Box-office figures may be exaggerated

July 04, 1995|By Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos,Los Angeles Times

Hollywood -- Each Sunday, Hollywood studios release estimates of how their movies performed at the box office, and the resulting Top 10 list is disseminated to the world through the media.

The nation's No. 1 movie, be it "Batman Forever" or "Pocahontas" or "Congo," is, thus, judged a success or failure in the public mind simply by how much money it took in on its opening weekend of release.

But how accurate are those Sunday numbers that receive such wide play?

While studio executives say every effort is made to be as accurate as possible, they acknowledge that the process, by its very nature, is flawed.

Indeed, in the neck-and-neck race between Disney's % 5/8 "Pocahontas" and Warner Bros.' "Batman" two weekends ago, both studios delivered estimates on that Sunday that were off by million from the actual figures released the next day.

In the case of Disney, some Hollywood observers questioned whether the studio had inflated its estimate on "Pocahontas."

"If you've been around in this business long enough," said one source familiar with box-office accounting, "you know Disney couldn't do what they projected [last] Sunday."

Disney officials declined to comment on the accuracy of their estimate.

In recent years, the box-office Top 10 list has emerged as a key barometer not only of movies but the economic viability of studios and even public taste. As entertainment has become viewed more and more as a business, the media have focused attention on how well films do at the box office.

A No. 1 ranking not only can create a tremendous buzz around a movie but also prop up a studio's morale and even salvage careers.

But those who regularly deal with box-office figures acknowledge that mistakes can be made.

"Anybody can abuse anything," said Dan Marks, vice president of marketing and sales for Entertainment Data Inc., a company that tracks box office. "You cannot assume this is a pure system."

Studio officials say the public has now come to expect box-office figures on Sunday and they don't see that changing, but they lament that the figures can't be more precise.

"When you are giving out Sunday estimates, you are being asked to predict facts before they happen," said Paramount Pictures distribution chief Barry London. "You have to do an educated estimate based on your experience and patterns in the business. . . . It's an inexact science by nature."

Jeff Blake, who heads distribution at Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures, concedes that the process is "weird science," but added: "The public would like to know if 'Pocahontas' is the No. 1 picture and I think they want to know that on Sunday."

Tom Sherak, the distribution chief at 20th Century Fox, agreed that Sunday box-office estimates are here to stay but added: "I've never believed that estimates should be given on Sunday. We should get the numbers on Monday and be closer to the real numbers."

Still another studio insider summed it up this way: "Everybody overestimates on Sundays."

Warner Bros. spokesman Rob Friedman said it has only been in the last six years that the media have focused so much attention on box-office estimates.

"The industry didn't use to report this," Mr. Friedman said. "The media began reporting this in 1989. That was Sequel Summer and also the summer of 'Batman.' There was one after another giant movie and everybody started scrambling [to report the box-office figures]."

Last year, a controversy erupted over the duel between the Warner Bros. movie "The Specialist" and Miramax Films' "Pulp Fiction."

According to Daily Variety, the Hollywood trade publication, Warner Bros. initially reported a conservative estimate of $8.9 million for "The Specialist," with industry trackers saying "Pulp Fiction" was trailing by $200,000 to $500,000.

Then, Variety said, Miramax co-chairman Bob Weinstein personally called in a figure of "better than $9.1 million" -- his figures including 72 additional Canadian and 18 U.S. play dates, which he said someone in the company had overlooked. Warner Bros. then revised its figure to $9.3 million, saying its initial percentage calculations had been incorrect.

Two Sundays ago, Disney estimated that "Pocahontas" would make $30.5 million for the weekend while Warner Bros. estimated "Batman's" take would be $28.2 million.

The following morning, however, a company that tracks box-office earnings came out with preliminary figures showing "Batman" apparently had beaten out "Pocahontas" by a slim margin.

Exhibitor Relations Inc. said its figures were estimates only and were subject to change, but they were distributed to the news media, which picked up on the story.

As it turned out, however, Disney did win the weekend. "Pocahontas" brought in $29.5 million compared to $29.2 million for "Batman."

While the public might not care who wins, studios do. The stakes are particularly crucial to Disney and Warner Bros., two of Hollywood's most powerful studios, which each year seem to battle it out for No. 1 in overall market share.

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