erik lundegaard

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Putting the B.O. in box office

What does it mean to be No. 1? If we’re talking weekend box office, increasingly less and less — and not just because movies like “Hostel,” “Big Momma’s House 2,” “When a Stranger Calls,” “RV,” “The Covenant” and “Jackass: Number Two” (to name a few of this year’s winners) top the charts.

OK, it is because those movies top the charts, but not for the reasons you think. Being No. 1 means less now simply because more movies do it.

Twenty years ago, in 1985, only 18 movies topped the weekend box office charts, with “Back to the Future” lasting the longest. It debuted over the July 4th weekend and — except for the final weekend in July when it finished second to “European Vacation” — reigned supreme all summer. I mean all summer: July, August and most of September, a total of 11 weeks. Only after the autumnal equinox did another movie — Chuck Norris’ “Invasion USA” — top the charts.

Last year, 41 movies — nearly one per week — topped the weekend box office charts, with “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” lasting the longest: three weeks. This year’s box office juggernaut, “Pirates of the Caribbean 2,” which became just the third film in movie history to pass $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts, lasted at No. 1 ... just three weeks. They were three lucrative weeks, certainly, but three weeks nonetheless. That seems to be the limit these days.

More and more, for fewer and fewer

These figures are not anomalies. The trend is toward more and more movies at No. 1 for fewer and fewer weeks:

A quick observation: The movie that tops the weekend box office charts the longest is rarely the highest-grossing movie of the year. (The exception to this and all such trends is “Titanic,” which was titanic in every financial sense of the word.) Last year, “Harry Potter” finished third in the yearly sweepstakes to “Revenge of the Sith” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” In 2003, the Steve Martin-Queen Latifah comedy “Bringing Down the House” lasted longest atop the weekend charts but still finished 13th for the year — a consequence of being released in the traditionally weak month of March. Same with “Black Hawk Down” in 2002 (January wide release), “Hannibal” in 2001 (February) and “The Whole Nine Yards” in 2000 (February). None were gigantic box office successes; they were simply let loose in weak months and bottom-fed for a while.

1985, by the way, is just an arbitrary, easily accessible year. Go back to 1982 and “E.T.” topped the box office for 16 non-consecutive weeks. Go back to 1977 and “Star Wars” opened at No. 2 in May (playing in only 43 theaters!), took over the No. 1 spot on June 24, and didn’t relinquish it until November 18, when it came in second to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — a total of 21 straight weeks. Then it tore off on another string of No. 1 weekends to finish out the year. When it was re-released in August 1979 it went to No. 1. When it was re-released in January 1997 it went to No. 1. Put it this way: Its 1997 re-release stayed at No. 1 as long as “Pirates of the Caribbean 2” did with its initial, record-breaking release this summer.

Don’t even get me started on “Gone with the Wind.”

How things worked back then

Before we get into what all of this means, let’s look at the movie that lasted second-longest atop the weekend box office charts in 1985: “Beverly Hills Cop.” The Eddie Murphy vehicle was actually released in December ’84 and immediately became the No. 1 movie all December. And into January. And into February. Finally, during the March 8th weekend, “Witness” made more money, but the following week “Cop” was back for an encore. It stayed in the top 10 until mid-June, and stayed in theaters until early July.

Generally, this is how things worked back then. Solid December releases dominated the box office charts well into the following year. “Good Morning, Vietnam,” a December 1987 release, was No. 1 at the box office for nine weeks in 1988. 1988’s “Rain Man” was No. 1 all of January 1989. “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Driving Miss Daisy” — both ’89 releases — swapped spots throughout the early months of 1990.

It’s not like new movies weren’t being released these Januarys and Februarys. During its reign, “Beverly Hills Cop” had to hold off a slew of teen-oriented films, whether low-budget trash (“Avenging Angel,” “TomBoy”), classier sexual shenanigans (“Mischief,” “The Sure Thing”), John Hughes angst (“The Breakfast Club”) or Timothy Hutton political films (“The Falcon and the Snowman,” “Turk 182”).

Mostly it held them off with one hand. If a movie managed to beat “Cop’s” per-screen average, as “The Falcon and the Snowman” did ($8,900 to $4,500), it was exhibited in far fewer theaters (265 to 1822) to make a difference. If a movie challenged “Cop’s” theater total, as “Heavenly Bodies” did (1,504 to 1,706), its per-screen-average was so abysmal ($700 to $4,100), that it slunk out of theaters the following week, never to be heard from again.

This is generally how things worked back then.

Until January 1992. The December 1991 releases had been a fairly mediocre lot —“Hook,” “Father of the Bride,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” — and into this void Buena Vista released the thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” I doubt much was expected. It was released into only a third as many theaters as the then-box office champ, Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” (766 to 2,254). But it made up the disadvantage with a per-screen-average nearly four times as high ($10,000 to $2,800), and vaulted past Spielberg to top the weekend box office, where, with the help of both a wider release and the buzz that inevitably accompanies being No. 1, it stayed all January.

It demonstrated that January films could prevail in January. Even against Spielberg.

How things work now

These days almost every weekend brings us a new No. 1 movie. Take the beginning of this year (please). For the first eight weekends we got eight different No. 1s: “Hostel,” “Glory Road,” “Underworld: Evolution,” “Big Momma’s House 2,” “When a Stranger Calls,” “The Pink Panther,” “Eight Below” and “Madea’s Family Reunion.”

What’s the cause of this rapid turnover? Studios and distributors — populated more than ever with marketing gurus and Harvard M.B.A.’s, — are simply targeting niche audiences with niche films: horror (“Hostel”), action horror (“Underworld: Evolution”) and horror thriller (“When a Stranger Calls”). Also sports drama (“Glory Road”), and the ever-popular urban comedies (“Big Momma’s House 2,” “Madea’s Family Reunion”). They blitz the media with ads, dump their product into 2,000 to 3,000 theaters and cross their fingers.

But a niche audience, by definition, doesn’t last. The horror fans, or sports drama fans, show up the first week but there’s no second wave. Thus the per-screen average drops 50-plus percent and another niche movie takes its place. And on and on, world without end.

Meanwhile the national movie conversation — if there is one — is elsewhere. During this No. 1 churn, “Brokeback Mountain” never reached higher than fourth, but people talked about it. And it wound up making more money domestically ($83 million) and internationally ($95 million) than any of the eight No. 1 movies mentioned above.

This is generally how things work now. Hollywood’s a divider, not a uniter.

How things don’t work

So does it matter that our No. 1 movies these days seem so ... forgettable? So disposable?

I suppose it depends upon your definition of movies. If you think of movies as commodities, in which “When a Stranger Calls” is interchangeable with “Brokeback Mountain,” then, no, it doesn’t matter. As long as somebody’s selling and somebody’s buying. In this regard the film industry is just another aspect of our sped-up culture. Fashions used to last longer, news cycles weren’t so quick, our parents stayed at their jobs longer. Even the cavalier way we dismiss the outdated has sped up: “That’s so last year” became “That’s so last week” became “That’s so five minutes ago.” Popular culture zips by so fast it gives us less and less to hold onto. No wonder we’re all confused.

If, however, you think of movies as stories, as, in fact, the most popular storytelling form of the last 100 years, and that stories help define who we are, and what we are, and why we are, then, yes, I guess it matters a little.

George Lucas made “Star Wars” in 1977 to be the cinematic equivalent of the Force: it was supposed to bind all of us together with a new kind of mythology. You can argue all you want about that mythology, but the movie did bind us together. Everyone went to see it. Everyone knew the reference points. It became part of our culture.

Since then, so the argument goes, Hollywood has had a “blockbuster mentality” in trying to imitate “Star Wars’” success. An argument can be made, however, that all of those marketing gurus and Harvard M.B.A.’s don’t have enough of a blockbuster mentality. Their thinking, in comparison, is rather small.

—Erik Lundegaard used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home. This article was originally published 9/27/06 on MSNBC.com.)