What if we lived in an alternate universe in which being No. 1 at the box office really didn’t have much effect on a movie’s bottom line?
It turns out, we may already.
For decades, the circular hype volleyed back and forth between the movie business and the American media has revolved around the weekly box-office grosses provided by Nielsen EDI. The numbers are as cited by news outlets as they are derided by filmmakers who lament the industry’s ever-growing dependence on the almighty opening weekend. Open big and your movie is branded a hit. Open outside of the top five and you’re project is forever regarded as a flop.
But now some journalists are questioning that conventional wisdom, pointing to evidence that a boffo box-office opening doesn’t necessarily correlate to a film’s profitability. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review this month, the veteran media journalist Edward Jay Epstein argues that using box-office figures as a gauge for a film’s success is an antiquated concept that went out with the old studio system, when movies were played almost exclusively in movie theaters, and those theaters were owned by the studios themselves.
These days, of course, the normal track for a movie is to spend a few weeks in the cinema and then progress to home entertainment outlets such as DVDs, cable, broadcast TV and online streaming. That’s where the real money is made -- with home entertainment revenue making up about 85 percent of a film’s earnings. The reported Nielsen numbers also ignore the international market, which now accounts for some 70 percent of ticket sales.
What’s more, box-office figures as a whole say nothing about a film’s budget or marketing costs. A bloated super-hero epic like “The Avengers” could conceivably open at No. 1 and still not take in the hundreds of millions of dollars it needs to turn a profit. Conversely, a modest-budget indie like “Moonrise Kingdom” can quietly enter the black without ever cracking the top ten.
Despite such details, box-office figures are reported every week with pious pomp and circumstance, as news outlets herald “record-setting numbers” that often reflect little more than a rise in ticket prices. Epstein chalks up the habitual reportage to journalistic laziness and an unwillingness -- perhaps even a denial -- on the part of media journalists to peer into the broader intricacies of a changing industry. “The media’s fixation on the box-office race diverts its attention from the ongoing transformation of Hollywood’s business,” writes Epstein. “It neglects the reality that today, the six major studios get less than 20 percent of their total revenue from showing their films in American movie houses.”
Variety’s Peter Bart, riffing on Epstein’s piece, added that film executives may be the only ones paying attention to the numbers anymore, as financiers understand that “most new releases will lose vast sums of money during their theatrical runs despite the media hype.”
Or perhaps the goal is simply to create buzz for its own sake, to create the perception of a hit movie with the understanding that, in the movie business, perception is everything. Either way, criticism with the media’s fixation on box-office figures has been simmering for a few years now. In 2009, Slate’s Zachary Pincus-Roth wrote a piece taking media outlets, and moviegoers, to task for not adjusting for inflation when they consider the numbers.
“Perhaps journalists don’t care because the public doesn’t, either,” he wrote. “As readers, we get excited about records being broken. As moviegoers, we feel reassured knowing that everyone in America saw the same blockbuster as we did last weekend. But there’s good reason to care about accuracy.”
Pincus-Roth pointed out that, according to Box Office Mojo, the No. 1 movie of all time when adjusted for inflation is actually “Gone With the Wind,” which came out in 1939. That doesn’t necessarily make for a timely headline, but it’s a number that more news outlets, frankly, should give a damn about.