The Middlebrow

Pirates’ Gold

Our strange fascination with box-office numbers.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

With the summer-movie season winding down, it’s worth asking where the titanic battles took place: at the theaters, where The Da Vinci Code, Superman Returns, and Snakes on a Plane were released, or in the newspapers, where their box-office receipts were displayed? As a devoted summer-movie buff, I’m beginning to suspect the latter. To quote Variety, Superman received a “hero’s welcome” of $106 million, Pirates of the Caribbean “swashbuckled” its way to huge overseas grosses, and The Da Vinci Code, last seen steaming toward the $800 million mark,”broke records of Biblical size.” It all feels very captivating and important—and, when you think about it, more exciting than anything that actually happened in Pirates of the Caribbean, Superman, or The Da Vinci Code.

These days, the summer moviegoer has two things vying for control of his imagination: the movies and the box-office receipts. Each operates according to an outsized, cartoonish aesthetic. Even for those of us who chuckle at the notion that summer blockbusters are special-effects abominations that have “ruined” the movies, it’s striking that the numbers should exert such a hold over us. What should rightfully be a dreary Hollywood business story—”the Miami Vice speedboat overtook the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut …”—has become an attraction in and of itself.

The weekly box-office inspection has become such an integral part of moviegoing that it’s difficult to understand its strangeness. On Sunday nights, the grosses are tallied, and the heads of the Hollywood studios come forward to offer quotes. If their films log a big number (do “boffo b.o.,” in Variety idiom), the executives’ words will be giddy and triumphant: “It’s one of those movies—pardon the pun—firing on all cylinders. When you have Will Ferrell and NASCAR, you just know you are going to have a crowd pleaser. But this was way beyond expectations.” (Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures, Talladega Nights.) If the opening gross is “soft,” they will be a terse and unadorned: “It’s much less than what we wanted. The marketplace is crowded. The kids have been bombarded.” (Jeff Goldenstein, Warner Bros., The Ant Bully.)

The box office even has its own dedicated color men, whose job it is to peer at the data and extract larger truths. My favorite of these is Paul Dergarabedian, the president of an outfit called Exhibitor Relations, who has become a fixture of the box-office news story. During the summer, Mr. Dergarabedian has offered up the following: “Hollywood’s on a roll. Last year at this time it was all gloom and doom. Eighteen of the past 20 weekends have been up over last year. This is a terrific summer … There is so much variety. You pick a genre and you can find a movie … This was the quintessential counter-programming move and it totally worked … Pirates 3 is the definition of a predestinedblockbuster.” And a personal favorite, regarding Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center: “By and large we still feel very safe on our own soil going to the movie theater.”

Why go through this? To some degree, our obsession with the numbers can be explained as a side effect of the blockbusterization of American cinema. The blockbuster movement began in earnest with Jaws, which grossed a record $7 million on its opening weekend in 1975. Jaws was the antecedent of the event picture—a buzz-building publicity campaign, a “wide” opening—and as studios followed suit over the next two decades, aiming for the all-important opening weekend, it stands to reason that we’d pay attention to the results.

But there’s very little in the way of truth to be gleaned from box-office numbers. Unless you’re a studio executive, the opening-weekend tally of Pirates of the Caribbean doesn’t have much of an impact on your life, and, moreover, none of us have any idea what those huge totals really signify. The studios finesse the weekend numbers, and while we can safely say that Pirates performed well, we’ll never how much was siphoned off by production costs, special effects, advertising, and the points promised to Johnny Depp. The numbers, to a great extent, are meaningless.

Our obsession is abetted by the fact that the mainstream press has begun to sound a lot like Variety and the trade magazines—aiming to provide an “insider’s perspective” on the entertainment industry, straddling the line between art and commerce. Writing in the New York Times last month, Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart complained that “weekend box-office numbers are trumpeted as if a movie’s take provided valuable insight into our pop culture.” Perhaps Bart was feeling a bit territorial, because it feels like lots of media, starting with Entertainment Weekly and moving outward toward local newspapers and morning television, have assumed Variety’s mission to fetishize box-office receipts.

Moreover, we have begun to feel an intimate connection between money and filmgoing. I’m not one to argue that blockbuster cinema has made the movies worse (before Jaws, there was TheTowering Inferno), but it has, in an interesting way, created a more commercially sensitive audience. Money is everywhere in the movies these days—most notably in the special effects, but also in the wall-to-wall ad campaigns—and even those of us who venture to Michael Bay films without wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses can’t deny the whiff of commerce. There was a time when understanding what was going on in the movies required you to study the methods of certain French directors. These days, it feels like you need to study the marketing plans.

That, and the fact that the weekly numbers are so mind-bendingly huge—$100 million!—can make reading the Monday paper feel like following Hollywood’s version of a pennant race. In what I suspect is not an uncommon sentiment, I find myself rooting for movies I like to rally past the competition. Partly it’s because I want the filmmakers rewarded for a job well done. But partly, I think, it’s because there’s something satisfying about having my taste in movies seconded by a few million other consumers.

Indeed, there’s a hint of populism in our obsession with the box office. Last month, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote an essay defending the role of the critic in this environment—the outgrowth, one imagines, of Scott’s e-mail box filling up with notes like, “Well, Mr. Smart Guy, if Pirates made $400 million, than how can it be so bad?” As Scott describes it, there is a suspicion that critics are “elitists” out to dismiss the popular entertainments. And in the face of a critical pan, the weight of those grosses—$50 million! $100 million! $500 million!—can feel like the answering cry of the public: This is what we like!

It’s not just a game of populists vs. the elitists, though. Box-office performance is equated with cultural impact. In 2004, pundits peered at the gross receipts of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 to predict (simultaneously) that George W. Bush and John Kerry were going to win the presidential election. Last winter, one of the troubadours at National Review Online’s group blog, the Corner, cheered when The Chronicles of Narnia sped past blockbusters that were not based on Christian parables.

There’s something reassuring about following the box office, as long as it’s going your way. The old adage was that going to the movies made everyone into a critic. Peering at the numbers has made everyone into a studio executive.