Are movie fans getting too obsessed with box office numbers?

Why should the audience of a film care about the amount of money a movie makes at the box office? Simon wonders if analysis is going a little too far…

About a week ago, I wrote a piece for this very site on whether original directors should return to a franchise when it’s resurrected. As usual, the fine readers who cast their peepers over my words contributed far more interesting ideas than I in the comments, and one of them in particular stuck in my mind.

It was from Gigolo_Joe, who asked the question “When are people going to stop referring to present day box office figures to back up an argument when comparing a current film to older releases?” A fair question, I thought, as, clearly, getting to $100m at the US box office now is expected, rather than any kind of major achievement for most films.

Thanks to inflation, higher ticket prices, and now 3D premiums too, thus far in 2010, 18 films have crossed the $100m barrier already. It’s a fair bet that Tron: Legacy, Narnia 3, Megamind and Little Fockers, at least, will sail past that number too, at the very least. As it stands, though, four movies have also crossed $300m, and a further four have beaten $200m. Furthermore, Toy Story 3 has grossed a quite incredible $411m.

Now rewind 20 years. Nine films made $100m that year, of which just two passed $200m. And that was deemed a good year at the box office. In short, the goalposts have changed, and comparing like for like is as futile as declaring one film is the best at the end of the year.

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However, we can’t help but do it.

Yet when we talk about something like Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull being the most commercially successful film in the franchise in terms of box office takings, Gigolo_Joe is right. It’s an unfair comparison. Throw in inflation, and it doesn’t fare anywhere near as well next to the rest of the franchise. The same with Die Hard 4.0. They might have made the most money, but they’ve done it in an era where it’s not the achievement it was to get to certain numbers, and also, where it’s expected they do so.

However, talking about such box office figures is still not a factor that can be dismissed. Because the problem is that it’s not just sites such as these that are looking at box office numbers in this way. These are just the kind of facts and figures that are being used to promote movies to us (how many press releases do studios send out talking about a film’s gross in some regard, for instance?), and inevitably, in important meetings about making more films.

Us? We’ve never seen the words ‘inflation adjusted’ on a PowerPoint presentation to date. And when powerful film people are having conflabs about choosing what films to make, you can bet that box office numbers, trends and such like, are at their fingertips. And not necessarily with inflation taken into account.

Does that explain why movie fans tend to obsess over the numbers too, though?

It all, for me, ties in too to something Kevin Smith noted on his Twitter feed earlier in the year. In the week after Scott Pilgrim Vs The World had opened to around $11m of business in its opening weekend in the US, the general tone of most of the reports was that the film was a massive flop.

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As we outlined at the time, it’s hard to call it that (you’ll find the link at the bottom of the article). The film cost a modest amount to make, by the standards of major blockbusters, and is destined to follow in the shoes of Kick-Ass by making a fair amount of money on DVD and Blu-ray later in the year. But in the box office horse race, it made a lot less money than Iron Man 2, The Last Airbender, Sex And The City 2, et al, and thus the movie was determined to have “bombed”.

Kevin Smith put it thus: “The ONLY people who should be concerned at all with how much a movie makes are the people financially involved. You? Just enjoy (or don’t) the show”, signing off by questioning why we should analyse it all?

And, to a point, he’s right. Why should you and I care about the business of movies? Isn’t our job to pick the films we want to see, and hand over our cash to do so? Shouldn’t it end there?

Well, no. Because, bluntly, many of us care far more about films than just turning up at the movies every week or two to see something new. That’s why we devour new trailers. That’s why we’re already looking at set photos for Captain America. And that’s why there’s been such intense debate about the choice of Zack Snyder to direct Superman.

For the thing is, we all know how it works when it comes to box office. Every one of us. We know that if a film we find interesting flops at the box office, it makes a movie executive somewhere reticent to make another (be it a sequel, or a film of similar ilk). It shouldn’t work like that, granted, but it does. And when we see that neither Kick-Ass nor Scott Pilgrim Vs The World crosses $50m at the US box office, no matter how much they cost to make, and contrast that with the $100m+ take of The Last Airbender, we can’t help but ask questions.

Because we also know that Hollywood loves its trends. And edgy comic book movies, over safer bets such as the high profile members of the Marvel catalogue? Well, if your annual bonus depended on it, you’re not, as a rule, going to opt for the one likely to make the least money.

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I already remember one story, I think from an interview done with Richard Linklater, where the director talked about trying to get a film made once, only for the executive concerned to pop it into a computer program, and declare that it wouldn’t work at the box office (it might have been Bad News Bears, which he subsequently made many years later, but don’t quote me on it). I’m not suggesting that all movie commissioning goes through a similar path, but it’s still hard to find a director who hasn’t got a story about coming up against a numbers-obsessed executive, or a system that, more often than not, puts commercial hopes above critical expectations.

As a film fan, therefore, I can’t help but care about box office numbers. I wish I didn’t, and I wish they didn’t matter, but we all know that they do. I was relieved, for instance, when The Social Network opened to over $20m in the US last weekend, because it might just mean that, in a meeting in Hollywood in a few years time, someone pulls that statistic out to win an argument, that leads to grown-up creative people being able to make a similarly intriguing film.

Box office is, without doubt, about the most crude and inaccurate measurement of the success of a film, especially now that two to three years of solid work from a group of filmmakers can – if you buy that box office is everything – live or die in an opening weekend.

It isn’t, it should be noted, the be all and end all. If box office numbers were everything, and the more lucrative DVD and Blu-ray market hadn’t come into play, then we’d only have one Bourne and Austin Powers movie, for starters.

Yet box office is clearly a vital ingredient in the film commissioning process, at least once the budget goes above a certain level. And it’s not hard to read where Hollywood is going, for instance, once Avatar brings in enough money to buy a couple of small countries.

Thus, I agree with Gigolo_Joe, and I agree too with Kevin Smith. But only in a perfect world. Because it’s hard, given how the business works, to be a fan of modern day movies without one eye somewhere along the line being on the box office. It might just be because you fancy another Batman sequel, or it might be because you want to distil the numbers into a really posh graph.

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The fact remains, either way, that box office matters to movies. And, as such, it matters – implicitly or explicitly – to movie fans. Because many of us want filmmakers such as Edgar Wright, Matthew Vaughn, Christopher Nolan, even Smith himself, to have the freedom to make the projects that genuinely interest us. And we know that the key to that, somewhere along the line, is money.

Thus, even though perhaps we shouldn’t spend time devouring box office numbers, it pretty much comes with the territory of being a movie fanatic. And that’s unlikely, while movie fans care so much about films and filmmakers, to ever change.

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