Miracle/Box Office Brawl

January 31, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

Disney's Miracle doesn't arrive in theaters until next weekend, and I won't be posting my review until tomorrow or Monday, but, as often happens when there's a national sneak preview (as there is tonight), I get requests from curious movie-goers asking whether it's worth the effort. In this case, the short answer is "yes," especially if you have interest in (a) hockey, (b) the 1980 Winter Olympics, or (c) the "Miracle on Ice." Anyone not falling into one of the above categories will view this as a feel-good, underdog-triumphs sports story. It's not great art, but it's about as good as mass-market motion picture entertainment gets in the dead of winter. Would I recommend braving the throngs of teens who will be packing multiplexes on a Saturday night for the benefit of seeing Miracle a week early? Depends on your tolerance for that sort of thing. All but the die-hards would probably better enjoy the experience by waiting until the movie is playing in its general run and can be seen in relative comfort on a weeknight.

Box Office Brawl

When I first began going to the movies, there was no way for an "average" film-goer to find out how much a motion picture had grossed over a weekend. Even as recently as 15 years ago, the box office tally was relegated to a small chart on the back page of the entertainment section. Today, of course, it's big news. Projected grosses are reported during every news show each Sunday night, with "real" numbers arriving 24 hours later. When did this become a spectator sport? Why should I care?

I can readily understand why the studio CEOs are interested in this information - it impacts their bottom line. The cast and crew of a film are directly affected, since, in the movie business, future earnings are based on past performance. But what does this have to do with me? Even if I like a movie, why should I be concerned whether more Americans see it on a given weekend than anything else?

Somewhere along the way, someone has confused popularity with quality. The truth is, more often than not, the two are not in synch. The 2003/4 winter movie season is a rare exception. The #1 box office movie also happens to be the best movie out there. But that's rare. In 2002, for example, no film made more than Spider Man, but, while I'd be among the first to argue that it was a fun movie, it wasn't close to being the year's best (ragardless of what measuring device you use). By my reckoning, that was Minority Report, and it made a lot less.

What's disturbing about the trend to hype the big money-makers at the expense of their less successful siblings is that poor finishers often don't have a chance to find their audience. Multiplex films that fail to finish in the Top 5 are on their way to video after only a week. Word of mouth, still a potent way of selling independent films, has become irrelevant with mass-market movies. Too many people look at the box office receipts, and if they see that a film isn't one of the top three or four money-makers, they decide that it isn't any good. If a book isn't on a best-seller list, does that mean it's not worth reading? If a TV show isn't in the Neilsen's Top 10, does that mean it's not worth watching? Why should the criteria for movies be so different?

I would be just as happy if movie grosses were not made public. Do I look at them each week? Yes, but I wouldn't miss them if they weren't there. Sure, I like it when a film I admire makes money, becuase it means that the people involved in that movie will get a chance to do something else. And I groan when a film I dislike is #1, because it means I'll be subjected to more similar fare in the future. But those things wouldn't change if the grosses were kept out of the papers. Turning the box office tally into a public competition is a farce foisted upon us by publicists eager to claim that their film is #1 in something.