Behind America's box-office obsession
Both the media and the public love a winner, especially as summer blockbusters compete for first place.
Encino, Calif. — On the Monday morning after the biggest Memorial Day box-office weekend in Hollywood history, number-cruncher Paul Dergarabedian says he is a "crazed mess." Led by "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," the weekend tally topped $255 million.
One of the top go-to guys for box-office numbers, Mr. Dergarabedian is a one-man help desk. His cellphone jangles nonstop and his call-waiting beeps constantly, interrupting his all-important calls to media and studio contacts. At the same time, he also pounds away on his laptop, fielding e-mails and online faxes full of movie stats. At eight minutes past his 9:30 a.m. deadline for sending out the first round of figures, he's sweating over the 100 or so clients who are waiting for the magic numbers emerging from beneath his fingers.
"The number of people interested in these figures has grown tremendously," he says.
Interest in entertainment statistics has exploded as the number of celebrity news outlets has mushroomed, but most observers say it started in earnest in 1993 when "Jurassic Park" opened with a then-record $50 million weekend. Information that once languished deep inside fusty business news has become headline worthy. Whether driven by a simple fascination with big money or the sense that anyone can be a Hollywood insider, the expanding obsession with movie statistics acts as a lens on the national psyche, magnifying America's innate love of competition and crowning a winner.
"We like to have stats to back things up," says Dergarabedian, president and founder of Media By Numbers. "We're very into being able to compare things and beat records." When it comes to a love affair with "big," well, it's just so downright American to take your entertainment by the numbers. Sort of like tracking baseball stats, Dergarabedian muses. "Money is one big reason," he continues, adding that "people are fascinated with big numbers. Just look at Lotto." When the numbers start to get huge, he says, all kinds of people, not just industry insiders, sit up and take notice.
Hollywood has been quick to fan that interest, using it to float major ad campaigns. Bragging rights for first place or box-office records become important selling points. No wonder the studios behind "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" are sniping at each other this week over which film scored the highest global box-office bounty. The spats can become very technical. This week's dispute centers on the ever-so niggley issue of whether Thursday night's tallies for Disney's high-seas adventure should be rolled into the final holiday weekend figure. But numbers don't tell the full story – especially if, as so often happens, tallies aren't adjusted for inflation and rising ticket prices.
"You can nitpick these numbers forever," says Dergarabedian. But you have to let it go at some point. "Behind every stat there's always a caveat," he adds.
Even if a movie isn't No. 1 overall, studios can still spin the digits to their advantage. "They use statistics like 'No. 1 grossing comedy' to pull us into feeling like insiders," says Russ Leatherman, CEO and the original, er, fone voice of Moviefone. Studios have begun to rely more on the numbers because they're so much easier to deal with than say, unpredictable critics. Mr. Leatherman points out that just a few years ago studios wouldn't have dreamed of opening a big film without screening it for critics first. While not yet routine, this trend is becoming more common for big summer flicks, which often get bad reviews and wilt quickly after word of mouth spreads.
When it comes to box-office news – and these days it's very good news – Dergarabedian is one of a handful of insiders helping to feed the increasingly ravenous appetite for reports on who's on top and who's not. He creates vast spreadsheets of numbers and provides trend analysis, tracking everything from domestic and worldwide grosses to how many theaters screened films. The numbers come from the studios, who get them from the theaters via two independent tracking firms.
But he doesn't just focus on the biggies. The box-office expert also tracks smaller films such as "Waitress," which he wants to see. "I'm a complete movie fan," he adds, waving at the white walls of his bare office, noting that he has a "zillion" posters he could put up if he had time.
Box-office take hasn't always mattered as much. The summer money-machine mentality dates back to "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones," two franchises that created the modern summer blockbuster, says Dergarabedian. Now, the businessmen who run studios rely on the 18 weeks of summer to make 40 percent of their annual revenues.
While Dergarabedian laughingly blames George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for sparking the numbers game, others suggest deeper reasons for the Monday morning playbacks of how films fared over the preceding three days.
"One means of reducing the discomfort created by the perception that we have no power or influence on the world around us," says Douglas Raybeck, a cultural anthropologist at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, is to retreat from it into trivia. "We display an increasing ability to take the trivial very seriously, in no small part because the trivial is understandable and nonthreatening."
Some blame, you guessed it, the media. "The media's obsession with trivia is a distraction from events they don't want to cover," says Jan Saxton, vice president in charge of film for Adams Media Research. "The national media is doing a terrible job of keeping the citizenry informed about issues that really matter."
Even skeptics admit that the numbers game often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Says one moviegoer, a father of two standing in line for "Pirates" at the Pacific Galleria 16 in Sherman Oaks, Calif. this past Friday, "The movie is so big, I need to know what it's about." But numbers don't speak to everyone. "Going to a movie because it's No. 1 is dumb," says 30-something Freddie, a carpenter from Los Angeles. "I only go to movies I like," he adds.
As Dergarabedian puts the final touches on the chart-topping numbers, he says there's a subplot in this math. "Two years ago it was all doom and gloom," referring to a record 18-week slump in movie attendance in 2005. In the end, he says, the studios have to produce movies people want to see. He predicts record box-office numbers all summer long. Then he turns with a sigh to the phone. "Excuse me," he says, "I have to talk to this radio show host in New Orleans."
As this reporter packs up, Dergarabedian launches into the narrative he's been reciting all morning: "Record box office for May, that's right."
The words echo down the hallway. Even at the elevators, the cheerful patter is still audible, the sound of numbers spinning the most important tale of the moment in this movie town.