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Saturday, 18 November, 2000, 11:30 GMT
Box office mania hits Hollywood
By BBC News Online's New York entertainment correspondent Tom Brook
Box office mania has once again hit Hollywood with a slew of big budget spectacles set to open in US cinemas during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season.
In the coming days studio executives will nervously track the fortunes of their respective films in what has come to resemble a box office sweepstake.
This weekend executives at Universal will follow the grosses on Jim Carrey's new film How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
They want to see how it fares against Paramount's new Rugrats movie and Sony's sci-fi action thriller The Sixth Day starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On Wednesday the pressure will really intensify with the arrival of two Thanksgiving holiday releases from Disney - the sequel 102 Dalmatians and the supernatural drama Unbreakable starring Bruce Willis.
Los Angeles-based Tom Borys, President of ACNielsen EDI, the leading company collecting and tabulating cinema grosses, confirms media reporting of box office figures has really mushroomed.
He says when it comes to box office coverage: "You almost can't escape it, it feels like every news media picks it up and it's in the fabric.
"It's on every TV show, every national print media will cover it, it will be on the radio as soon as possible."
The news media is largely catering to a public that has become extremely well versed in the behind-the-scenes machinations of the film industry.
"I think there's an association of what's hot, what's popular, what's got the buzz."
But box office mania is probably still most intense among studio executives.
Some of them begin to monitor cinema grosses almost around the clock from the moment their films are released.
To cater to their almost desperate need to know, ACNielsen EDI recently launched a wireless Internet service called FilmBeacon.
This instantly transmits box office grosses to a hand-held computer shortly after a screening has begun.
This gadget has become a state-of-the-art fashion accessory that no studio marketing executive can afford to be without.
He says, whether he's in his office or not, he can use this technology to ascertain how well one of his releases is performing in a matinee screening 3,000 miles away in New York.
He says getting box office figures so speedily and from any location is a huge boon.
"You don't have to be chained to your desk or to your computer to get the information that you need."
Studio executives are anxious to get their hands on box office figures as quickly as possible.
Even on the basis of Friday grosses at US cinemas, they can apply simple formulas enabling them to predict with a fair measure of accuracy a picture's long term prospects.
Studio bosses are mindful of the huge publicity windfall that comes their way if a film claims the top box office spot.
They now do everything in their power to ensure their movies open to the biggest possible audience on a Friday night.
"They must go to see that movie and the object is to make them think they have to go to see the movie Friday night."
With the marketplace so competitive, studios also need to open big to ensure that their film has a reasonable chance of recouping costs.
As Tom Borys points out, with most Hollywood films there is an average investment of $75m.
"It's a huge investment and you do live and die in your first week.
"Roughly 28% of your box office happens in your first week. That's about a third of the gross of the film for its life. You need to make your money very quickly."
But now a do-or-die atmosphere prevails and it's very hard for a picture to survive if it doesn't open strongly in its first week of business.
For the moviegoer there is a downside because many worthwhile pictures that don't open strongly end up having a very short shelf life in cinemas before they are quickly discarded to make way for the next potential blockbuster.
As a result audiences are often steered towards pictures that may have triumphed at the box office, not because of their intrinsic entertainment value but as a result of marketing acumen and hype.
The sense that there is a weekly box office sweepstake also contributes to a cultural frenzy, in which the public is repeatedly bombarded with a new range of films presented as products to be rapidly consumed and ranked according to popularity.
It is not the ideal climate for fostering cinema art. Nor does it cater to those filmgoers who want to take their time and savour thought-provoking films.
But in Hollywood it is the bottom line that counts, and now, more than ever, opening at number one has become the key to profitability.
So, like it or not, box office mania is only going to intensify.
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