Box office: Does being No. 1 count for anything anymore?

Mainstream media muddles meaning of showbiz data

While movie grosses are clearly relevant to the trade press, the box office reports these days are even more misleading than they were a generation ago when they first were reported in the consumer media. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review this month, Edward Jay Epstein reminds us that the filmgoer is led to all the wrong conclusions by box office data — if he pays any attention to it at all.

The reasons:

• The films that ultimately turn out to be most profitable rarely open atop the B.O. list or even in the top three. (They usually don’t open at enough locations.)

• A growing number of movies that open like losers in the U.S. register huge grosses overseas, where some 70% of the ticket buyers reside.

• Since roughly 85% of a film’s earnings will likely stem from TV licensing in one form or another (with ever-higher numbers from VOD or Netflix), the box office figures essentially represent a “pseudo event” (Epstein’s words). And the event is becoming even more “pseudo.”

To be sure, box office news still has its proponents. The consumer press feels like it’s revealing insights on the youth culture by disclosing numbers on “The Avengers.” And studio marketers covet the publicity because they can shout that their film is “the No. 1 movie in the nation.”

The “No. 1” claim, of course, may be both ephemeral (one weekend) or meaningless in terms of true revenue. Epstein cites one classic example — a Paramount release titled “Sahara” that had its fleeting No. 1 moment but still managed to lose $78.3 million on the bottom line. (The film totaled $160 million and its ad budget came to $81 million.) Summoned as an expert witness on a lawsuit triggered by the film, Epstein came away with a lasting impression about the surreal economics of supposedly hit films.

As we plunge into awards season, the reality is that most of the kudos contenders will never be billed as No. 1 (“The Hobbit” better be an exception, given its cost). The most profitable award winners of recent years, like “Black Swan”or “The King’s Speech,” never sat atop the list.

This year, “Moonrise Kingdom,” initially released in only four theaters, opened in the shadows of “Men in Black 3,” which bowed at 4,248 locations, but “Moonrise” is still coasting along (it has grossed $65 million).

Huge international hits like “The Intouchables” or “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” also were absent from the list derby.

So is anyone still paying attention to the No. 1 ploy? The bankers realize that most new releases will lose vast sums of money during their theatrical runs despite the media hype. And the buzz about a hot new film reaches young audiences weeks, if not months, before the box office.

In the end, therefore, box office stories may not only be a “pseudo event” but rather a “pseudo anachronism.” That’s news for movie marketers to ponder.

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So why is everyone suddenly picking on poor old Alfred Hitchcock?

If you see “The Girl” on HBO or “Hitchcock,” being released Nov. 23 by Fox Searchlight, you will encounter a cranky neurotic who had a weird hangup about his glamorous leading lady, was crazed because he believed his wife, Alma, was having an affair and seemed so unfocused it was amazing he ever completed a film. In fact, he shot almost 60.

I met Hitch, as he was called, on several occasions (he died in 1980) and enjoyed three or four meals with him (he had a superb chef at the ready). The man I met was portly (to say the least) but had sparkling eyes, a delightfully sardonic sense of humor and bore no relation in manner or personality to the whiny filmmaker depicted in the two movies (Anthony Hopkins and Toby Jones played Hitchcock).

Baffled, I asked my friend Norman Lloyd to confirm my recollections of the man. Lloyd had acted in several Hitchcock movies and directed 25 of his suspenseful television dramas.

According to Lloyd, who is precise and sharp-witted at age 98, the revisionist depiction of Hitchcock is bizarre. The subplot about the “Alma affair” was “absurd,” he contends, and the Tippi Hedren melodrama was “basically bullshit.”

“Hitch was fascinated with his leading ladies,” Lloyd points out. “But if he had a favorite, it was Grace Kelly, and nothing ever came of it other than lots of retakes.”

A tough-minded and highly efficient director, Hitchcock made his movies for well under $4 million, with “Psycho” coming in on a budget of $750,000, Lloyd reminds us.

“Hitch was in fact a wonderful human being as well as a master filmmaker,” says Lloyd. “He deserves to be remembered that way.”