience. Depp is, well, Depp. He is one of the few stars left that can guarantee big box office, which is something i plan to discuss later in the week. But reviews have been, on the whole, pretty average for this particular movie, so what is the secret of its success? I have to believe the biggest element, more than anything else, is good timing.

The last two months haven’t seen a wealth of great movies. There have been no huge blockbusters released yet this year, and aside from Scorsese’s Shutter Island there have been no real ‘must see’ movies yet. Shutter Island has had its big weekends, and with the critical mauling of Cop Out there was really very little competition for Alice this past weekend. Audiences have been starved of big movies this year, and Alice has reaped the benefit.

3D has been fairly big for a while now. Last year saw a lot of movies converted to the format, more than in most previous years. The extra few dollars for each ticket have been pushing grosses up, with audiences seemingly happy to pay a little extra for a different experience. I doubt the 3D element would have had such a huge impact, however, if it hadn’t been for the juggernaut that is Avatar.

Avatar has changed the way audiences, particularly casual audiences, look at cinema. Millions of people who previously wouldn’t have visited theatres came out for Avatar, to see what all the fuss was about. They loved it, they loved the spectacle, and they loved the 3D experience. Most of all, they want the experience again. Alice is the first major 3D release since Avatar, so is likely to be the biggest beneficiary. Mainstream audiences don’t really know that the 3D in Avatar is particularly advanced, and will have gone into Alice expecting the same level of work on display. These audiences won’t be aware of the difference between being shot in 3D and being converted later.

Avatar didn’t open as big as Alice, partly due to the weather issues, but it was really word of mouth and media coverage that encouraged its growth. Audiences aren’t taking that chance with Alice, they aren’t waiting for word of mouth. They are expecting Alice to be just as big, and want in on the ground floor this time. Disney are reaping the benefits of 12 years of Cameron’s hard work.

In addition, i don’t think we should underestimate the impact this year’s Oscars have had on the weekends box office. Traditionally, the Academy Awards haven’t had a huge impact on the corresponding weekend’s figures, and if anything you’d certainly expect attendances to be down on the night of the ceremony itself. But a lot of effort has been made to increase the profile of the awards this year, with a lot of promotion and the decision to allow ten Best Picture nominees designed to improve ratings. This has gotten the movie-going public into a movie-going mood, and Alice was the best choice on offer.

The future looks quite good for Alice. Aside from Green Zone, which is pitched at a completely different audience, there is no real competition at the box office this month. Not until the next big family movie opens, How to Train Your Dragon. Many are expecting a much sharper drop from Alice than Avatar, based on its critical review scores. It’s expected that Alice won’t enjoy the same word of mouth that Avatar did, that the inferior 3D and lacklustre story will not impress. I don’t expect it to drop quite so sharply however. Mainstream opinion seems pretty positive about the movie so far. People are going to the cinema for that happy, feel good feeling, and i think audiences are enjoying a fantasy story that takes their minds off of everyday life. If there’s one thing Burton is great at, it’s creating worlds far removed from reality.

So timing is key. But this isn’t something that can be predicted and planned for. All the elements have fallen into place at the right time to make Alice huge. On top of the people involved, and the 3D factor, there’s also the popularity of an enduring property to factor in. Add to this a huge marketing campaign employed by Disney, and the publicity created by the potential boycott of the movie by cinema chains, and you can see how Alice in Wonderland has made such a huge financial impact.

It’ll be interesting to see what the fallout is, both in terms of its subsequent box office takings, and the reaction of industry critics. A lot of films that were poorly received by writers and bloggers last year made a lot of money, and (unfortunately?) Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has continued that trend

Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann