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