Voting at the Box Office

March 10, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

"Programming" Notes: Going forward, additional chapters in the series "My Life as a Geek" will be posted on Thursdays. Also, it's unlikely there will be any weekend ReelThoughts in the near future, since I'm using Saturdays and Sundays to populate the new site's database. No changes to the weekday lineup - ReelThoughts will still be posted on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday with new reviews as available (usually Tuesday-Thursday).

Box office watching has become a national pastime. It wasn't all that long ago that one had to consult the pages of Variety to learn how much the Top 10 movies grossed over the previous weekend. No one outside of the movie business cared. Of course, that has changed. Box office watching has become an obsession with some individuals who have nothing to do with the industry. Now, you'd have to be news-challenged not to hear which title topped the charts - even "hard news" outlets treat the box office sweepstakes like news. While I can understand how this information fascinates those who participate in pools or gamble on the result, is it of any value to the average movie-goer? Unfortunately, yes.

Going to a multiplex is like walking into a voting booth, except the candidate you're electing is a movie title. Box office dollars have a direct impact on Hollywood's future direction. When a movie performs well in theaters, there will either be (a) a sequel, (b) more movies like it, or (c) both. Since teenage boys are viewed as having the most "voting power" when it comes to movies, it's no surprise that more and more titles (especially summer blockbusters) are targeted at them. Older viewers, disdainful of the loud and unpleasant theater experience and willing to wait a few months for a DVD release, are becoming increasingly less of a factor. Video, despite its importance to the revenue stream, is still viewed as a "secondary market."

It's not just a matter of a movie generating a high gross; it's a question of how it performs versus expectations. Movies that make more than what their distributor predicted are viewed as successes. Movies that make less are seen as failures, even if the number is impressive. For an example, consider the following: Superman Returns outgrossed Juno by about $75 million (domestically). The number is approximate because Juno's not done yet. However, early predictions were that Juno might make $50 million if everything went right. It has made over $100 million. Superman Returns on the other hand, was widely expected to finish with around $250 million. It didn't quite reach the $200 million mark. So Juno is a major success while Superman Returns was a flop. There may not be a Juno II, but there will be more movies like it. Diablo Cody's writing and Ellen Page's acting are in great demand. On the other hand, it's uncertain whether there will be a direct sequel to Superman Returns or whether Bryan Singer will be involved.

The unfortunate result of teenagers dominating Hollywood's decision making process is that a type of movie is fading away. There will always be low-budget art films because they're cheap to make and they don't require a large audience to turn a profit. What we're losing are the "middle of the road" pictures - those that try to mix art with entertainment. Most of my 3.5-star and 4-star pictures come from this category: stylistically interesting films with full narratives, compelling characters, and deep themes. Two of this weekend's best productions fall into that category: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Bank Job. It should come as no surprise that both were made in the U.K. Meanwhile, Hollywood was busy with 10,000 B.C..

Is this a call to vote? Not necessarily, since this kind of "voting" means spending two hours in a multiplex with rude co-patrons and indifferent staff. But it is an explanation of why the Monday recitation of the weekly Top 10 isn't a meaningless exercise. Average Americans may not be paying much attention but you can bet that every executive in Hollywood is.