Monday, October 03, 2005

Paint by Numbers

Curiosity Culture
"Oftentimes, all we have to do is check that a movie is as bad as everyone says it is, in enough numbers, and - poof! - we've accidentally launched another blockbuster film franchise on an unsuspecting world."
I'm finally on to a new book (both books, by the way, are great, and are listed over on the side bar), and a couple of pages into it, it's already helped me focus on a point that I've been meaning to bear down on. We all hear the box office reports that are meant to do everything from measure a film's success in earning back it's production budget to give insightful critiques about moviegoing trends and the social climate. Unfortunately, the simple gross revenues tend to do this very poorly.

For example Tom Shone (Author of afore-mentioned new book) compares the list of record-breaking films by gross revenue, to the all time list of top grossers when adjusted for simple inflation. The first list is dominated by movies released in the last two decades, with little to no representation from any previous era. The inflation adjusted list drops most of these films out of the top 50 or down to near the end of the list. This list is headlined by Gone with the Wind and has several representatives from the 70's, 60's, 50's, and even the 30's.

Obviously there are a lot of things to compare from era to era, how many films were released, how many venues were playing different films, how much more expensive films are to produce, what alternative entertainment existed, etc. But the greater point is that, the gross revenue numbers that seem to get broken year after year don't really mean anything.

Most unfortunate is the fact that gross revenue is the only number around. I know, because I quote it to my friends all the time. I even regurgitate the "interesting" spins I get off IMDB about how the revenue is the largest seasonal opening for a film starring a particular actor without the presence of another actor in a particular genre yada yada...

Box Office analysis needs some serious attention. There's an ESPN writer that I really like, John Hollinger, who evaluates players and situations with an extreme statistical bias, however goes beyond the traditional metrics and combines the stats that are already being recorded into more meaningful numbers. For example, he combines a player's scoring output, rebounding numbers, defensive contributions, etc into an all around evaluator "Player Efficiency Rating". He combines 3 point accuracy, standard field goal percentage, and free throw percentage into a "True shooting percentage". These concepts are already starting to become popular with the play-by-play commentators and other analysts who evaluate player performance for the general public.

A suite of numbers like this, but applied to the film industry, would accomplish a few really important things. One it would push the general public towards a more imaginative understanding of the film landscape. This could inform their moviegoing habits, and potentially shift how and where they purchased media. I think it would also legitimize a lot of projects that don't look so hot when you look at their gross revenue. For example, a movie with a good per theater draw across 50 theaters, never looks that impressive, when you tally it together, but it's possible that it's generating twice the interest of a movie with a wider release despite a smaller marketing budget. Finally, the DVD/home media sales are already factoring heavily into the studio's estimates of a movie's profits. This should start to be institutionalized, as again, it legitimizes some projects that don't look attractive in wide theatrical release, but could still have a successful life in home video.

This number could be an important bargaining point for two groups of people. The creative forces (actors, directors, anyone with profit participation deals) could cite it in their contracts. Since the DVD release will be sliding closer and closer to the theatrical release, exhibitors can make a case for a share of the overal box office revenues, and if studio content doesn't want to comply, maybe independent distributors (like what landmark is offering currently) will more willing to deal.

As it stands, I have a lot of box office data to stare at, but no numbers to show for it. As I accumulate more data, I expect things will start to become clear (I hope :) ). Between now and then, I'll try to pick up a statistics textbook and build on the following concepts:

Blockbuster Rating: Some concept of true dominance, like Gone with the Wind, or Titanic recently
Staying Power: Films that are either rewatcheable or continue to generate interest
Home Video/Theatrical Bias: Films that were watched more or less in one format
Overall Value Proposition: How much earning potential a film has relative to it's production costs

And a bunch more that I can't think of right now. (But I'd love to hear ideas)


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