One of the things I like about crunching box office numbers is how much it unwarps my perspective. It gives me a swift reality check.
Example. Last year I must have seen the trailer to Eagle vs. Shark a dozen times. I frequent Landmark Theater chains and they kept showing it, along with those increasingly bothersome Stella Artois ads; and while I was never interested in seeing the film (too many indie clichés), I assumed it would play in the 200-300 theater range, such as The Science of Sleep did in 2006. Nope. Topped out at 20. Twenty. Arrived June 15th, left August 5th. To me it seemed the film would never go away and yet it hardly showed up at all.
Meanwhile, movies that played in 100 times as many theaters, such as The Messengers, The Condemned, The Invisible and The Last Legion, didn't even make a soft impression on my brain. Niche dynasties are being created without an ounce of awareness on my part. And it's only getting worse.
Overall, by my admittedly suspect calculations, and not including re-releases, 596 films played in U.S. theaters in 2007. They range in availability from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which overwhelmed 4,362 domestic theaters last May, to the 77 films, such as Oswald's Ghost, Primo Levi's Journey and Looking for Cheyenne, whose widest domestic release was exactly one theater.
In quality, 2007's films range from IMAX: Sea Monsters, which got a 100% rating from the compiled critics on rottentomatoes.com, to the three films (Constellation, Redline and Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour) that couldn't even manage a marginal thumbs-up from an online critic.
I've been crunching box office numbers for a few years now (here are links to articles about 2004, 2005 and 2006 box office) and, despite the occasional swift reality check, generally the numbers bear out what most of us know intuitively: critically acclaimed films rarely get wide or even marginal releases, while universally despised films are spread like manure across the country. You begin to wonder, in fact, why anyone in their right mind would want to be a movie critic. The job is essentially quality control in an industry that not only doesn't care about quality but seems to punish it. No wonder print publications, which are abandoning their own forms of quality control, are letting movie critics go.
How bad was it last year? Of those 596 films, 406 didn't manage a marginal release (500+ theaters), and of these, 65 were so marginal they didn't accrue the five reviews necessary to get a Rotten Tomatoes rating. But of the remaining 341 films, 215 were deemed "fresh" by Rotten Tomatoes (i.e., 60% of movie critics gave the film a positive review). In other words, if you went to a film that didn't get a marginal release in 2007 -- including La Vie En Rose, Once and The Namesake -- you had a 63% chance of seeing a film most critics thought watchable.
From there, the numbers drop. A movie whose widest release was in the 500-1999-theater range? A 39% chance it was watchable. In the 2,000-2,999-theater range? 22%. Basically one in five. You have a better chance of meeting someone who thinks Pres. Bush is doing a good job than seeing a good movie that plays in 2,000 theaters.
Full charts are available here.
Quality spikes up in the 3000-theater range to 43%. A nice surprise but it shouldn't be. One assumes studios and distributors know what they're doing and save their better popcorn films (a Norbit notwithstanding) for super-wide release. The critics' numbers simply reflect that.
(And I don't mean to imply that a Rotten Tomatoes rating is sacrosanct. One of 2007's big disappointments for me, Spider-Man 3, buoyed, one expects, by fanboy critics and weary newspaper critics, managed a "fresh" RT rating of 62%. RT is simply a general overview -- a way of quantifying quality -- but there are still a few bugs in the system.)
The overall numbers are actually starker when you chart for initial release rather than widest release: 64% for 1-499 screens, 26% for 500-1999 screens, 21% for 2000-2999 screens and 39% for 3000+ screens.
Now I know that trying to stop a Spider-Man or a Shrek is like trying to stop an avalanche. But at the least -- at the least -- these numbers should give moviegoers pause before attending a film that opens in the 2,000-theater range. For films to open in this many theaters, their concept has to have some kind of widespread appeal. So why don't they open wider? Most likely, they're not good enough to be popcorn pictures. Consider them stale popcorn pictures.
Imagine that you only saw films that opened on 2000-2999 screens. Here's what you would've seen in the first 12 weeks of 2008: One Missed Call (0% RT rating), Meet the Spartans (3%), College Road Trip (12%), First Sunday (15%), Untraceable (16%), The Eye (19%), Mad Money (20%), Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (25%), Never Back Down (26%), Step Up 2 the Streets (27%), Rambo (31%) and Definitely, Maybe (72%).
One out of 12. And I don't even know about the one.
Americans have already spent over $420 million on these 12 films. Surely there's better uses for our money, our time, our lives.