Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: Forget the Box Office

By  · Published on July 5th, 2011

I’ll be the first to admit that the title of this post is a tad hyperbolic. The box office should not necessarily be forgotten, and it does, to an extent, matter. Predicting openings, percentage drops, and analyzing receipts present an interesting way to interact with movies as well as provide one of many ways to attempt an understanding of audiences in terms of evolving trends and patterns, as our own Jeremy Kirk does so astutely twice a week. Waiting until the early afternoon every Sunday to see the weekend’s estimations has been part of my weekly Internet routine for as long as I’ve been a movie nerd. Box office is, simply put, a part of the conversation.

But we aren’t movie executives. Our investment is the box office is tied only to our social, emotional, and intellectual engagement with the films that sell tickets. The amount of tickets sold to see the product should never be confused with the product itself, and box office has severe limitations and problems in terms of understanding audiences’ relationship to a film. My concern with the ways we interact with and form conversations around box-office is not in regard to whether we should have such conversations at all, but the problematic meanings we routinely extrapolate from these numbers. To be frank, unless you work for a movie studio, a movie’s worth is never measurable in numbers. I concede that this is an obvious point, but unfortunately the box office continues to disproportionately dominate so many evaluations.

Since Wednesday, audiences have gathered in droves to see a third movie in a franchise based on a line of toys. While the conversation hasn’t been as incendiary as it was two years ago with the release of Revenge of the Fallen (which I’m told is far inferior to the first and third, though I honestly can’t discern any qualitative differences between these overlong assaults to stimuli), but yet another conversation has emerged about the supposedly vast divide between audiences and critics, an observation further “evidenced” by the film’s $110+ million take over the 4-day weekend in contrast to its rotten 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

When it comes to box office, a repeated market argument is often made – the notion that the popularity of a film can be measured by box office intake because filmgoing is a democratic exercise. Audiences vote with their dollar. The problem with this argument is that audiences don’t really know what the product is until they’ve spent that dollar. For this point I turn to one of Adam Charles’ many insightful observations in his article about critical practices from a few months back:

“The truth is, critics see everything. They have to; that’s their job. The general public doesn’t have to; that isn’t their job. They can see whatever interests them. What interests them may not be a film that critics liked, however they also don’t have to give their opinion on the film after they’ve watched it to be made available to everyone with internet access. Therefore, we’ll never know if the millions of people who contributed to the film’s box-office take actually liked the movie, we just know they paid for it. However, we do get an idea of how many critics actually saw the film and liked it, because most who saw it had to, or wanted to review it.”

The “audiences vote with their dollar” equation also gives far too much power to audiences themselves. It assumes that national audiences have an equal playing field of choice, that an audience member could have chosen Transformers: Dark of the Moon just as easily as they could’ve chosen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives this past weekend. If audiences aren’t aware of the huge variety of options, how can we ever honestly say filmgoing is a thoroughly democratic practice? If certain distributors (i.e., the big studios) have a disproportionate amount of money-backed power in terms of wideness of release and pervasiveness of advertising, the choice of what to see this weekend isn’t much of a choice at all. And in terms of molding audience taste through limited choice at the multiplex, isn’t the need for an international audience to regain costs and the constant appeal that results from many Hollywood films to the lowest, widest, and broadest common denominator as much to blame for the critic/audience disparity as any other factor?

A recent New York Times article posted a twitter feed of how many people walked out of various Tree of life screenings and how soon. Ostensibly, the tweets are supposed to provide further evidence of the film’s mass alienating of non-Malick-familiar audiences in the aftermath of the Avon Theater’s posting of a rather wordy no-refunds sign. Tree of Life, in my opinion, is a great film. It’s not a film for everybody, but that’s part of what makes it a great film. Malick’s films are an event because they’re unique, they’re one-of-a-kind, they’re incomparable and inimitable. They’re not supposed to make the kind of money that a Michael Bay movie makes. If they did, there would be more movies like it and thus, movies like it would no longer be as special. The most recent Transformers film did exactly the logical extent what Hollywood has done best (or, rather, most) since the advent of the first Star Wars lunchbox, and Tree of Life has done what art cinema does best since it defined itself as a relief from the mainstream.

What bothers me about the NYT-quoted twitter feed is not that people were walking out of Tree of Life, but that other attendees who sat through Tree of Life were watching other audience members leave, possibly (though hopefully not) with a glance at their watch and a visit to their smart phone immediately following. While there’s little doubt most of the walkouts were people who didn’t like the film, this observation is still painting with too broad a brush: some could be fans of art cinema but find Malick intolerable, others could have had personal emergencies they needed to attend to, and there’s no reason to assume that if people left in groups that the entire group actually wanted to leave. A walkout is simply that. After all, Tree of Life experienced similar walkouts at its Cannes premiere before winning the Palme d’Or.

But all of this only points to a greater problem in our rationale and interpretation of the box office. Whether you’re watching for Tree of Life walkouts or making a highly specious argument that the failure of the beloved-yet-underperforming Scott Pilgrim is the reason the guaranteed-awesome At the Mountains of Madness will never get made, the argument is essentially the same: it’s basing the value of your opinion of a particular film on elements outside of the film, often including the inferred opinion of others.

If a movie you didn’t like made a lot of money, that doesn’t mean everybody that saw it loved it or were tasteless minions chomping at the bit – it only means they paid for it. If a movie you loved didn’t make much money, that doesn’t mean there was an overwhelming negative opinion of the film, nor does it mean that audiences knew enough about the film in order to have the opportunity to dismiss it, nor does it mean that had more people seen it they would have enjoyed it like you did. While I encourage everybody to advocate for the films they love, a film’s box office intake should do nothing to affect one’s love of that film. One can certainly be happy that the people who worked on a film you enjoyed found financial success, but if that’s not the case there is not a logical reason I can think of to let a film’s monetary intake make one feel anything beyond their own personal experience of the film unless there was a personal financial investment in the production itself. There are simply far too many other factors at play that determine a movie’s performance and reception to even begin taking the fallacious “buy a ticket/love the movie; don’t buy a ticket/reject the movie” equation even remotely seriously.

Don’t forget the box-office, but do forget it as the end of evaluating a film’s reception or worth. Own your opinions. Don’t let numbers, and the simplistic, silly assumptions associated with them, do the owning for you.

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