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Why the New York Times Shouldn't Try to Predict Summer Box Office


That article again? Yeah, that article again.

On May 15th, The New York Times published an article about a movie industry worried over how summer would go without the usual glut of sequels. The article bothered me in so many ways I had trouble articulating a response, but back then I wrote, "How is this news? It's prognostication. It's a vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn't occurred."

Now that some of it has occurred, how are their worries looking? Like they should've been worried about something else:

1. As hot as Iron Man is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year's summer season kick-off movie, Spider Man 3, by about 25 percent in the same time. One of the many facile comparisons in the piece. They're comparing a hit movie with a movie that shattered the weekend box office record. If they'd dug deeper they would've realized that Spider-Man 3, which wasn't a very good movie, dropped off precipitously in its subsequent weeks, while Iron Man, which is a good summer movie (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), has legs. In a head-to-head match-up, Shell-Head beats Web-Head every week but the first two and now trails by only 8 1/2 percent: $304M to $332M (out of a final $336M). In the end, the race between the two -- if it is a race between the two -- will be closer than anyone thought.
2. But even with the help of ticket price inflation "Indiana Jones" is the only one that appears a relatively safe gamble to hit the $300 million mark. Iron Man just passed it.
3. Sex and the City... could become a hit on the order, of, say, The Devil Wears Prada, which took in $125 million when it was released in June of 2006. But that would still fall short of Knocked Up... Knocked Up made $149 million. After four weeks, Sex is already at $132 million. Should pass it within a month.
4. Kung Fu Panda, from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as Madagascar, the company's best-performing movie to date outside the Shrek series, with $193 million in ticket sales, and barely edge out last summer's The Simpsons Movie, which took in $183 million. After three weeks (or weekends), Kung Fu Panda is at $155 million. Madagascar didn't reach that point until its fifth weekend.

I don't mean to suggest I could've predicted any of this (I couldn't). My point has always been that it's not the business of The New York Times to engage in this kind of facile prognostication. Coulda woulda shoulda. Tell me news. That means: Stuff that's happened.

OR if you're going to write about box office, dig deeper. Because ultimately, last summer, record-setting or not, was a disappointment at the box office. Every one of those blockbusters sequels -- Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates 3 -- underperformed, and they underperformed because they weren't that good. They made less money than their immediate predecessors, and the winner of the three, Spider-Man 3, the no. 1 movie of the year, is, when you adjust for inflation, only 92nd all time. That may seem a cheap comparison -- it may even seem like an accomplishment -- but every year this decade, save 2000, has a film above it on the list. These films include both Spider-Man movies, both Pirates movies, two Star Wars movies, all three Lord of the Rings movies, Shrek 2, Finding Nemo and The Passion of the Christ.

What truly worried the studios, as this summer approached, was the lack of a sure thing like Spider-Man. Instead they've had to rely on original movies, pretty well-made, that got good word-of-mouth. And people have come out. Imagine that.