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Scorsese’s Box Office Coverage Complaints: Do We Really Hurt Movies?

All credit to Scorsese for focusing on what matters. But the reality is that, on balance, box office coverage does more good than bad.

“Decision to Kill” (MUNI) grossed an impressive $96,000 in only three theaters this weekend. “Terrifier 2” (Cinedigm/Iconic) went up 28 percent in its second weekend to take eighth place among all films, despite only being in 700 theaters. If you’ve heard about either film, part of the reason might be because of box office reporting.

At an October 12 New York Film festival screening of “Personality Crisis: One Night Only,” co-director Martin Scorsese decried box office coverage in the media.

“Since the ’80s, there’s been a focus on numbers that is kind of repulsive… the emphasis is now on numbers, cost, the opening weekend, how much it made in the USA, how much it made in England, how much it made in Asia, how much it made in the entire world, how many viewers it got.”

This came after two straight weekends when two notable studio releases had disappointing results.

“Bros” (Universal), focused on gay characters, took in less than $5 million. David O. Russell’s “Amsterdam” (Disney), with an $80 million budget, performed far below the director’s earlier hits with only $6.4 million. Both then received negative attention — “Bros” enhanced greatly by Billy Eichner’s ill-considered comments, “Amsterdam” by estimates of what Disney might lose (up to $100 million).

As someone who has followed box office coverage both as an exhibitor and now as an analyst, this involves me. My takeaway?  Though Scorsese is correct that, ultimately, art, not business, deserves the focus, his concern is overstated.

It is true there is now more rapid public awareness of grosses. But the information was never secret within the industry. What happens now is that confirmed results — hopefully accurately reported — are more widely known. What harm that does is unclear.

For sure, like everything else in the world, information is elevated with far more intensity and possible reaction because of social media. If a film fails, that can hurt egos.

The elevation of “Decision to Kill” and “Terrifier 2” because of news of their box office success is not unusual.  Exactly three years ago, “Parasite” opened in three New York and Los Angeles theaters. Its substantial initial gross was a huge news story that was reported on for months. The film was the draw, but the attention aided its unlikely route to success. Recently, “RRR” from India doing a domestic $11 million — low for studio films, but news because of its roots — is another case.

"RRR"

“RRR”

DVV Entertainment

Any given month can give examples. Box office reporting aids a range of films regularly. Look at “Smile” recently — it was the surprise biggest opening weekend in September. Reporting celebrated that. It had a B- Cinemascore (usually not favorable), yet fell only 18 percent, a stunningly low drop, its second weekend. The glow surrounding it helped. Success begets success, whether it’s movie releases or other media.

Getting the word out on bad results hardly changes a trajectory. Eichner made sure anyone unaware that “Bros” had flopped knew, worsening the situation. But by the time a film has failed to find an audience, the die is cast and not reporting on it would change little.

Actually, the current system for most films with wide releases means word of failure influences fewer viewers than decades ago. In the period Scorsese refers to pre-“Jaws,” most films were released more slowly. When they did poorly initially (“Harold and Maude,” the musical “Lost Horizon,” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love,” all prime examples), word got out and hurt later.

There are examples today where box office returns aren’t reported. Grosses for theatrical releases of Netflix (Scorsese’s “The Irishman” an example), Amazon, and Apple original movies are kept hidden. That reduces the attention they get, even with the argument that they shouldn’t be judged the same as other movies. But not having grosses reported doesn’t help elevate them as real movies.

It’s a point we’ve noted frequently since COVID arrived. The moment the seriousness of the impact became news was when China shut down its theaters. And the impact on domestic ones became a story far beyond the importance of an industry with revenues below what McDonald’s does in a year.

It is vital to the future of movies in theaters that they get media coverage far above their importance. Scorsese is right that art needs to be judged by creative criteria, not revenues. But the reality is that even if box office coverage has its issues, not getting covered would hurt, not help movies.

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