It’s probably a good thing for journalism that The Dark Knight Rises didn’t gross the $190 million projected for its opening weekend. Otherwise, media headlines would have been overloaded with every variation of the word rising you can think of—or at least just a lot of “The Dark Knight Rises to the top of the box office.”
Whether or not the film’s weaker-than-expected initial weeks were somehow related to a fear of being shot post-Colorado massacre, The Dark Knight Rises stands to make a lot of money. But who cares? Sure, it is pretty hard now to disassociate the film with the infamous “Batman shooting,” and yes, some arguments point to a mythological “Batman curse,” and OK, the last one probably made more money because people were sad about Heath Ledger. So, “Who cares?” Well, it is fairly obvious that a lot of people care. Box office analysts, to be more specific, and some fans who have a strange urge to see their favourite franchise earn a lot of many as though they will somehow own a share of that money simply by remaining loyal fans.
The Dark Knight Rises has and will continue to break various box office records. Analysts cite the trend of “front-loaded” moviegoing in which the majority of a film’s money is made during the opening weeks of buzz and midnight screenings—but with TDKR‘s “slow” start, the film is bound to break some more records at some point.
But what is all this breaking of records anyway? Is it all that it appears to be? Even amid all the talk over the last ten years of the declining movie industry and the revenge of the “vast wasteland” that was TV, we’ve witnessed some of the most astonishing box office successes in Hollywood history. When commentators grumbled that no one was seeing movies anymore because they were watching HBO more than ever, The Matrix Reloaded was breaking Thursday intake records and Shrek 2 was becoming the highest-grossing animated film ever. This happened again the next year. And the year after that. And with the release of TDKR, we came to yet another momentous moment in Box Office History: though it narrowly missed smashing the three-day record previously held by May’s The Avengers a mere two months earlier, TDKR earned the most money for a 2D film in one weekend ever. Ever. The most popular word in box office analysis.
Is the Dark Knight‘s success impressive? In dollars and cents, sure it is, but is that the most telling statistic of success? I’m not preaching some quality-over-quantity argument (though some critics suggest the film’s successes are fewer than its box office haul). Comparatively speaking, the movie industry’s success metre is a bit out of whack. To know that Fifty Shades of Grey was atop New York Times best-seller lists again this week would seem boring information to box office devotees, but do we really need more than that? No, I’m not about to say we should squash the cash-pull numbers all together—for our purposes here, the Times bestseller lists could do with some kind of nominal figure outside the rankings. Say, number of copies sold?
It’s nothing new to literature. When that series about broomsticks and the boy with glasses hit the top of the Times best-seller list for ten years, it was never accompanied with a dollar figure, save perhaps the price of the brick itself—and maybe Rowling’s personal intake. It was always units sold. That precious exchange at the cash register was always most exciting for how many people visited Snape the cashier, not for how many dollars were put into his register.
TV ratings are a constant source of fascination for industry watchers, but again few dollar signs are factored into the equation. To know that viewership dropped 21% after the latest season premiere of Breaking Bad tells us more than any dollar figure could. Dollar figure charts serve to tell us how big the pockets of Hollywood megacorporations are getting. At least, viewership only implies such things. Of course, TV has always been uniquely about attracting “eyes to advertisers,” so an eyeball tally is warranted. If we can then say that the movies are less about the advertisers (which we can’t really) then the movies would seem the purest art form, no? But where is the art in the dollar figure?
In music, everyone’s favourite broken heart called Adele had one—or two—helluva-years. Since the release of 21 in early 2011, the singer’s sophomore album became, among other honours, the first album in U.K. chart history to sell 3 million copies in one calendar year. In movie box office terms this might have factored out to be somewhere in the $50 million range, but the 3 mill was plenty for the music industry. To be fair, the movies don’t have the same entrenched award system as the music industry—The Dark Knight Rises isn’t going to receive any framed Platinum discs during its box office run—and maybe if music didn’t have these awards, we’d be seeing more movie-like numbers in Billboard magazine.
I’m sure music industry moguls in this Megaupload age would love to see some higher numbers on the charts. Their system just isn’t quite allowing for that kind of good PR. The movie system is, in a way, the perfect one for industry PR. No one will think the movies are dying if they keep seeing records broken month after month. Keep death out of moviegoers minds and the vacant theatres will look as full as ever.
Of course, that little thing called inflation is the reason for all the record-breaking. Rising ticket prices and the strategic explosion of 3D releases is why we see film’s biggest records broken in the last ten years. Adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing movie chart looks a bit different. Eight of the Top 10 films in the non-inflation-adjusted list are from the last ten years, while only one measly little film called Avatar remains in the Top 10 after adjustments are made for inflation. What records are we really breaking here?
1939 – Gone With the Wind
2009 - Avatar
1977 – Star Wars
1997 - Titanic
1965 - Sound of Music
1982 - ET
1956 - The Ten Commandments
1965 - Doctor Zhivago
1975 - Jaws
1937- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
A system fix is not without its own problems. According to Carl Bialik of The Wall Street Journal, “Converting box-office totals to tickets sold involves guesswork. Since the studios don’t tally tickets sold, box-office grosses have to be divided by average ticket prices, which weren’t reliably tracked until 1989.” Even still, leaving the system as is has its benefits for the industry. Unadjusted for inflation, and with rising ticket prices, today’s films have an undeniable head start in the box office race.
To this skeptical box office observer, the weekly analysis seems only a greedy form of self-promotion. Everybody loves money. And the movies are making a lot of money. Box office analysis is the Kardashians of industry analysis. We drool over the money, but dig a bit deeper and things start to look a bit phony.