Politics and sports have long had many kindred elements. And, of late, the media's approach to the motion picture business has begun to take on a similar "win/loss column" mentality.
Why does The Washington Post print a list each week of the top-grossing movies in the country? The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, along with many other big-city papers, now do the same every week. Why has this become news? For nearly 70 years, the trade paper Variety provided this information to those working in the business. No one outside Hollywood cared. Suddenly, everyone does.
My heart sank when I noticed on a recent trip to London that even the granddaddy of all serious news outlets, the Times of London, now carries a weekly Top 10 list (although on that side of the pond, it's called "U.S. Weekend Box-Office Takings," which, for those of us in the rough-and-tumble of the movie business, has a fine ring to it). Still, of what use is this information to the public? What harm it is, I know well.
The growing obsession with the "sport" of the movie business is, I believe, deeply unhealthy for the quality of American movies. We in the industry are, and must be, aggressively concerned about the profitability of the movies we make (please note, as those papers rarely do, that such profitability often does not coincide with the weekend rankings, thus undermining legitimate business justifications for the charts). And yes, now that how much money a movie makes on a weekend gets such extensive media coverage, we use it to help sell successful movies.
When "Entrapment" opened at No. 1 at the U.S. box office in May, our advertisements proudly proclaimed that fact. Yet the absurd degree to which instant success has become so important is perhaps best illustrated by a wonderful recent "Austin Powers" headline in an ad urging audiences to "See the #1 Comedy in America . . . that's a sequel by a Canadian who's left-handed." God bless Austin and leave it to him to put our national preoccupation with winning in its proper cinematic place.
What should matter is how good a movie is, not how much money it "took." Sometimes these are one and the same, but many times not. The more the media and we in the business participate in the circle of glorifying the box office winners and lamenting the rest as failures, the harder it is for interesting or unusual films to have the time they need to grow, hold their screens and find their audience. Movie companies are now compelled to make pictures that can be easily reduced to 30-second ads on TV, thus assuring a big opening weekend.
As only one example, Universal's "Out of Sight" was a terrific movie from last year that the press labeled a "disappointment," but was, in reality, complex, hard to market and the better for both of those.
It took "There's Something About Mary" eight weeks at the box office last summer to rise to No. 1--a once common, but now almost unheard of, accomplishment in an age when the media proclaim you a winner or a loser right off, and the audience has a painful tendency to fall into this self-fulfilling line.
Perhaps I can best illustrate the dangers of this phenomenon in terms of Washington's favorite home sport: politics. Polls and name recognition now drive policy and candidates, not the other way around as it should be. Why is George W. Bush ahead with such a lead? I don't know the inside-the-Beltway theories, but out here along the freeways, the answer is obvious: He's a sequel, and sequels always have high name recognition, get tons of advance media attention and "open" big.
It's not until Monday morning that the audience discovers if they are actually any good or not. Al Gore is a spinoff, and Bill Bradley will find that it's hard to get started against spinoffs. Still, wouldn't it be great if, in the fading light of the century, what candidates really believed mattered, rather than who the press, and then the polls, said were sure to win--and, likewise, that a movie's worth, not its first-weekend box office rank, determined its fate.
I know the pictures would be better, and I suspect the candidates might be as well. But then, I thought the Women's World Cup should have ended in a tie.
Tom Rothman is president of 20th Century Fox Film Production. During his tenure, the studio has released the highest- and third-highest-grossing films in history and won two Best Picture Oscars.