May 04, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Box office records that aren’t

iron-man.jpgIron Man‘s big opening is getting the usual treatment from the press, which largely accepts the studio PR line to give the film two hyperbolic “records”: Take a deep breath and pick either “the second highest non-sequel opening of all time” or “tenth highest opening weekend of all time.”

As I have written in the past, this is true only if you are doing your calculations in the “Inflated Play Money™” beloved by studio publicists, those who have a need to suck up to them, and the dumb. Here’s the AP version, as posted on the NYT web site:

”Iron Man” was the 10th biggest opening of all time and the fourth biggest for a superhero movie. Among nonsequels, it came in behind only the first ”Spider-Man,” which premiered with $114.8 million.

If you take the rise of ticket prices into account, Iron Man probably comes in 15th overall, not tenth. And Spider-Man earned the equivalent of about $135M today. In both cases the distinction is slightly less than billed.

The sobering details later in the story, in between the talk about the movie biz getting the “shot in the arm” it needs, is that ticket sales are still off six percent from last year; indeed, Spidey 3 opened a year ago (with $150M), so even the biggest opening of 2008 thus far represents a thirteen percent drop from the same weekend in 2007.

Even Variety’s version of events was slightly off:

Paramount and Marvel Studios’ summer tentpole “Iron Man” mined enough in its box office debut to join the pantheon of all-time highest openers, grossing an estimated $104.2 million domestically and $96.8 million internationally for a worldwide cume of $201 million in its first five days.

Hollywood couldn’t wish for a better way to start summer 2008 than with the launch of a new film franchise, considering the lack of titan sequels that gave the film biz its best summer on record last year at the domestic B.O. –a blessing and a curse, since comparisons will be tough.

Emphases added. In the first graf, I don’t know if there’s an official pantheonic cutoff number, but if there is I bet it’s smaller than 15. In the second, you have to read carefully first to figure out that the writer is trying to say that there won’t be as many sequels to drum up box office this year as last. (This is true, technically, since virtually every movie released last summer was a sequel of some sort, where this summer only about every other week will see a big-budget film based either on a previous movie or TV show.)

But the stark truth is that the “record” everyone was talking about last summer, was, in non-“Inflated Play Money™” terms, not a record at all. With the rise in ticket prices taken into account, the box office was a wash from the year before, and overall attendance was down nearly 10 percent from 2002.

Apr 08, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

The star, the numbers … and Nikki

I hate it when Nikke Finke is right about something. On Sunday, she wrote that the new George Clooney movie, Leatherheads, had come in third in the week’s box-office rankings. She wrote:

Leatherheads […] stumbled badly at the box office this weekend, making only $12.5 million from 1,769 theaters and finishing only No. 3. (Interestingly, the pic’s studio, Universal, claimed it was No. 2, but every other Hollywood major had it as No. 3 behind Sony’s 21 and Fox/Walden’s Nim’s Island.)

The inimitable bold-italic emphasis is Finke’s. The box-office figures reported yesterday, however, had Leatherheads at number two. But now Variety writes:

Final figures released Monday showed “Island” nearly matching its Sunday estimate with $13.2 million while the Universal pic’s number slid 6% to $12.7 million. And U’s estimate for Sunday’s total missed by about 28%.

Rival studios had indicated on Sunday that they believed Universal’s estimate for its period comedy was overly optimistic. But a U rep said the Sunday estimate was based on comparisons of performances by similar pics.

The “Leatherheads” performance came in well under pre-weekend forecasts, which had it coming in first.

Revisions like that aren’t entirely rare; less uncommon, however, is a little studio numbers manipulation when a big star’s personal project is on the line.

Mar 06, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

A record box office in 2007? Not so much.

The official box office figures from 2007 are out, Reuters reports:

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) on Wednesday released its yearly film industry statistics, reflecting a 5.4 percent increase in U.S. box office receipts in 2007 to an all-time high.

Continuing a recovery that began in 2006 after an industry-wide slump in 2005, domestic box office ticket sales climbed to a record $9.63 billion over the previous year’s level of $9.14 billion.


The news prompts Nate Anderson, over at Ars Technica, to ridicule the movie industry’s concerns about piracy. He is careful to mention the ever growing bandwidth and ease of use of torrents and the like, but still maintains the industry’s concerns are overstated:

Swapping movies over the Internet was more of a niche practice back in 2001 as bandwidth constraints made it impractical for many. Certainly it’s much simpler now, and advanced P2P protocols like BitTorrent (combined with free trackers like The Pirate Bay) make it relatively simple. But the movie business did $9.63 billion at theaters alone in 2007, a substantial increase over 2001’s $8.13 billion. US box office has also risen for the last two years, and international growth rates have been much higher and more constant.


So break out the champagne (for the MPAA execs) and the dog biscuits (for Lucky & Flo); home taping didn’t kill the music business, and file-swapping isn’t destroying theatrical revenue.

Ars is one of the sharpest and most valuable news sites on the web, for my money, but this article seems way off. Home taping? That’s the point of comparison?

Seven or eight years on, it’s hard to see how the digital distribution of music will not, in the end, vaporize the traditional music industry. Making the argument that it will not happen in the TV and movie fields is difficult at this point. The MPAA, quite reasonably, from its perspective, is softening up the populace for the all-out war it expects to wage as computers evolve to handle the increased size of video (and, soon, HD) files.

Beyond that, the real story is that movie admissions have remained flat; virtually all the studio’s increased revenues came from higher ticket prices. Given population increases, it’s hard not to argue that movie viewing actually declined last year; indeed, by Ars’ own figures (there’s a handy chart accompanying the story), revenues have gone up less than 4 percent since 2002, a growth more than explained by ticket prices, and again it’s a net decline in sales when population growth is taken into account. From the industry’s perspective, that’s something to worry about.

The real issue is this: The companies need to get ahead of the game because it’s going to happen no matter how much propagandizing they do or how many lawsuits they file. That’s why NBC’s petulant battles with Apple are so frustrating to watch.

The other angle, which isn’t talked about enough, should be making legitimate product easier to use than illegal product, not vice versa. I can’t be the only person who’s tired of vainly trying to skip or fast-forward through a half dozen FBI warnings, and various chunks of corporatespeak text (sometimes duplicated in French!) in front of every darn DVD I have dutifully gone out and bought.

Just the other day I torrented … ah, I mean, I spoke to a friend, a friend, who in a couple of hours torrented the entire first season of a certain famous American television series, never generally released on DVD, whose movie version is scheduled for release soon.

This … friend marveled at how easy it was to watch the thing on his computer; you click a file once and the show starts. Net time elapsed: less than three seconds. There are no special features, but there are no corporate logos, French copyright warnings, or charming little discussions of how the opinions in the commentary are not the opinions of Big Content Inc.™, which are then repeated in French as well, either.

Why should I—er, why should this friend sit through minutes of corporate crap when he buys a DVD, when the illegal version is so much more convenient to use?

Feb 21, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

NY Post to Oscar: Drop Dead!

The NY Post says the only thing the Oscars have going for it this year is the fact that there hasn’t been much glitz around, what with the writers strike. Advertisers are telling themselves that that might bring in some more viewers, despite the fact that relatively few people have seen the most-nominated films:oscar statue

Advertisers are counting on TV-starved viewers to make this year’s Oscars show a ratings winner despite a lineup of obscure and bleak films.

With much of the TV landscape in ruins after the writers’ strike, marketers believe the star-studded telecast will attract a relatively large audience desperate for something – anything – beyond reruns and reality shows.

An accompanying graphic detailing the falling ratings for the annual event, however, shows the paper’s true feelings. Oscar has a bag over its head in shame—and we’re told “ho-hum host” Jon Stewart may keep viewers away. It’s unfortunately true that the box office of the best picture nominees seems to have the most effect on viewership. If the ratings (after a slight bump up last year) continue to decline it seems inevitable that the Academy will have to figure out something to rekindle the show’s appeal, despite the fact that the group can always hike ad rates in the interim. While ostensible competition like the Globes come nowhere near the Oscar telecast’s ratings, the group can’t be unaware that that might not always be the case.

Jan 07, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Lessons of the box office, 2007

As summer began last year, the movie-release schedule was a parody of itself: What on first glance seemed the usual raft of sequels became, on further examination, a less-usual raft of threequels, beginning with the latest iterations of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Shrek” and “Spiderman” (all released in May), but also including “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Ocean’s 13” and “Rush Hour 3”; the fourth or fifth “Harry Potter”; and the fourth “Die Hard.”

It’s easy to make fun of the movie industry for such pathetic, “The Player”-like lack of ideas. But of course it’s the audience that dictates what gets released and, as can be seen from the annual box office returns, the top seven slots include no less than five threequels.

There are a lot of great movies that get released, so this isn’t an aesthetic issue. But at a certain point someone is going to notice that the industry is in effect cannibalizing itself. This point doesn’t get noted enough in analyses of the film industry. The Times’ year-end wrap up goes out of its way to note that the three top grossing threequels didn’t do as well as their respective predecessors, if you take inflation into account. This is good in the sense that too many box-office stories don’t mention the effects of inflation, which obviates most of the silly records bruited about by the industry. That said, the idea that the $300M-plus grosses of the last “Shrek,” “Spidey” and “Pirates” is anything but great news for the studios is silly. (Disney has now grossed more than $2.5 billion from box offices alone from a franchise—based on a Disneyland ride, remember—that was considered a joke before the first film was released.)

But of course, while box office was up four percent this year, attendance was about the same as last year’s. Which means that the many threequels had to find their audience from people who were giving up seeing other movies.

Again, I don’t think this hurts smaller, presumably better, films; no one went to see “Pirates” instead of “No Country for Old Men.” And the trend does have to end at some point, or the movie industry will devolve, in about the year 2019, into a slate of six or seven films, total, annually, ranging from “Mission: Impossible: 9” to “When Wolverine met the Invisible Woman,” the long awaited X-Men-meet-the-Fantastic-4 epic. But it does take the movie industry a step or two further down a dead-end street.