Feeling crunched by B.O. numbers crunchers

SOME CALL IT “BRAGGING RIGHTS.” This is, after all, the biz of boffo, so the past week — the very, very last one of 1993 — was rife with superlative.

It was the biggest box office year of all time. Warner Bros. broke the record for the single largest distributor’s gross, etc., etc.

As every film scientist knows, Isaac Newton’s first law of cinema acknowledges that for every blowhard, there’s an equal low blow. And even something as seemingly finite as film grosses winds up stretching credulity. The problem with numbers is that they are just numbers. There are a lot of ways to bend them to serve a purpose and make a point. Some are more valid than others.

The annual box office is one such bloody battle zone.

The handful of people and companies who slice and dice the figures and feed them back to you all provide some unique spin. So far, everyone agrees that it was the biggest year in terms of dollars and cents. And from that point all roads begin to fan out.

Depending on definition, some are saying Warner Bros. wears the champ’s crown. Others insist it belongs to Sony; still others point to the Walt Disney Co. And somewhere in the balance there are 100 million admissions, more or less, depending on which report you read.

Daily Variety defines market share by distribution entity. It means that Sony Corp.’s Columbia and TriStar labels are calculated separately, whereas Disney’s Touchstone and Hollywood Pix divisions — both released by Buena Vista — are lumped together. Columbia and TriStar also have separate publicity and marketing departments. The same is true of New Line and Fine Line, and they too are calculated separately.

The past decade has seen the introduction and implementation of more sophisticated and comprehensive methods of collecting box office info. The expansion of video and cable windows — which dovetail first- and second-run theatrical release — has better defined the boundaries of a pic’s theatrical play period. So, logically, the differences in reporting and calculations from number crunchers should be shrinking. The opposite is in fact the reality.

The sludge factor — the part of the box office that cannot be readily obtained — is a key element for diverse figures. Daily Variety uses a 1.5% sludge to represent such non-mainstream locales as retro house and ethnic language theaters. There are more than 150 cinemas showing Spanish- or Chinese-only features. The sludge has flowed as swift as 20% by some accounts, while some refuse to acknowledge it at all.

The likelihood of standarizing the process appears pretty remote. The most effective and comprehensive national calculations emanate from France. The reason they do it better is because the reporting of admissions is administered and regulated by the government and exhibitors have to do it every day or face stiff fines.

THE ORPHAN DEFENSE: You know, the one in which the parent-killer asks for mercy because he’s an orphan. Well, hats off to Miramax for going on the attack and begging the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and various critical cadres to explain the difference between “winner” and “runnerup.”

It is a subtle distinction. The former denotes the top award and the latter a secondary one. Miramax, and other distribs, have been loosely bandying about the word “winner” in very large print and such auxiliary terms as “runnerup” or “nominee” in teeny, tiny typeface in newspaper ads for their pix.

One might assume that because other fudgers have not stepped forward on the issue, they actually understand the difference. They probably understand that what’s being done is a bit of a con. And it’s probably as effective at fooling the public as movie ads that quote a critic for a cable channel that doesn’t host a review show.

HOW TO TALK GOOD: The Academy Award rule book was penned by committee, not writers. It took a few phone calls to actually determine the meaning of its very first paragraph — the one that explains the basis for eligibility.

Translating into English, the gist is that a film must open a continuous seven-day run within the calendar year in L.A. County. There’s also a “sunset” law, which precludes films commercially released elsewhere of greater than two years’ vintage. (Previews and film festivals are not included.)

Despite such precision of slanguage, we’re a tad confused about the eligibility of a couple of films in the Academy reminder guide. “Bum Rap,” which Variety reviewed in 1988 from the Las Vegas Fest, seems to brush against the grain of the sunset clause, but might be off the hook based upon the fest proviso.

The other, “P.K.,” was reviewed as “The Perils of P.K.” in 1986 from Kansas City. Presumably — and we’re still checking the rules by using the Buck Rogers decoder ring — it qualifies under a special clause for same film, new title.

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