Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

American box office

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Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

My online reading habits have shifted immeasurably over the past two decades, along with the nature of the web itself, but there are two sites that I’ve visited on a regular basis for at least fifteen years. The first is the New York Times. The other is Box Office Guru. This isn’t the slickest or most useful box office site around; Box Office Mojo is considerably more polished, with greater access to raw and adjusted numbers, and its commentary is a little more nuanced. The former site’s basic design hasn’t changed much since the days of Geocities, and its predictions are no more or less accurate than those of its peers. But I’m oddly fond of its voice, which tends to strike a balanced note between the killjoys at Box Office Mojo and the less critical coverage at other entertainment sites. Its founder, Gitesh Pandya, forecasts and analyzes returns with the air of an enthusiastic hobbyist who has absorbed just enough industry jargon—”laugher,” “kidpic,” “funnyman”—to be endearing without being grating, and I’ll sometimes go back to read his old columns just to relive memorable box office stories from the past. (“The upcoming holiday weekend activity, strong word of mouth, and award consideration should all contribute to a prolonged domestic run that could see Titanic reach $150 million.”)

You could argue, of course, that treating the weekly box office returns as a kind of horse race has had a damaging effect on the types of movies Hollywood is willing to make, which emphasize brands and franchises that generate gargantuan opening weekends rather than playing to steady audiences over time. Still, the media’s coverage of the results is more a symptom than a cause, and the structural reasons for placing so much weight on a movie’s initial performance—the studio’s cut of profits is greatest early on, with a larger percentage going to theaters as the run continues—would be there either way. What’s more amusing is how personally you can start to take numbers in which you have no stake whatsoever. Last summer, I kept checking to see if Edge of Tomorrow would creep past $100 million, and I was unreasonably cheered when it did, as well as chagrined whenever subsequent stories would casually refer to it as a flop. (When you factor in the international numbers, it did fine.) And whenever a movie exceeds or falls short of expectations to a dramatic degree, I read the ensuing think pieces as closely as if they were talking about my own finances. I probably have a better sense of the box office at any given moment than I do of my own checking account.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

This past weekend brought two stories on opposite ends of the spectrum: the incredible performance of American Sniper and the resounding failure of Blackhat, both of which are movies I want to see. Blackhat’s failure to launch isn’t particularly surprising; Michael Mann is probably the weirdest director around who still qualifies, almost on a technicality, as a mainstream filmmaker, and the film’s release in the dumping ground of January was hardly a good sign. But it’s no exaggeration to say that American Sniper’s astonishing $100 million opening is the most unexpected story of its kind in more than ten years, or since The Passion of the Christ similarly blew past all predictions. Inevitably, we’ve seen a flood of analysis as to what happened: it’s because the movie had a great trailer, or got an awards bump, or saw widespread support from the heartland, or featured the right star, or came from a director whom audiences like and respect, or was brilliantly marketed, or appealed to patriotism, or was just an excellent movie with a good story. Yet one or more of these factors are true of multiple films each year, and few see this level of success. It’s a case, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, of all the delta-qs lining up just right. And the fact is that nobody really knows, at least not to the extent that it can be replicated—which isn’t to say that Hollywood can’t be expected to try.

The result is that American Sniper went from being the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee to the highest in just two days—and we’re already living in a bizarro universe when the most commercially successful film in the bunch was briefly a movie by Wes Anderson. And maybe the only real takeaway is how far such numbers can be abstracted from any real meaning. A single movie won’t make or break a studio; they can certainly destroy individual careers, but any development executive is likely to get fired sooner or later, and when you stand back, the details start to blur. Hollywood accounting is so obscure that a blockbuster may never break even on paper, while a flop might actually make money, once you factor in the fees that the studio essentially pays to itself. Box office returns are fascinating because they feel like the place in which the risks involved in artistic production are exposed in their starkest form: the outcome of years of work on the part of hundreds of creative professionals is decided in the course of a day. Or so it seems. But if the judgments passed there feel permanent, time is the great leveler, here as everywhere else. A movie of enduring interest will survive for those to whom it really matters, and nobody cares if, say, The Godfather Part II was seen as a “disappointment.” And no one remembers the numbers. Except, maybe, for me.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2015 at 10:27 am

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