The Hollywood Numbers Game

In Tinseltown, box-office receipts aren't crunched, they're spun -- often to the outermost limits of absurdity

By Ronald Grover

By now, everyone knows the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park are back in a theater near you. But how many people know that, when the film was released on July 18, the $19 million Universal's third dino pic brought in was "the second-biggest Wednesday in recorded history."

Wait a minute. Even giving the studio leeway for playing up the dinosaur angle with the reference to "recorded history," I'm a little lost on why the world needs to know how the film stacked up against others that happened to be released on all the other Wednesdays in recorded history.

O.K., I can see how it might be an inside-Hollywood thing to give studio execs some bragging rights on the lunch circuit. (For any who may wonder, No. 1 on Wednesdays is Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, which grossed $28.5 million back in 1999.) As for the rest of us? I don't think the folks in Kalamazoo care about this.


  Actually, though, there's something more serious at work here than some supercharged adjectives. Spin doctors for the industry want to drum up that little extra ounce of excitement in a summer that's turning out to be highly competitive -- and growing more so every week.

Each weekend seems to bring another box-office champion that doesn't merely dethrone the previous week's champ, but demolishes it. Heck, the week after Universal's mighty beasts ruled the box offices, they fell like wounded brontosauruses when Planet of the Apes swung in. Jurassic Park's box-office take in its second week fell 56%.

Trying to help a film in its second week is probably why the PR staff at Paramount Pictures came up with its own doozy. Knowing that Lara Croft: Tomb Raider faced tough competition from Steven Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, Paramount's press release pointed out that the $47.7 million the Angelina Jolie film took in on its opening week was "the largest for a film with a female-led cast."

Huh? Sure, the press release had all the numbers. The previous record was held by Sony's Charlie's Angels, which, seven months earlier, grossed $40.1 million. But Lara Croft still fell by 59% in its second week at the box office.


  The press-release gymnastics being performed by Paramount, Sony, and several of the other studios are simply "headline manipulation," according to Terry Press, the head of marketing for film studio Dreamworks, who says she doesn't resort to such tactics.

Then again, she hasn't needed to do so. Dreamworks' Shrek has continued to steam along, passing $255 million and becoming one of the few films this summer to show hefty box office for more than a single week. As for all the mangled stats being thrown into press releases? "It's all really stupid," says Press. "They know that reporters aren't going to go back and check on which films did best on a Wednesday."

True, but part of me admires all the effort nonetheless. "There are all kinds of numbers, and you can slice them one way or the other to make your film look like it was No. 1 in one fashion or another," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box-office results. He remembers getting calls in 1998 from studio PR folks looking for the biggest opening weekend for a woman director. They wanted to showcase the Betty Thomas-directed Dr. Dolittle, the Eddie Murphy film that opened with a $29 million August weekend.


  Dergarabedian says watching box-office numbers has become something of a spectator sport for moviegoers as well as those in the industry. "The grosses are a legitimate thing that people open their newspapers to see on Monday mornings," he says.

Clearly, public relations folks hope those readers will take heed of the numbers and head to their local multiplexes -- if, for no other reason, than because they think there's something big happening they're not getting in on. So when Fox tells reporters that the $68.5 million its Planet of the Apes collected at the box office outdid all but 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park "on a non-holiday weekend," they're hoping to add a little juice to news articles and keep the buzz going just a little longer.

"Maybe it will prompt a reporter who has been thinking about doing a story on the film or on one of its cast members to write the thing," allows one studio PR executive. Moreover, she adds, there are always the foreign markets, which usually open films after they've opened in the U.S. "Maybe [the buzz over here] catches someone's attention in Japan or Europe," she says. "They love to copy what we do over here."


  Maybe. Or maybe studios are aiming their info at a very specific target closer to home: Wall Street. For example, MGM, which has been lobbying Wall Street for months with the message that it's on the road back to aggressively making money, was quick to tell reporters its Reese Witherspoon comedy Legally Blonde was the "biggest nonsequel opening for the studio."

Since MGM hasn't been making many films until recently, it's hard to know what the studio exactly meant by that hype. The film did generate a respectable $20.4 million over its first week in late July -- and cost only $18 million to make. Perhaps the Street was paying attention. Better yet, maybe the brokers headed to the theater.

Take the Walt Disney claim in a May 28 press release that the $75.1 million its Pearl Harbor collected at the box office was "the biggest opening weekend ever for a nonsequel." What's news here? Disney usually doesn't issue press releases on how its movies do. It did this time because reporters had been predicting a $100 million opening weekend for the epic film, which cost north of $135 million to make.

By offering up a few adjectives, Disney hoped reporters might forego using "disappointing" when writing about the film.


  I could spend days punching holes in and picking apart the numbers the studios put in these press releases. The bottom line really is: None of them matter. For starters, ticket prices today have nearly doubled from the early '80s, and have risen 10% in just the last three years.

Go back 20 years or more, and there were only half the numbers of movie screens there are today. Many films would open regionally and make their way around the country. So who knows how a film like 1962's The Sound of Music might have opened if there had been 3,000 theaters to blast it on. It might have given Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and its stats a run for the money. I hear The Sound of Music also had a female-led cast. Maybe it even opened on a Wednesday.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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