erik lundegaard

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Kiss Kiss, Dumb Dumb:

How Hollywood distributes movies

Last spring while watching Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” I realized I was watching the future of movies. Not because of the masterful way Mr. Chow and his creative team blended martial arts, dance, comedy, cartoon violence and Quentin Tarantino cool. It was because I was alone in the 250-seat theater. One patron. Me. No one else bothered to show up.

Admittedly this was a Tuesday 5:20 showing; and “Kung Fu Hustle” is a foreign film, with subtitles, which is apparently too much work for most people. Still, it was an action-comedy with great reviews and great word-of-mouth.

At the time I didn’t mind and luxuriated in the experience. I even felt like a studio exec: “Roll it, Jim.” No mouth-breathers around me or popcorn crunchers or people who have to explain every freakin’ detail or people who need every freakin’ detail explained to them. Just me and the film. But if hell at the movies is often other people, true movie fans know that a more hellish experience awaits when other people stop showing up altogether, and movies stop existing in the form we know and love them: as adventures in the dark.

The big picture (in select theaters)

That was the big story last year, wasn’t it? Many hands were wrung over 2005’s box office. Every week: down down down. Who could possibly bring the numbers back up? Adam Sandler? Orlando Bloom? Lindsay Lohan? Rob Schneider? The Rock? Every weapon in Hollywood’s mighty arsenal misfired. Customers could rightly say: Wait, you sell us a shallow product with characters and plots culled from TV shows and video games, and you show it in increasingly smaller spaces with increasingly overpriced snacks and increasingly obnoxious patrons who aren’t even policed by a teenager with a flashlight anymore, and you wonder why we’re not showing up? To which Hollywood execs could rightly reply: And? Worked before.

But I doubt Hollywood execs are wringing their hands much; they know the real money in Hollywood isn’t made at the box office anymore. So does anyone who has read Edward Jay Epstein’s book, “The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood.” These days the real money comes from selling movies to TV (free and pay), and from DVD sales and rentals. In the future, in fact, “straight to video” may not be a pejorative term; it may be the norm.

Last year I concluded a statistical analysis of the movies with a wish for a “Bill James of the movies” — someone who could look beyond weekend box office and cull from the numbers the relevant and prescient. Epstein is a good candidate for the title.

But I began that column — in which I analyzed not only the movies’ numbers but, via the rottentomatoes Web site, their critical reception — with the hope of finding some correlation, somewhere, between quality and popularity. (For those who don’t know: rottentomatoes.com gathers reviews from around the country and informs us what percentage of reviews are positive. If 60 percent or more are positive, the movie is considered “fresh”; if fewer than 60 percent, it’s considered “rotten.”)

That’s the big drag about being a movie critic. Fridays you and your fellow critics may slam a picture but Mondays you have to read the box office numbers. “Are We There Yet?” Number one. “Hide and Seek”? Number one. “The Pacifier”? “Guess Who”? “Fantastic Four”? No one listens.

It’s not just that shallow is popular — we all learned that lesson in high school — it’s that the entire system is ass-backwards. The best films hardly play at all while the worst play everywhere. The widest release for “The Squid and the Whale” (94 percent) has been 151 theaters. Meanwhile something called “The Cave” (14 percent) opened in late August in 2,195 theaters. It disappeared after 37 days with 15 million of our dollars. Someone call the cops.

Last year 17 films were “super-rotten” (a 10 percent or less rating from rottentomatoes), while 13 were “super-fresh” (90 percent or better). Of the super-rotten films, 15 of the 17 earned a wide release (1,000 or more theaters), while only three of the 13 super-fresh films went wide.

Sony best embodies this schizophrenia. Its main division heaped the following onto our plates in 2005:

Meanwhile its boutique division, Sony Classics, offered us only nibbles of the following:

It almost feels like there’s a direct, taunting correlation between excellence and the opportunity to view it. Oh, you guys like this movie? Well, then we’re not going to show it.

Kiss kiss, dumb dumb

Certain numbers jump out at you: $225 million, for example. That’s how much “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated film, made outside of the U.S. The rest of the world loved it. Critics here loved it (84 percent). So why was its widest domestic release only 202 theaters? Are U.S. moviegoers really that xenophobic or does Buena Vista only think they are? Or is it something else?

And what was Warner Bros. smoking on October 25? They distributed two new movies that day: “North Country” in 2,555 theaters and “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” in eight. Eight! Most prestige pictures like “North Country” open in a few select theaters, and, if logic dictates, go wide later. Warner Bros. couldn’t wait. They decided everyone needed to see a somber film about sexual harassment in a 1980s Minnesota mining town (71 percent on rottentomatoes) and no one wanted to see a funny, sexy, original noir set in modern-day L.A. (84 percent). Audiences rewarded them with a per-screen take of $2,500 for “North Country” and $22,600 for “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.” To this day the widest “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” has gone is 226 theaters. Along with “Squid” and “Thumbsucker,” it’s the most underrated, underseen movie of the year.

So was Warners worried over Val Kilmer’s gay detective? Was that the problem? Are U.S. moviegoers really that homophobic or does Warners only think they are? Or is it something else?

I have no answers, of course. We’re all just guessing, but the above guesses don’t look very educated to me.

Paraphrasing Olaf, glad and big

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.

On July 15, two films, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (83 percent) and “Wedding Crashers” (74 percent), were released to critical acclaim and finished first and second at the box office. A week later two crappy pictures, “The Island” (40 percent) and “The Bad News Bears” (47 percent), were released; “Charlie” and “Crashers” finished first and second  at the box office. A week later two more crappy pictures, “Stealth” (13 percent) and “Must Love Dogs” (36 percent) were released; “Crashers” and “Charlie” finished first and second  at the box office. That’s almost enough to restore my faith in movie audiences.

Then there’s this: Of all the pictures that opened very wide (3,000 or more theaters), the one with the smallest per-screen average on opening weekend was the worst: “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo”: a 10 percent tomato rating and $3,100 per screen. Films that merely opened wide (1,000 or more theaters) and couldn’t draw either were also the crappy ones: “Alone in the Dark” (1 percent; $1,300), “Supercross: The Movie” (4 percent; $800), and “Undiscovered” (7 percent; $500). To paraphrase Olaf, glad and big, from e.e. cummings’ poem: There is some s--t we will not eat.

Finally: Remember those 17 super-rotten films (less than 10 percent) and 13 super-fresh films (more than 90 percent)? Well, of the 15 super-rotten films that went wide, none, thus far, have managed to earn $100 million at the worldwide box office. But of the three super-fresh films that went wide, all of them (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “March of the Penguins” and “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit”) have already earned $100 million.

So sometimes quality pays.

Chix flix nix Rob Schneider

In the end the good news may relate to the bad. Initial reports indicate that it’s teenage boys who aren’t showing up at theaters as much, which is probably part of the reason “Deuce” and “Stealth” and “Island” did poorly. As teenage boys drop out, the audience gets smarter. I can live with that.

Besides, Hollywood execs may not know this, but there’s an entire other gender out there. What’s the most popular film of all time when you adjust for inflation? “Gone With The Wind.” What’s third? “The Sound of Music.” And the most popular film if you don’t adjust for inflation? “Titanic.” What do these three movies have in common? Beyond the “chick flick” designation, they all feature women (bitchy, virginal, feisty) who must choose between men (Rhett and Ashley, Capt. von Trapp and God, Leo and Billy Z.) against a backdrop of historical horror (U.S. Civil War, Anschluss, the sinking of the Titanic).

Box office numbers may be down, in other words, but there’s still money to be made if the right movies are made. After all, tomorrow is another day.

—As a teenager with a flashlight in the early 1980s, Erik Lundegaard policed the Boulevard Theater in Minneapolis. It’s now a Hollywood Video. This piece was originally published 1/16/2006 on MSNBC.com.