Many analysts erroneously use opening numbers to judge movies' success

Box office analysis is tricky, but for some reason, everyone wants to do it, and everyone has their own interpretation. Thus, Fox’s “Knight and Day” absolutely “whiffed” in its $20.1 million opening weekend on June 18, according to the New York Times, and “tanked,” according to the L.A. Times, while CNN.com ran the headline “Knight and Day: Cruise loses control” and a Chyron on a cable-TV newscast read “Tom Cruise in big trouble.”

Numbers don’t lie — except when they do.

Earlier in June, Disney’s “Prince of Persia” bowed to $37.8 million, and the Wall Street Journal deemed it a “soft” opening, adding that “the film was challenged by a variety of factors, including the decision to cast as the lead Jake Gyllenhaal, better known for playing sensitive guys.”

There were other laments this year, according to various websites: “Latest ‘Shrek’ tops box office, but disappoints”; “?’Iron Man 2′ disappointed many and made less than expected”; and “Russell Crowe’s recent narcissistic walkout of an interview may have contributed to the film’s (‘Robin Hood’) lower domestic box office receipts…”

We are living in an instant society, demanding microwave-fast answers to complex questions, with an impulse to immediately deify or bury any new thing that comes along — including films. As showbiz reporting has proliferated, so has B.O. coverage, everywhere from small-town newspapers to local TV to the Internet. The rush to judgment has, in some cases, hurt companies’ stock prices. It also threatens to affect film content: If showbiz reporting obsesses over opening-day numbers, the film biz becomes about marketability, not content, and studios will be putting even more emphasis on simple films that are easier to sell.

Back to “Knight and Day.” (I liked the film. So sue me.) It’s not “Avatar,” but it isn’t “Heaven’s Gate,” either. While Cruise was often blamed, the N.Y. Post also cited “another fading star, Cameron Diaz.” By comparison, Sony’s “Julie and Julia” opened to $20 million last August — the same amount as “Knight,” and a 25% drop from the debuts of “The Devil Wears Prada” ($27.5 million) and “Mamma Mia!” ($27.7 million). But I don’t recall anyone saying Meryl Streep was fading.

The “Julia”-“Knight” comparisons are limited thanks to different budgets, opening dates and, crucially, expectations. But the point is that numbers can be manipulated to advance whatever point you’re trying to make.

Some films with gargantuan B.O. actually return very little to their studio due to multiple financing partners, filmmakers’ profit shares, etc.

People are trying to apply old rules that no longer fit. Domestic B.O. used to account for the vast majority of a film’s total income. Now it’s a minority factor. Movies that “whiff” at the domestic B.O. sometimes make a fortune internationally (overseas and homevideo used to be little footnotes). For decades, a film could expect its domestic cume to be three times its opening weekend; now it’s more unpredictable. WB’s “Blind Side” earned seven times its $34 million bow. “Avatar” earned nearly 10 times its $77 million December opening, which some pundits described at the time as “disappointing.”

There is confusion both within studio walls and in media circles about changes in filmgoing. As often occurs, confused people get angry. B.O. analysts are becoming like Gremlins: If you don’t watch your step, they will multiply, get mean and take over the town.

(Am I excepting Daily Variety from this group? Of course, because we’re a trade and are supposed to report box office, and because we try to be balanced in our coverage, though airing two sides of a debate seems to be out of fashion in current showbiz reporting.)

Studio execs don’t need me to defend them: Most earn enough money to heal any wounds. But both execs and newsies deserve a little sympathy because B.O. analysis often is an attempt to explain the inexplicable.

When an architect designs a building, he pretty much knows what the finished product will look like. In the film biz, you can get a great script, cast, director and crew … but you don’t really know the outcome until the print is locked and, even then, you can’t always predict audience reaction. There is a 2% difference between a huge success and an interesting failure, and nobody in the world knows how to manufacture that all-important 2%.

Enter superstition and magical thinking. Studios will open a star’s film on the same weekend as his previous hit, or assemble the same team that created a prior B.O. bonanza in the hope that lightning will strike twice. And when lightning does not strike, execs must assure shareholders why this failure will never happen again.

Similarly, media folk feel they need to explain B.O. results to readers and viewers. So everyone comes up with theories. However, consumer consumption involves such unpredictable elements as mood and the weather. And when analysts try to mix those variables with precise data (and add in their own animosity toward some films), there is puh-lenty of room for error — and those errors can affect careers, income, even stock prices.

DreamWorks Animation’s stock dropped on the respective Mondays following the “disappointing” weekend openings of first “Madagascar,” then “How to Train Your Dragon.” But family films rarely have blockbuster openings and tend to have longer lives than most pics. And, in a real Hollywood happy ending, DWA’s duo earned, respectively, $532 million and $477.6 million.

Why were “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Paranormal Activity” such hits? Why did “The Big Lebowski” and “Nightmare Before Christmas” find much bigger audiences long after their initial releases? Maybe it’s just because the planets were in alignment.

But you can’t cite planets as an authority, so folks often blame the stars. (Does anyone seriously believe Gyllenhaal was the main problem with “Persia”?)

Some journos seem to think above-the-title stardom should guarantee spectacular box office. As a reminder, Katharine Hepburn was once labeled box office poison. Bette Davis, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, etc., are remembered for their peak moments in classic films. But hit after hit? No way. (Will Smith’s track record, like Pixar’s, is amazing because it’s rare, not because it’s setting a standard for everyone else.)

This isn’t confined to actors. Any big-name director or producer will occasionally put out a film with less-than-blockbuster numbers, inspiring pundits to declare they’ve lost touch with their audience.

Meanwhile, every U.S. news outlet still feels compelled to report on box office — which is odd, because the majority of Americans don’t go to movies. (The U.S. population is 309 million, and so far this year, only about 29 million went to the movies in an average week.)

Local newscasts throughout the U.S. don’t bother to announce the weekend’s top-selling car, candy bar, vidgame or laundry detergent. So why cover box office? Sadly, I suspect it’s because everybody else does it.

Pervasive B.O. analysis won’t go away. But a little wait-and-see attitude would go a long way.

And sooner or later, readers and viewers will tire of constant negativity. I wish I could offer a solution, but all I have is perspective. B.O. analysis is not a science that should determine stock price or salaries or budgets. Instead, think of B.O. coverage as a Wii Fit game: It’s good exercise, but it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

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