Studios accused of gross behavior

Weekend estimates have become one of the studio’s greatest marketing tools.

Last Sunday, Buena Vista estimated a $25.5 million weekend debut for “Con Air,” touting that it surpassed the bow of last year’s summer hit “The Rock,” which grossed $25.1 million. (In case anyone failed to notice at the premiere, “Con Air” was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, whose name was even printed on the peanut bags).

When the weekend dust cleared, the reality was that “Con Air” — which was on more screens than “The Rock” — only made $24.1 million. On Sunday, competing studios’ reports even placed “Con Air” in the $24 million range. Despite that, Disney overestimated by $1.4 million.

The Walt Disney Co. and others get away with the weekend numbers because they can claim it is only “an estimate.” In Disney’s case, “Con Air’s” $25.5 million assessment worked to its advantage. The consumer press took that Sunday estimate and ran with it. The film was hailed as a bigger opener than “The Rock” — and that’s what stuck in the readers’ or viewers’ minds — thanks to coverage on radio, TV and newsprint, from Miami to Seattle, from Augusta to San Diego.

Forget the truth. Bloated estimates become the truth.

Disney’s defense is that it overestimated attendance because the Jazz/Bulls NBA Finals game ate into their Sunday numbers. “This is very embarrassing because we are usually very good on our estimates, and overall, we have a good reputation,” said BV distribution president Phil Barlow. Last year, BV underestimated “The Rock.” “I challenge everyone to join us in providing the media with the estimates for the top 10 pictures over the weekend so there can be a comparison. If everyone did that, it will be very apparent as to who’s playing games.” What about it, guys?

Disney is not alone and not even close to being the worst offender. Others overestimated last weekend as well … with the exception of Universal Pictures, which has consistently been able to call it like it is. It estimated “The Lost World” at $18.5 million in its second weekend, and the pic in fact grossed $18.5 million. U estimated “Liar Liar” at $1.2 million and it grossed $1.19 million.

Most of the studios, at one time or another, are guilty of puffing up weekend estimates or grosses in the name of marketing. The industry is still scratching its head on how Warner Bros.’ “Maverick” grossed $100 million. They’ve gotten into battles with each other over it, as Paramount and New Line Cinema did over “The Ghost and the Darkness” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” respectively. In a public game of chicken, both were fighting to claim the No. 1 spot at the box office.

“There needs to be an independent watchdog group. It’s become too crazy,” said one exec. “Even the honest ones are finding that they have to lie on Sunday to get their rightful spot on the box office chart. The lying begets lying.”

So, let’s talk about Disney-owned Miramax Films, which is known as an especially egregious offender in numbers hocus-pocus. It’s part of the brothers Weinstein’s marketing routine.

Miramax is currently reporting “Scream” at $101 million-plus. If you talk to the town distribution gurus, they’ll tell you Miramax is overstating its grosses on the film substantially — they say by 15% to 17%.

Said one industry executive, ” ‘Scream’ is the most blatant abuse of the system that I’ve seen in an awfully long time.” When Miramax claimed the pic reached $100 million, distribs insisted that the real number was $83 million.

Distrib sources said Miramax on one weekend reported $1.4 million in 1,114 runs, but actually made $600,000. They say when Miramax Films opened discount runs on “Scream,” it claimed 1,100 runs. The problem is there are only 700 to 800 such runs available in North America. Miramax claims as part of the mix, it also had 464 firstrun houses. Isn’t is curious that no one in town could locate those theaters?

“It is categorically, unequivocally not true,” said a Miramax spokesman of the accusation made by the studios. “We stand at our $101 million-plus gross.”

OK. So is Miramax willing to pay profit participants based on the grosses the company reports in the media? “Yes, we always have and always will,” said the spokesman.

In the past, when Miramax execs overstated grosses as they did on “The Crow,” Disney execs slapped their hands and reminded them that Miramax was now part of a public company and told them to behave. Last we looked, Disney (and Disney-owned Miramax) is still a public company. Publicly-owned Ralston-Purina would never be able to get away with this — why can Disney/Miramax?

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