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‘Inside Out’ Debut Exposes Absurdity of Box Office Horse Race

Box office reporting too often focuses on data and results that have nothing to do with whether or not a movie is a hit or a miss.

One of the great absurdities of this type of coverage is that it is dominated by a horse race mentality that studios both privately ignore and publicly encourage.

The folly of this approach was on full display this weekend when “Jurassic World” “won” the weekend with a $102 million take, edging by “Inside Out,” which had to settle for a measly $91 million. That happens to be the biggest-ever opening for an original film, crushing the $77 million high-water mark set by “Avatar” in 2009.

“‘Inside Out’ would have been number one in any other weekend,” notes Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Being number one is overrated.”

Still, “Jurassic World” gets to proclaim in television spots and newspaper ads (are those still a thing?) that it is the “number one movie in America.” “Jurassic World’s” victory ends Pixar’s streak of consecutive number one openings, a record it had maintained with each of its previous 14 pictures. But the end of an era doesn’t mean much.

“There are no losers in this one-two punch,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “What movie is number one is a distinction without a difference.”

The focus on rankings obscures the fact that “Inside Out” is a critical and commercial triumph on a scale few films match. The “Inside Out” opening ranks as the second-biggest debut in Pixar history, putting it squarely between “Toy Story 3’s” $110.3 million bow and ahead of 2013’s “Monsters University’s” $82.4 million opening.

“Where you finish doesn’t matter that much,” noted Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief.

He noted that “Frozen” debuted in second place before going on to become Disney’s biggest animated release with a global haul of nearly $1.3 billion.

“Where [‘Frozen’] finished on its opening weekend had no bearing on its impact to the culture,” said Hollis.

The genre-defying story of a girl’s emotional inner turmoil has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the best reviewed Pixar release since “Toy Story 3,” which went on to pick up a best picture nomination. While Pixar has yet to have a bomb on its resume, “Inside Out” may be its boldest, ballsiest venture since “Wall-E” dazzled audiences with its near-silent first act. It’s a picture that unfolds largely in an adolescent’s mind as she struggles to come to terms with her family’s decision to uproot and move to San Francisco. In the words of Slate’s Dana Stevens, “Inside Out” is unafraid to show that “growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.” That’s a kind of dichotomy that most kids movies would never attempt to unwind, with all due respect to “The Penguins of Madagascar.”

Too often, box office reporting gets reduced to rankings instead of profitability. Just look at some of the number one films this year. They include both genuine blockbusters such as “Furious 7” and duds and disappointments such as “Focus” and “Chappie.” That’s to say nothing of “Tomorrowland,” which came in first over Memorial Day, but cost so much to make it will result in a reported $140 million writedown. In the process, the achievements of films like “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” which picked up $403.8 million on an $81 million budget, get overshadowed by films such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which opened hot before cooling down fast.

Box office headlines are often reduced to what film “trumps,” “triumphs over” or “races past” a rival. But analysts and executives argue that some blockbusters can be the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.

“The big business for ‘Jurassic World’ did more to help ‘Inside Out’ succeed than it acted as an impediment,” said Hollis. “Having a great experience at the movies is what brings people back.”

Beyond the rankings, there’s the problem of box office milestones. Studios happily churn out releases, announcing that this or that film has passed the $100 million mark, the $200 million barrier, and the $300 million hurdle, but too often pundits fail to contextualize that figure. So, yes, it’s lovely that “Mad Max: Fury Road” has earned $336.7 million, except for the fact that Warner Bros. spent $150 million to make the movie and countless millions more to market it. “Mad Max: Fury Road” may make a profit, but math would suggest it hasn’t yet — studios get roughly 50% of ticket sales domestically and a more variable percentage of overseas grosses.

While China, for instance, is hailed as the movie business’ great savior, a recent investor presentation by executives from the National Association of Theatre Owners noted that most of the money stays in the People’s Republic. Though U.S. studios generated $2.16 billion at the Chinese box office in 2014, those companies took out only 25% of those receipts, amounting to roughly $540 million. Somehow that critical context got glossed over in the rush to talk up Chinese ticket sales.

In general, our fixation on victors and losers, boom and bust markets, and gaudy numbers that ignore a picture’s pricetag is bad for anyone hoping to draw conclusions about the overall health of the entertainment industry.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that while “Inside Out” didn’t beat “Jurassic World,” it’s still a box office winner.

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