Wanted: The Bill James of Box Office Statistics
What’s the worst movie month?
Let’s consider the question logically first. If a movie tests well it’s going to be released when people have money and time, which is during the summer months or winter holidays; and if a movie is award-worthy the studios will push it into theaters before December 31st. The holidays for Hollywood are like the holidays for you and me. They have to entertain a lot of people and by the end their cupboards are bare. What’s left? Just dusty stuff on the back shelf that never looked particularly appetizing in the first place. That’s what they serve in January. January, for moviegoers, is dried onion soup mix month.
Of course some people actually like dried onion soup mix. So is there any way to back this up statistically? Is there a way to quantify quality?
The closest thing we’ve got right now is rottentomatoes.com, a Web site which gathers movie reviews (100 or more for wide releases), assigns a thumbs up or down if the critic already hasn’t, and tabulates the results. If 60 percent or more critics like a film, it’s considered “fresh”; if 59 percent or lower don’t, it’s considered “rotten.”
There are obvious problems with this strategy. The “fresh” and “rotten” numbers are arbitrary. “I Heart Huckabees” got a 60 percent rating, so that’s considered a good movie. “Ocean’s Twelve” got a 58 percent rating, so that’s considered a bad movie. One or two percent, apparently, can make all the difference.
The site also includes too many online and marginal critics. (To my mind, you shouldn’t be included unless someone hires and pays you for your opinion.) Then there’s this thumbs up/down business. Most publications employ a four-star system or a letter grade. But what about those awkward B- or two-and-a-half star movies? Someone at rottentomatoes has to point our thumbs one way or the other, and, for me anyway, it’s often not the way I would point it. Did I really recommend “The Medallion,” for example? I wrote, “As special effects reveal how super Eddie Yang is, they also reveal how ordinary Jackie Chan has become.” That’s a recommendation?
Brother, can you spare a theater
Still, the site can tell us a lot about the recent year in movies. According to my calculations, 157 movies were released at least marginally in 2004. (A marginal release, for the purposes of this article, is 500 or more theaters; a wide release is 1000 or more theaters; a very wide release is 2000 or more theaters.) Of these 157 movies, 44 managed a “fresh” rating.
The best month was July, in which seven of 13 films were considered fresh. The worst month? A tie, between our old pal January, and (surprisingly) May, both of whom went one for 10. The good news for May is that its one hit was a grand slam, “Shrek 2,” with a 90 percent rating and $436 million U.S. box office, while January managed only a bloop single, “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet,” with its 76 percent rating and $6.2 million. So, yes, even statistically, January gets the worst movie month award. Congratulations.
But February can’t exactly pat itself on the back either. It went two for 13 (“Barbershop 2” and “Miracle”), while both August and September had just three winners each. March was the first of four months (April, October, and November were the others) to give us four good movies, while December had five, and June went six for 12. Add it to July’s totals and it’s obvious that summer ruled in 2004.
If these overall numbers seem low to you (44 for 157 is just a .280 batting average), please don’t assume movie critics are being elitist here. Among their recommended films? “Starsky & Hutch” (62 percent), “Hellboy (78 percent), “I, Robot” (61 percent), “The Terminal” (63 percent), “Wimbledon” (62 percent) and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (73 percent).
No, the numbers are low because many of the better-reviewed movies don’t manage even a marginal release and so haven’t been counted. Stuff like “Garfield” (13 percent), “Catwoman” (9 percent), and “Taxi” (9 percent) get dumped into over 3000 theaters opening weekend, and even middling fare like “Paparazzi” and “Wicker Park” (19 percent and 22 percent) will see 2000 or more theaters; but movies that critics rave about barely play.
In its best week, Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” (94 percent) was seen in only 203 theaters. “Touching the Void” (93 percent)? 137. One of my favorite movies of 2004, the surfing documentary “Riding Giants” (91 percent), had a high of 64 theaters one week. That’s it. Even the best week for the best-reviewed movie of the year, “Sideways” (96 percent), saw just 497 theaters, or about one-fifth of the theaters “Wicker Park” saw its opening weekend.
None of this is news, particularly, but it is a reminder of how marginalized quality is. It also raises a variety of complex issues. Do the majority of Americans go see crap because they like crap, or because it’s the only thing playing at the local cineplex?
Looked at one way, the stats blame the public. For 28 weeks last year, the number one movie in America was a rotten one. Looked at another way, the stats blame the movie distributors. For 29 weeks last year, the most widely distributed movie in America was a rotten one. Want to hear the scary part? Eleven of these weeks don’t match. That is, distributors blanketed America with a rotten movie, which America smartly side-stepped…only to go see a different rotten movie. It’s no wonder I’m cynical.
Wanted: The Bill James of movies
Twenty-five years ago Bill James helped create a revolution in the way we look at baseball statistics by asking simple questions. What’s the point of baseball? To win. How do you win? By scoring the most runs. How do you score runs? By getting on and moving around the bases. He concluded that the best measure for a hitter was not the traditional one — batting average — but on-base and slugging percentage. Eventually the baseball world agreed with him.
The movies need a Bill James. Every Monday we get a list of the Top 10 movies in terms of box office, but it only says what Hollywood wants to know ($$), not what we need to know. Which movie has the highest per-theater average? Which has the lowest? Are these films popular because people like them, or because they’re being pushed on us?
Sometimes you wonder if distributors even know what they’re doing. The most likable, date-friendly romantic comedy of 2004 was “Garden State” (88 percent), but it didn’t even earn a wide release (1000 or more theaters), let alone a very wide release (2000 or more theaters). Yet it still pulled in $26.7 million.
How many 2004 movies earned a very wide release and didn’t earn that much? Thirty-five: “Chasing Liberty,” “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet,” “Torque,” “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!,” “The Perfect Score,” “The Big Bounce,” “Catch That Kid,” “Eurotrip,” “Welcome to Mooseport,” “Twisted,” “Havana Nights,” “Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London,” “The Alamo,” “The Whole Ten Yards,” “The Girl Next Door,” “Godsend,” “Laws of Attraction,” “Envy,” “New York Minute,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Two Brothers,” “Sleepover,” “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Thunderbirds,” “Little Black Book,” “Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie,” “Paparazzi,” “Wicker Park,” “Mr. 3000,” “Wimbledon,” “First Daughter,” “Raise Your Voice,” “Surviving Christmas,” “Seed of Chucky,” and “Alfie.”
So why didn’t “Garden State” earn a wide release let alone a very wide release? Was its star, Zach Braff, too unknown? Too Jewish? Was the film too slow? Too quirky? Did it test poorly? Are these tests accurate? (Initially, remember, “Seinfeld” tested poorly.) By the way: Of the aforementioned 35 films, only four were considered “fresh” on rottentomatoes.com, and none of these came close to “Garden State’s” rating. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
What’s the point of movies? To entertain us with stories. Is this being done? Well, 44 for 157 would indicate…not particularly.
—Critic Erik Lundegaard agrees with the Tomatometer 66 percent of the time. This piece was originally published 1/27/05 on MSNBC.com.