Behind America's box-office obsession
Both the media and the public love a winner, especially as summer blockbusters compete for first place.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.