What If They Didn’t Report the Box Office Figures… and Nobody Cared

It was stunning news. In light of the horrible events that played out at Midnight, 20 July, in a crowded Colorado movie theater, Warner Brothers made the decision to not report box office totals for its Summer tentpole release, The Dark Knight Rises. While many believed the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise would easily come close or match the huge returns of May’s The Avengers, the studio felt it would be insensitive and inappropriate to discuss earnings with so many dead and hurting. It was a smart move for a company concerned about both the safety of the public and its own bottom line. Without numbers to toss around (though some outlets are playing the estimate game), the tragedy in Aurora is sparred another senseless media scar (Warners will, on second thought, release some information today, Monday).

Indeed, over the last few days, both Nolan and his work of cinematic art have been the subject of so much pointless speculation that the truth — one crazy young man committed a horrific act of mass murder — is getting lost… or at the very least, micromanaged for maximum ratings points. Websites post science fair video of the alleged killer, trying to read something into his button down nerd persona. The ‘Net goes even further, investigating his life to the point where profiles on Match.com and some pseudo-swingers site have become some manner of anecdotal evidence. As the police dismantle an apartment full of booby traps and families begin the difficult process of healing, Warners wants none of the attention marketing success might bring. The Dark Knight Rises will be fine, financially. No need to celebrate such a triumph at this time.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this move is how unprecedented it really is. Ever since the late ’80s, when high concept movies regularly broached the $100 blockbuster benchmark, box office results have been a part of the regular news cycle. Between wars in far off lands and political turmoil at home, Monday morning talking heads highlighted the weekend’s “winners”, success always signified by dollar signs instead of critical or creative consensus. With each proceeding phenomenon, the box office results became more and more ‘significant’. Outlets looking for scoops became prime candidates to cart out the studio’s scientific ‘estimates’. The fact that said statements had to, on occasion, be modified to reflect real attendance over the three/four/five day period became nothing more than a speed bump in the race to declare an entertainment victor.

As media has become more and more democratized, such an obsession makes sense. We cattle like to feel as if we are part of the herd, and the box office results are our veiled vox populi. We measure ourselves against the popularity of what’s playing at our local Cineplex, arguing for our own aesthetic appreciation when something unconscionable (usually the latest from some soon to burn out flavor of the month) makes it all the way to the top. Of course, we don’t take certain givens into our collective complaints. Almost any family film, unless it is truly god awful, will swallow up significant weekend numbers for the mere fact that parents need a place to stash their spoiled, subjectively entitled kids for a good 80 minutes. Add in a true brand like Disney, Pixar, or Shrek, and the returns are a review-proof guarantee.

The popcorn part of this is no different. This year, we had three major superhero films vying for end of Summer superiority. Of the three, only The Amazing Spider-man was a legitimate question mark. Since it was a reboot, without any real significant star power and an unknown action quantity behind the lens (Marc Webb), it could have gone either way. But The Avengers had fanboy fave Joss Whedon, and an entire back catalog of ersatz epics to work with. And Batman… well, enough said. Still, there’s a given in the movie biz, a basic quantification that continuously confuses and frustrates those of us who cover it. Michael Bay can be lambasted from here to Pearl Harbor over his lack of subtlety and flagrant ADD bombast, and yet each one of his Transformer films made a mint.

Besides, all box office reporting is uniformly flawed in one chief way — it fails to take into consideration the international impact on the overall result. Think that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was a lesser installment in the lagging franchise? Maybe even a bomb? Think again. While it made a mere $204 million in North America, it earned a staggering $800 million overseas. That makes this otherwise mediocre mess a member of the elite Billionaires club. Similarly, Battleship may have flopped in American theaters, but in other places around the planet it managed to make close to $250 million (the total now eclipses $300 million). As you can see, such bean counting is never an indication of actual quality.

What it is, however, is a barometer, a quick cultural meter of what we embrace, and what we reject. It’s a tired talking point, a means of avoiding both conflict and abject individuality. The box office results literally mean nothing in the grand scheme of things (Tyler Perry consistently opens films, but the end result is never a massive commercial contender) and have lead to more wrong conclusions than right (as mentioned before). No, it’s a false badge of honor, a holdover from when Hollywood had to battle back against the upstart Independents, increasing pay TV choices, and the overriding influence of the Internet. Now, it’s something to note in a post-weekend aside, an indicator of popularity and marketing push, nothing more.

Warners may sense there would have been/will be a symbolic outrage if and when it releases a final total (along with the accompanying commentary from clueless pundits), but what they really want to avoid is next to impossible – the stain of association. No matter what the final tally, The Dark Knight Rises is destined to go down as the movie that inspired/incited a massacre… rightfully or wrongfully. Perhaps, with time, the association will grow thin and then fade away. Until that time, nothing the studio does will alter the current climate. For many, the lack of an ‘official’ box office result will mean very little this week. Considering what it does and does not represent, it should have never really mattered in the first place.