‘Black’ tops B.O. list, by any measure

Offering advanced screenings of a potential blockbuster on the evening before its official release date has proven to be an effective marketing tool for studios.

“Lines feed on lines,” goes the old saying, and a film that already has a strong buzz can be turbo-charged by reports of crowded previews on the 10 o’clock news.

But the practice can also cause headaches for the increasing number of journalists who report on the box office — and confusion for those trying to keep score at home.

This past weekend offered a classic case in point. No one would argue with the fact that Sony’s “Men in Black” made boatloads of money. But exactly how many days it took, and how the debut stacked up against other bonanza openings, is complicated by the film’s Tuesday night previews.

“MIB” began screening in around 2,400 theaters Tuesday at 8 p.m., taking in $4.8 million for the day. The picture scored another $28.2 million on Wednesday and Thursday, and $51.1 million over the Friday-Sunday period, bringing the cume to a whopping $84.1 million.

Daily Variety’s policy is to count any day with shows before midnight as a day in release. That means “MIB” made its money in six days, making it the No. 3 six-day opener of all time, behind “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” ($98.4 million) and last year’s “Independence Day” ($96.1 million).

While all the openings include previews, “ID’s” started at 6 p.m. and “World’s” began at 10 p.m. In order to level the playing field, some suggest discounting the previews altogether. That gives “MIB” a five-day opening of $79.3 million, still third behind “Lost World’s” $95.8 million and “ID’s” $85 million.

Previews also complicate the calculation of such records as the fastest film to reach $100 million. While distributors usually don’t count advanced screening days when calculating the time it takes to reach a particular milestone, they do include the receipts from advanced shows in the tally.

In an effort to get around the problem — and poke fun at the controversy — Fox counted its opening in hours rather than days in trade ads touting its “ID” initial box office results.

“I really believe we need to find a way to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” said Phil Barlow, Buena Vista distribution president. “It’s real simple to me. By all standards of agreement, in the Western world at least, a day begins at one second past midnight.”

Most distributors agree that the key is applying the same standard to all films.

“We never scheduled those shows with the intention of honing in on any record. It only was because it was fun and there was heat on the picture,” said Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. “Sometimes we get too wrapped up in who’s doing what in how many days and don’t step back and say, ‘Wow this is a lot of money.’ ”

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