George Lucas Talks His ‘Divorce’ From ‘Star Wars’

30 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Numbers of the devil: Star Wars and the dark arts of box office analysis.

Questioned about whether the prequel would beat Titanic as America’s all-time box-office No 1 film, he dispensed Jedi wisdom: “This is not a contest. But you suspect even he didn’t anticipate the Force-choke of expectation currently tweaking his trachea regarding The Force Awakens’ box-office performance (as if restoring the series’ quality wasn’t enough).

If he fails to steal Avatar’s $2.8bn crown as the most successful film ever, Abrams will be given about as sympathetic a treatment by certain entertainment news websites as one of Darth Vader’s spluttering minions. (By the way, Mr Vader, it’s worth considering that no sequel or prequel has ever been the US’s or the world’s highest-grossing film.) Something has happened in the movie world since the late 90s. Yet one of the 2015 members of the $1bn club, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sixth highest-grossing film ever, was reportedly deemed a failure by Disney executives because it didn’t beat the box-office total of the first Avengers film. Spectre has been subjected to similar feverish hectoring about failing to live up to Skyfall, which in 2012 grossed nearly twice as much as the nearest previous Bond movie.

At the beginning of the year, there was a burst of speculation about whether, on the back of a number of resurgent franchises, 2015 would break through the current $11bn ceiling and become the biggest ever year at the US box office. The internet, says Forbes box-office analyst Scott Mendelson, has been the kerosene on this bonfire of the box-office vanities: “It’s the nature of having a bazillion different entertainment news sites that need a consistent flow of content that people will read.

Something must be wrong.’” He sensed the SEO knives being sharpened for Spectre early. “A headline like: ‘Why Spectre is a huge hit but won’t make as much money as Skyfall’ isn’t going to get as much traffic as ‘Can the 007 franchise be saved?’” In this rush to feed the anticipation for hits, very few news outlets treat box-office data rationally, in terms of “the ebb and flow of the market”, Mendelson says. Mendelson says that this state of perpetual anxiety kicked off with The Dark Knight in 2008, which convinced mainstream news outlets such as Forbes that there was “money to be made” in covering geek-centric culture. Given that superhero films were spearheading the industry in financial terms, this meant a boom in box-office speculation – fanned by the horde of digital newcomers.

In May 2006, wanting to get publicity for their films on the influential news aggregation site Drudge Report, Sony fed early numbers for The Da Vinci Code to the iconoclastic showbiz reporter Nikki Finke. This, reckons Poland, was the moment when box office data crossed over from the province of industry insiders to internet parlour gossip. “Now people cover it without much awareness of what it is, or how it works,” Poland says. But, fundamentally, Hollywood is implicated in the wider process. “The studios would prefer this box-office sport not exist,” says Poland. “But given that it’s there, and it’s not going to go away, because you can’t make it go away, they’re working it. And they work it very effectively.” Co-opting a movie’s financial performance for the purposes of publicity is a trick that dates back to the 70s.

The dominant mainstream form that emerged was wedded to box office performance, down to the name itself: “There were images in the trade newspapers of people queuing around the block to see them,” remembers Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “The box office was manifested in a visual. That’s where the term ‘blockbuster’ came from.” Box office-as-publicity became systematic after Tim Burton’s Batman managed a colossal $40.4m opening weekend in 1989. But “Batman taught Hollywood that if it had a movie everybody already wanted to see [in advance], you could make so much money, it didn’t matter if was any good”, says Mendelson. The ensuing obsession with putting bums on seats in the first 72 hours of a film’s release created a culture that fixated on and exploited box-office numbers for publicity – especially first-weekend figures.

Sometimes for disingenuous purposes by studios seeking to undermine a rival. “Everybody knows it’s not really in their interests to take down another studio,” says Poland, “because then you get taken down the next week.” But it still happens, whether by deliberately over-inflating expectations, or by pre-emptively establishing the idea of a film as a flop – as befell the Tom Cruise sci-fi extravaganza Edge of Tomorrow in May last year. Early reports of a $25m debut established the narrative, says Mendelson, of “Tom Cruise having a flop; or Tom Cruise being beaten by a girl [Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars]. Which incidentally is a sexist narrative.” The $178m film, which was comparatively innovative for a blockbuster, story-wise, opened weakly indeed ($28.8m) and eventually took $369.2m, only just making its costs back once prints and advertising are factored in. We’ll never know the true financial picture in Hollywood, because it doesn’t want us to. “There are no DVD numbers and never will be,” says Poland. “There are no VOD numbers and never will be.

You don’t see hard numbers for anything else in the film business because they’ve turned [opening-weekend gross] into a marketing tool.” Poland doesn’t believe, as some do, that box-office auditing based on ticket sales, rather than the more manipulable dollar count, would provide an accurate picture of studio finances. The last 15 years have been a period of explosive box-office growth, and if there is more pressure to break records, it’s because so many have been broken. Since then, another 19 have crossed the mark, with a possible two more (Spectre; The Force Awakens) to do so this year. $1.5bn, as attained by The Avengers, Furious 7 and Jurassic World, is the new $1bn. Much of the growth has been driven by cinema-building in developing markets such as China, Russia and Mexico, but there is no guarantee that this building will continue. Jonathan Papish, boxoffice.com’s analyst for the country, says he can see early signs of a fever there, too: “Tracking is only just starting to develop in China and predicting is still hard to do well.

Intelligent box-office reporting – spotlighting the complicated set of variables by which a movie sinks or swims, and not making cheap comparisons – can also play a part in moving things beyond opening-weekend mania and towards well-conceived, responsibly budgeted projects. “Box office isn’t poker, it’s blackjack,” says Mendelson. “Movies aren’t always competing against each other, but they are always competing against themselves.”

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