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Variety B.O. pioneer Art Murphy dies

Reporter raised profile of showbiz economics

Arthur D. Murphy, who pioneered the field of box office reporting in his years at Daily Variety and was a cornerstone of USC’s Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program, died Monday in San Luis Obispo of lung cancer. He was 70.

Murphy spent nearly 30 years on the staff of Daily Variety. By holding up a microscope to studios’ annual reports and analyzing box office data, Murphy set the standard for the way showbiz is reported on now by all media.

He helped raise the profile of financial and economic analyses of the film industry and invented various economic indicators, most notably Variety‘s Boxoffice Index, which tracked the financial performance of films long before weekly box office reporting became a national news staple.

Prescient critic

Among his other duties at the paper, he was principal film critic from December 1964 until October 1978, signing his reviews Murf. As a critic, he had a high batting average for predicting a film’s box office success or failure.

Born in Worcester, Mass., on Dec. 20, 1932, Murphy was a math major at Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross. His education paid for by the U.S. Navy’s ROTC program, Murphy spent a decade in the Navy after his graduation in June 1954.

He served variously as a division officer, department head and navigator of Destroyer-type ships. Ultimately achieving the rank of lieutenant, he served as commanding officer on an LST (an amphibious force ship used to transport troops and tanks). Murphy’s time in the Navy brought him to California, and that’s where he would remain after his honorable discharge in December 1964.

At that point, Murphy made his seemingly illogical career shift into entertainment journalism.

He wrote a letter to Tom Pryor, then editor of Daily Variety, analyzing the film business. Pryor was impressed and immediately hired him.

In addition to film criticism and box office analysis, Murphy contributed regular business news and feature stories to Daily Variety until his shift to part-time status in 1979. He retained a part-time association with Daily Variety as a contributor until 1993.

In the late 1960s, he left reporting to work for Universal, but returned to Daily Variety after a year.

Switch to education

Murphy began his teaching career at USC with a graduate seminar in the economics of the motion picture business in the fall semester of 1974. His original intent was to organize thoughts for a book about the economic history and structure of the American film industry. However, when he shifted to full-time teaching at USC in 1978, his attention turned to creating a two-year graduate-level program in film management that would combine elements of the cinema and business schools.

The idea was supported by contributions from the film community, including a million-dollar pledge from producer Ray Stark, who wished to start a program in memory of his son Peter, who had died a decade earlier at the age of 23.

The Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program was founded in 1979 and Murphy was its founding director for 12 years. He remained on the professional faculty until 1998. The Stark program was the first formal academic program in the U.S. that specialized in the basic training of executives and producers in the film and television industry.

In 1984 Murphy launched “Art Murphy’s Boxoffice Register,” an annual mail-order book of North American box office revenues. It was published each year until 1995. He also served as a special correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter from 1993-96.

Murphy seemed to enjoy his reputation as a curmudgeon. One day in the 1980s, he walked into the Variety office with his leg in a cast, due to a skydiving accident. With his limp, squinty gaze and trademark scowl, someone observed that he looked like the Long John Silver of box office reporting.

He seemed contemptuous of small talk, but he would suddenly get very chatty, or start playing with his boxer Eddie — the dog was his constant companion, even in the newsroom — and newcomers would express surprise at his reputation for being unfriendly.

Murphy was extremely bright and seemed to enjoy his role as elder statesman to students and young reporters. However, he also cultivated his reputation as a loner and a terror — he was quick to point out errors in the work of colleagues or students — and he laughed at scandalous rumors of his private life. His hobbies included jazz, reading, pinball and, of course, film. He was Art or Murf to friends, but never Arthur.

Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Hollywood, with burial to follow at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills.

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