Walkey Talk: What is Popular is Not Always Right

Posted by: Michael Walkey  //  July 18, 2011 @ 7:32pm

Filed under: Walkey Talk

Congratulations to Harry Potter, the boy wizard who just scored the biggest North American opening in motion picture history this past weekend. In another time, this kind of news would have the showbiz world at a standstill. But in today's showbiz society, it's just another day at the office. And that's too bad, because the numbers are impressive. The first day gross of $91 million is a real eye opener. I remember a time when the term "blockbuster" was reserved only for pictures which grossed over $100 million. To see one obtain that amount in just over 24 hours is a sign of how the industry has changed.

Apparently Deathly Hallows – Part 2 had already locked up over $40 million in advanced ticket sales, illustrating the up-front demand. And as impressive as those domestic figures sound, they are nothing compared to the international tally. Yes, I get it, Harry Potter is popular.

Do I need to be told these box office figures to know that Harry Potter is a global phenomenon? Or better yet, does anyone really care about these box office figures for any movie? Do these figures mean anything anymore?

I've just witnessed a movie gross about $100 million in a single day -- I think it's time to retire the act of releasing these figures as 'news'. One day, we'll find out which movie will be the first to $100 million by noon. Then we'll find out the movie that crosses that mark in a single hour! Eventually, there will be a movie that will hold the record of "movie that most people are thinking about seeing".

Why not? It could happen! Especially the way the industry is today. I mean, where do we draw the line? We already knew that the latest Potter film was going to take in well over $40 million before it even opened.

Are you like me and are suffering from box office gross fatigue? Are you tired of hearing which Boy Wizard or Vampire or Superhero or Pirate holds the record for biggest whatever?!

I admit I'm a little torn, because I do agree the box office grosses are a barometer of popularity. But these figures are very misleading, and some of these records are completely meaningless. Here now is my list of how to make box office reporting more meaningful:

  1. Stop reporting how much a movie grosses and start reporting admission tickets sold. This will immediately eliminate variables that skew the figures such as inflation or 3D surcharges. Books, CDs, and DVDs all report units sold. Take a look at a list of the greatest-selling albums of all time and you will see a better representation of the culture over time. You will see Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Spice Girls, Eminem. Now take a look at the highest grossing movies of all time and you will see a Dark Knight, an Ogre, a few Pirates, some Spidermen, maybe a Transformer, and some Jedis. You will basically see the last 10 years. The list would have more culturally-significant films if it wasn't for inflation. Inflation is a revisionist film historian, and it's killing the legacy of some great films. In a country (America) where film history is very popular, it boggles my mind as to why the industry hasn't switched over to reporting admissions instead of grosses.
  2. There are too many box office records! There's one for each season, each month, each day of the week! Single day totals, 2-day, 3-day, 4-day, etc. etc. Biggest animated film, biggest comedy, biggest R-rated movie, biggest sequel, biggest talking animal movie, biggest identity switch movie, biggest Queen Latifa movie... Cut it down to biggest single day, biggest opening weekend, and then the final gross... that's it! There's no need for any more records. Too many different records diminish their importance.
  3. Change 'biggest' to 'fastest' when reporting the huge opening of these event films, because that's what they are. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is the Fastest Grossing Movie in history. It is not the biggest, nor will it become the biggest. It is what it is. This past weekend, pretty much damn near everyone who wanted to see Harry Potter were able to see it and that resulted in these gargantuan grosses. Big movies are a sign of good word of mouth. A movie that grosses quickly is more a factor of marketing. No offence, Mr. Potter, but we know which kind of movie you are.
  4. The records get broken too often. If a record is too easy to break, it's not special when it happens, especially if it's happening every couple of months. And that's the case with these so-called box office records. The two main culprits of this problem is inflation (see #1), and the number of screens a movie plays on. Currently there is very little regulation as to how many screens a film can be shown on in theatres. When a movie like the latest Potter film smashes records while playing in a reported 4375 theatres in North America (source: Box Office Mojo) there is no stopping the next Twilight instalment or Dark Knight sequel from planting itself in 4800 or 5000 theatres to try and break the record. The only way to level things off and bring resonance to these records is to make them all play in the same number of theatres. And that's probably not going to happen.

Tough suggestions to carry out, for sure. If you have any of your own, feel free to comment below. But chances are the industry will just keep rolling on in the direction they have been for decades. Old habits die hard. And let's be honest, a movie that 22 million people watched doesn't sound as sexy as a movie that grossed $169 million! ... Or does it?

In other box office news, there was another milestone that occurred over the weekend. Woody Allen's latest work, Midnight in Paris, just passed Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to become the director's highest grossing picture of all time. It has topped, wait for it, $41 million so far and it's still raking it in!

As a fan of Woody Allen and of Paris, I couldn't be happier. But the cynic in me realizes this just proves the irrelevance of Woody Allen today since it took 25 years of inflation for this milestone to occur. Ah well, kudos to the Woodman, even though I'm sure he couldn't care less.

"If my movie makes money, then I've done something wrong." – Woody Allen

Tags: Harry Potter, Avatar, Woody Allen, box office

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