So who are you and why are you doing this?
Well, my name is Andre Dellamorte, and I’m doing this cause Nick and Devin asked me to.
So what makes you think you’re some kind of expert on guessin’ how movies are going to open?
Honestly, I don’t think I am. Predicting a film’s box office is much like predicting the weather in Chicago, though there are always tells. To wit, Spider-Man 3 will open big, and Lucky You will open small. I AM A GENUIS! The question is how close to being right you can get. For the most part, I will be wrong more often than not. And I say this (and have said it repeatedly) with no ego, because nobody is ever that right. So much of successes and failures are due to all sorts of mitigating factors that could be categorized under the butterfly effect. Hopefully, I will be consistently in the ballpark, or my errors will make sense within the scheme of things. That said, I spent five years in the film business working on the exhibition side of things, so monitoring the numbers is something I have done in a professional capacity. When I say exhibition, I don’t mean I worked at a movie theater; I worked within the organization of a theater chain and my livelihood was based on being more right than not. Then again, knowing that certain films will make money and certain films won’t is also not that hard. The real analysis comes on Sunday once the numbers are in.
How, then, do you arrive at your guestimates?
Through a couple of things, but most importantly by tracking. Those are the numbers the studios gather to get a sense of how things are going to play out. These numbers are also always wrong, and tend to miss out on the children’s market because those numbers cannot be tracked as efficiently. Such may explain why predictions on kids films are usually off the most. Last weekend Disturbia blew out its tracking, but that has to do with its target demographic.
How do you feel about the numbers?
I hate them. They are one of the worst things about the business.
Then why write about them?
I’ve always felt that box office results, Oscars, and top ten lists are the bane of filmgoers’ and critics’ existences, but all serve very important functions. With the latter, they are more important politically than they are as a measure of any relative worth. Judging 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the better film over Shaun of the Dead comes down to splitting hairs and personal preference – at some point, there are great movies and then there’s everything else. Making a list is usually an act meant to alert readers to the best movies to see and the ones to avoid (or, at least, it shouldn’t be used to confirm tastes, as the AFI does). Also, many great films emerge after the fact, and some films grow in time as others diminish. United 93 is a film of its moment, but who’s to say how it will be viewed in twenty years? That doesn’t make it a lesser film. And with the Oscars, if winning one helps get Charlie Kaufman financing on his next project, the world is a better place. And if Rachel Weisz’s win for The Constant Gardener makes more people see it, then I hope they like it. It’s all about the small victories. The same could be said for box office results, because few great films make that much money. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main one is that often the most profound works of art aren’t all that commercial. But whereas Eternal Sunshine and Shaun were outperformed by Shrek 2, The Day After Tomorrow, Catwoman, National Treasure and Shark Tale (not to mention Ladder 49, White Chicks and The Stepford Wives), it’s fair to say their legacy will stretch further.
And your point is?
To understand what’s going on in the business, you have to watch the numbers – even if they’re depressing. The old coot William Goldman said it before, but the truth is that good business for one film means others like it will come after and box office sets the trends. And sometimes bad sex comedies generate good sex comedies, bad horror movies beget good ones, and, every once in a while, a pretty good movie makes money and a pretty bad one doesn’t. But to understand the why’s, you have to watch week in and week out to understand why what works works and why what doesn’t doesn’t. A release date can make a winner or a loser out of some titles, simply because of what else is out there. But usually audiences want something that will simply entertain them – they want to get out of the house, and often they are drawn to something that won’t challenge them and that delivers exactly what was promised by the trailer, be it Martin Lawrence in a fat suit, or Spider-Man slinging his web.
So what does it mean when a film does a lot of business? What does it say about Joe Six Pack?
I think there’s a common misconception, and often a disconnect from the critical community and the "regular Joe" who goes to see a movie, and it’s this: buying a ticket for a normal person is not intentionally voting with their dollars. They may not consider what it means to support Wild Hogs or Norbit, and they certainly don’t think of it in those terms. For the most part an average movie viewer just wants to see a movie, and they may make apologies for what they’ve seen because they’ve spent money on it. (Side note: I remember walking out of a screening of Men in Black where the people in front of me were saying how much they liked the film in a way that suggested they were talking themselves into loving it. I don’t think this is uncommon). When a film does a bunch of business these days, it tends to mean that the advertising was successful. Word of mouth effects DVD rentals, sales and art house pictures (where word of mouth and critical support are key), but otherwise the story of a film’s success is written by the first weekend’s numbers (since 1999, only The Sixth Sense and My Big Fat Greek Wedding have been true word of mouth phenoms), and that’s why those numbers are so important. And yes, some people do enjoy "bad" movies, but cinema has always been a vehicle (especially in America) for escapism. So it’s no surprise that audience flock to films that appear weightless and predictable. And I don’t know if the world would be a better place if Robert Bresson’s au hasard Balthazar challenged Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love for the top spot of worldwide box office.
The bad part about the films of Adam Shankman, Shawn Levy, and Brian Robbins, etc. doing well is that these filmmakers have very little craft in their work, and it helps denigrate the language of cinema, which most audiences understand without necessarily being able to articulate it. The bottom line is that critics have to watch countless movies a year, and as such, their tastes are honed in a way that someone who goes to the movies even once a week can’t imagine. The more movies you see, the more you write about them, the more you analyze your own taste, the more you understand the craft, then the better your understanding of what makes a film good or bad, and it makes you less tolerance for the mediocre – which is often what an audience will settle for. The effort it takes to truly study cinema is something wholly removed from simply watching movies, as loving and understanding film requires dedication, while going to movies requires having about two hours of free time, and most people simply don’t love movies (though they may love going to the movies). And I understand that some people want to go to McDonalds, spend five bucks and get a meal to which the process from ordering to consumption can take less than ten minutes. But I have to agree with Devin when he wondered what can be more important to consider in these lives that make McDonalds and Wild Hogs so successful. Studios are more than happy to exploit that divide between the critics and regular folks whenever possible, except when they need critics to help sell their wares. And with anti-intellectualism a point of pride for many in America (though this is a worldwide concern, popcorn films make money everywhere) a lot of audiences become defensive of their movie night selections. Ultimately, for me to continue talking about this would cause me to speculate less kindly about the masses, and nothing I could add to the discussion would be anything more than biases, and frankly I would like to remain an optimist. There is a chance that a lot of people just don’t care, and maybe they shouldn’t. I do, and that poisons my viewpoint.
But, that noted, when a movie does a lot of business (say over a hundred million) it only ever means that a lot of people bought tickets. But it doesn’t mean they liked it. This is a critical point that is rarely addressed in a film’s success or failure. Repeat business is only a mere fraction of what it once was, and using the numbers as a touchstone for what people like is device of the past. It must be let go. In six months, any film is going to be on DVD, and so many will see a film once and pick it up for $15.99 at Walmart (how many times it’s watched after that is anyone’s guess). Sure, for a film to do $300 million or so there will be people who go back again and again, but the majority of pictures that do that sort of business now are franchise films, where the audience is geared by years of Lucas and Spielberg training to see the film repeatedly (and I’m willing to stake the Pixar name as a franchise as well). The only notable exception is The Passion of the Christ, though it too could be called a franchise film (though doing so might make New Line weep). Let me end this argument (with myself, such as it is): Night at the Museum made 250 million, and made no dent on pop culture.
So, how do you gauge a film’s success then?
Easy, you do it by looking at how much it cost to make. Now it used to be that a film would have to make twice as much as it cost to be profitable. That’s due to all sorts of things, including making the prints, advertising, the theaters getting a cut of the profits, and production deals, etc. Nowadays, with ancillary markets and DVD sales, the line is blurred, and then when you throw in product placements, shooting in Germany, etc. how much was spent is anyone’s guess. Michael Bay talked about the budget for Bad Boys: Part One being closer to eight million (versus the posted-on-Box-Office-Mojo $19) because of all the pay-or-play deals involved with the title, where how much a film like Superman Returns or War of the Worlds costs is something the studios will hide as much as they can. Studio accounting is a racket, and you don’t have to dig up the corpse of Art Buchwald to know that it takes really good lawyers to get the real numbers. So even the numbers used to judge a film’s success are slightly wonky. Wonky, I say, wonky.
Films tend to be weighed against what the industry expected it to do, regardless of whether that goal is realistic or profitable. That’s why numbers seem to be so confusing, but since the system dictates what was successful and what wasn’t, it’s the only line that matters. Yes, Peter Jackson’s King Kong made $218 million stateside. But with a listed production budget of $207 (that may or may not include prints and advertising, and likely doesn’t), and Jackson getting 20% of the gross, you don’t have to be a mathamagician to see why that’s considered a bad investment. And then, of course, the argument goes to foreign box office, and to those previously mentioned DVD sales and ancillary markets. And yes Kong didn’t lose money. Hulk didn’t lose money, and The Matrix sequels were also profitable. But this business is also about openings, wagging phalluses, or more to the point, bragging rights. Doing break-even business with a highly touted film is not why you invest $207 million dollars.
And that’s not to mention Superman Returns, which deserves its own article (if not a book), but to tell it briefly, whether you like it or not, for that film to do the majority of business within the first seven days and have Warner Brothers essentially limp the film to a $200 million dollar total means that it was not successful, especially when the projected budget on the film is quoted at $270 million – and that may be lowballed. But the story isn’t over; Warner Brothers feels that they must have put a good spin on this, and have suggested a sequel is in the works. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of "heckuva job, Brownie." Why this is important to understand is that even three years ago a film hitting $200 million meant something totally different than it does now. Though with the internet such as it is, the bald face they put on may not have fooled many; still, it’s their job to try and make something that obviously missed look appealing. With the industry as it is now, the franchise business is the strongest kind going, and with the industry afraid of failure, they’re going to play to what has worked in the past, hoping that if you didn’t love it the first time, they might just fix it the second (ala Hulk 2)
So it’s all bullshit?
Yes, because a production budget can often include a studio paying itself for rental of space, or props, or all sorts of addendums; ergo, the studios are going to do their damndest to keep this from public scrutiny. It used to be that the studios owned the theaters, and could play a film into profitability; with multiple DVD releases, and all sort of other schemes, it is rare that a film does lose money. But, again, what’s more important is how that changes the playing field. There was a time, not but forty years ago, where the big money was spent on musicals. It busted the genre to the point that a film as commercial as Dreamgirls becomes that much harder a sell (not to mention Rent, The Producers or The Phantom of the Opera). We’ve seen westerns go the same route, and both of those genres were the main ones less than half a century ago. Things change. There’s peaks and valleys.
And so the problem when bad crap sells well is that it opens the market to more crap.
This is nothing new. If you can find a copy of Pauline Kael’s Taking it All In, she wrote an essay called "The Numbers, or Why the Movies are So Bad," and she nails everything that is currently wrong with the studio systems as they are now. They are conglomerates where art is often an accidental byproduct. But, and there’s always a but, the next Shankman may end up being a Tony Scott. The machine always needs fresh meat, and if those smugglers (God bless them) achieve some success, they may get the opportunity to make their great products. Home teamer Guillermo Del Toro has been working the classic "one for me, one for them" philosophy with his films to great creative rewards, but each smaller project is a struggle – which is hard on them, but great for us. And, as crap triumphs, we’ve seen in the last four years some of the best films of my lifetime.
Ultimately, you have to approach it all with a Zen-like appreciation to not go crazy with what works and what doesn’t, and most people want to insert their preferences for why things work or don’t. You don’t have to read some other prognosticators takes to see how bias slips in. And yet the Lord of the Rings films made as much money as whatever altogether too successful summer entertainment that deserves to be bitched and moaned about. Sometimes the public likes good things.
And so you have people guessing what something is going to gross, which reflects on the numbers presented which are fictional. And that’s entertainment. That’s entertainment.
days of speed and slow time Mondays
pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
watching the news and not eating your tea
a freezing cold flat with damp on the walls
That’s Entertainment. That’s Entertainment.
And I’ll be here twice a week to talk about this.