B.O. battles seldom mano a mano

Collision without any contest

Last weekend’s box office collision between “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” didn’t end up being much of a contest.

The non-event underscored just how monolithic the movie business has become. With a surfeit of screens and so much budget riding on each title, it is impossible for two movies to reach the same demos at the same time. No one can afford to get hurt.

Studio execs warned that “Pirates” and “League” were going after a similar audience. In the end, the demos didn’t completely overlap, and “Pirates” scored more females and families en route to its convincing victory. Nevertheless, there was more of a sense of head-to-head rivalry than on any other weekend this summer.

As recently as the mid-1980s, such competitions were relatively common.

In June 1984, in fact, two movies with virtually identical audiences opened on the same day. And here’s the punchline: Both became huge hits.

“Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” launched in a comparable number of theaters — 1,339 for the former, 1,511 for the latter. “Ghostbusters” opened to $13.6 million, “Gremlins” to $12.5 million.

They proceeded to rise the next week by 11%-12%, winding up with respective domestic cumes of $148.2 million and $238.6 million. Converting those figures to today’s dollars, admittedly a dicey practice, shows numbers on a par with contemporary hits.

The biggest reason two films loaded with special effects and sporting one-word titles beginning with “g” did not become “Godzilla” is the state of exhibition at the time.

Megaplexes still had not been built and the number of total screens in the U.S. was about half of today’s 35,000. As a result, the old system of clearances and competitive zones still held sway, meaning studios would methodically dole out the product and divvy up high-grossing turf rather than dueling to the death under the same megaplex roof.

This process stemmed from a gentleman’s agreement that what was good for the gremlin was good for the gander. Indeed, on that June 8-10 weekend in 1984, overall grosses set a record, thanks also to holdover sequels like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and the third “Star Trek” pic.

Westwood, at that time a crucial exhibition zone, illustrated the nationwide strategy. Warner Bros. played “Gremlins” at the Bruin, pulling in $78,000, while Columbia went around the corner to the Avco (then a powerhouse), where “Ghostbusters” racked up $92,000.

Those same grosses today would place the Avco and Bruin in the top 20 of all U.S. theaters on a given weekend. What has changed is that there are now mega-grossing theaters in places like Phoenix, San Jose, Calif., and Albuquerque with enough capacity to play both “Pirates” and “League” every half-hour.

“You would never be able to have that kind of weekend today,” notes Jeff Blake, the vice chairman of Sony Pictures, who was a distrib exec at Paramount in 1984. “With all of the media scrutiny and second-guessing, one of those pictures would have moved off the date.”

What is also different today is the laser-like targeting of audiences. Movies like “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” made significant profits by offering a choice to those not interested in the male-dominated competition.

Counterprogramming has become the only route to simultaneous success, as witnessed by the solid showings for “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “Legally Blonde 2” over the July Fourth period. Audiences for “Legally” were 70% female.

Only once this summer, when “Rugrats Go Wild,” “Hollywood Homicide” and “Dumb and Dumberer” all stumbled in mid-June, has the gap between new releases been any smaller than $20 million. People fixate on the ephemeral nature of blockbusters — as well they should — but another part of the story is how dominant a single title can be.

Around the time of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a cartoon that aptly sums up the intimidating muscle an event film can flex today.

It depicted R2-D2 and C-3PO, the latter holding the earth in his robotic hand. “‘Star Wars’: You love it,” the caption read. “You have to.”

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