B.O. tracking is easy for pundits to misread

Everybody wants to be a box office rock star when it comes to predicting how much a movie is going to make in its opening weekend.

Unfortunately, it’s not an exact science. There are surprise flurries and flash floods.

This summer, “Sex and the City” opened much bigger than expected, as did “Iron Man” and “The Happening.” Conversely, the opening for “Speed Racer” was far lower than predicted.

Whenever there are such hiccups, people invariably cry foul over tracking. But while tracking services can be unpredictable, tracking isn’t so much the problem.

The problem is that bloggers and media members are in a rush to make pre-release projections. Those predictions become “gospel,” so that when a movie doesn’t match the prediction, it’s considered a disappointment (even if it came in No. 1 for the weekend).

“It’s like writing the story of the score of a basketball game before the game even happens,” one studio exec says. “It’s a joke. And even if it could be done, three’s no point to it. It’s irrelevant.”

Feeding off the public’s interest in movies, daily newspapers and bloggers have learned they can drive readership with box office headlines. B.O. numbers fascinate many, taking on the allure of sports stats.

The Los Angeles Times eliminated its Monday box office story, replacing it with a detailed Friday story that predicts opening grosses in a column called the Projector. There’s a Thursday box office advancer as well. Explaining its decision, newspaper says that by the time Monday rolls around, box office results are old news. This way, the newspaper gets a jump on the action.

This irks distributors no end. They worry that the Times’ predictions could sway moviegoing habits, since the L.A. Times is a widely-read publication.

“They are reporting on stuff that hasn’t happened yet. It’s nothing more than gossip,” gripes one studio distribution honcho.

The Times’ predictions vary in accuracy. The paper said Paramount’s “Iron Man” would open to somewhere around $60 million; the movie saw an opening weekend haul of $102.1 million. New Line and Warner Bros.’ “Sex and the City” opened to $57 million; the Times said it would do $30 million. WB’s “Speed Racer” opened to $18.2 million; the Times said it would do $25 million-$30 million.

Examples of where the The Projector was correct in its predictions include “Cloverfield,” “Baby Mama” and “10,000 BC.”

The Projector column says its numbers are drawn from tracking services, analysis of B.O. history and studio sources. Yet it seems to simplify a more complicated science. If tracking were that easy to read, studios wouldn’t need savvy distribution execs, or research departments. And even then, there are inherent peculiarities. Family films are difficult to track, as are one-off successes like “Sex and the City” or “The Happening.”

One studio exec says box office prognosticators don’t understand that tracking isn’t for purposes of predicting opening weekend grosses; tracking allows studios to adjust their marketing campaigns in the weeks and days leading up to a release.

But studios are not innocent victims. In fact, they play a big role. If two studios are opening movies on the same weekend, Studio A might intentionally hype the potential opening gross of Studio B’s film. That way, if the opening gross of Studio B’s film doesn’t meet projections, the perception will have been created that it didn’t work.

Conversely, a studio might downplay the box office chances of its own film, so that when it does open higher, it’s viewed as a clear victory. Paramount in particular is deft at this tactic.

“There is a bit of gamesmanship that goes on,” says Steve Mason, who runs box office blog Fantasy Moguls, in addition to being an ESPN sportscaster and owning several theaters. Fantasy Moguls is modeled after fantasy football or baseball, whereby people can make B.O. predictions, using Mason’s counsel.

Mason is one of these new purveyors of prognostication. He recently began filing regular stories to Hollywoodwiretap.com and Hollywood.com Websites. He predicts grosses heading into the weekend, as well as providing constant updates once movies open.

“William Goldman said, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ I generally agree with that philosophy. When I make a prediction, it is really only a prediction, a guess,” Mason said.

Mason insists he isn’t trying to stick it to anybody, and that his predictions are fairly accurate.

Traditional news outlets are likewise becoming more aggressive about handicapping the weekend box office, including Reuters and the Associated Press. Right before the summer began, Entertainment Weekly predicted the total domestic grosses for 10 summer films. It’s too early to say just how accurate those predictions are, although “Iron Man” has already jumped the $300 million mark, while EW said its cume would be $262.3 million.

The feeding frenzy for box office news begins now on Friday, just as a movie opens.

“There are more and more people asking for more and more information,” says one studio publicist.

A top studio exec laments: “You gotta let everything open in its own time. Every picture should be judged on its own. Every Steven Spielberg film shouldn’t be expected to open as big as the last Spielberg film, just like every Pixar movie shouldn’t be judged against the last Pixar film. They all mean different things, depending upon the time of year, and what kinds of movies they are.”

(Paola Capo-Garcia in New York contributed to this report.)

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