The $100 Million Question
'Maverick' vs. 'The Mask'. What makes a blockbuster--creative genius or creative accounting?
As fall begins, Hollywood is still relishing the fairy-tale ending to its summer movie season, with eight films reaching ticket sales of $100 million. But some in the industry are saying those numbers are just that—a fairy tale. Their skepticism focuses on whether two of these movies, Warner Bros.’ Maverick and New Line’s The Mask, may have had some artificial help in getting to what industryites term ”the century mark.”
As Maverick’s run in full-price theaters wound down last month, its total gross came in under $92 million with its weekly take measuring about $300,000. But on Aug. 19, Warner put the film into discount theaters (which charge $2 or $3 per ticket); its gross jumped about 700 percent, and eyebrows shot up all over Hollywood. ”Just you watch,” said one marketing executive at a competing studio. ”They’ll get it to $100 million.” Indeed, at press time Maverick was on the brink of passing that milestone. As for The Mask, nobody in Hollywood ever doubted that it would reach $100 million-but how fast it got there has everyone talking.
Competitors claim that New Line may have beefed up the film’s end of summer grosses by as much as 20 percent so that The Mask would hit $100 million in time for post-Labor Day box office reports. The nine-figure-numbers game is more a matter of ego than economics. In today’s super-competitive Hollywood, producers, directors, stars, and studio heads are not satisfied with just a hit, they want a big hit-and that means hitting $100 million, no matter what it takes. This spring, to make director Ron Howard happy, Universal rereleased his comedy Parenthood, which topped out at $98.9 million during its initial 1989 run, and kept the film in theaters for 10 weeks — at no small expense — until it crawled over $100 million. ”That’s the official blockbuster mark. You have an indisputable hit,” says Universal director of production Sam Kitt. ”It’s one of those benchmarks-an exclusive club.”
Maybe so, but the membership requirements aren’t as strict as you’d think. In fact, the weekly estimated movie grosses listed in hundreds of newspapers and magazines (including this one) are often-how to put it?—optimistic, as studios jockey to reach the top 5 or top 10. ”When the numbers are close, there’s a temptation (to stretch them a bit),” says Hollywood Reporter box office analyst A.D. Murphy. ”Nobody wants to be number 6 or number 11. Those figures are (accurate) plus or minus 2 1 2 to 5 percent. Usually plus.”
Surprisingly, Hollywood usually turns a blind eye to that kind of statistical massage therapy-as long as nobody takes it too far. ”Yes, they inflate the estimates,” says John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, which compiles its weekly box office reports from studio estimates. ”Sometimes (studios) call me and find someone is ahead of them, and they change the figure. They’ll tell me they got more figures in. And I report what they tell me.”
”To some degree, everybody fudges,” admits one Universal executive. ”I / haven’t had any inkling that our reporting wasn’t largely accurate-with a fudge factor. The question is, where do you stop?”
The answer isn’t easy, especially since, as one distribution chief admits, there’s ”no downside” to rounding the numbers up. (”I’d fire someone if they didn’t do it,” says Murphy.) But several rival executives assert — not for attribution, of course — that Warner, which lacked a summer blockbuster this year, may be straining credibility with Maverick. They question Warner’s calculations that the film’s discount theater debut was stronger than that of Jurassic Park and cite the studio’s Pelican Brief (which officially grossed $100.7 million) as another film whose takes may have been padded. ”Name all the $90 million Warner Bros. movies,” jokes one studio honcho. ”There are none!”
Warner Bros. distribution chief Barry Reardon admits that ”there’s a tremendous pressure to keep movies in theaters to get to $100 million,” but dismisses the sniping over Maverick as ”petty jealousy” and says the film’s winning hand is simply a matter of its appeal to the older, working-class moviegoers who frequent discount theaters.
”Everybody wants to take a shot at us,” he says. ”But if intelligent people do some research, they’ll find out what (discount) markets are worth these days and they’d have no problem accepting the numbers…. Our own Bodyguard did $8 million to $9 million in the dollar houses. With the economy so soft, second-run theaters are being built that are like palaces…. Maverick was a great picture for the dollar houses. It’s a blue-collar movie. I timed it to (open in discount theaters) the last three weeks of summer.”
Since all studios freely admit that the weekly grosses they’re reporting are, at least initially, estimated, the just-in-time ascension of The Mask to $100 million may have been lucky-or it may have been a case of slightly overenthusiastic guesswork. On Tuesday, Sept. 6, early projections had the film’s gross for the weekend at $5.6 million, which would have brought it to a total gross of $99.3 million. But the next day, the reported number had risen to $6.6 million, edging The Mask over the top. New Line marketing and distribution president Mitchell Goldman calls the claim that The Mask s-s- smoked its way to $100 million too quickly for comfort ”not true at all,” he says. ”I resent the major film companies deciding that New Line shouldn’t have a $100 million picture. Everyone else lies all the time. We didn’t jump the gun at all.”
Most of the studios make sure that the reported figure at the end of a film’s run is the right one. After all, their own producers’ reports, which reflect revenues returned to the studio, must bear some relation to reality. But questions about Hollywood’s new math may continue to arise with every film that suddenly seems to earn an extra $8 million or $10 million. Maybe it’s just good fortune. Or maybe, as one perplexed studio executive puts it, ”This is a matter of adding what isn’t there.”