Why Box Office “Records” are Meaningless

An Editorial

Over Memorial Day weekend, the news media announced that The Hangover, Part II set a new box office record for ticket sales in the United States the first five days after release, earning $137.4 million. The previous holder of this record was The Matrix Reloaded, with $134.3 million.

Did you notice something about that record? Here’s some more info for you: Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides had the fourth-largest international debut.

The current record holder for largest debut is 2008’s The Dark Knight, taking in $155.3 million.

When it comes to grand total box office sales, the all-time high is Avatar, which took in nearly $2.8 billion.

Also known as "Pocahontas with cat-people".

Read the list of all-time greatest box office gross, and you’ll see that it is just filled with recent films. At #2 is Titanic; #3 is Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and #4 is Toy Story 3.

Seriously.

The first movie on the list from before 1990 is the original Star Wars, at #29. Even Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is higher than that (at #19).

Apparently bigger than Star Wars

Have you noticed the pattern yet? All of the highest-grossing movies were released recently, and many of them are parts of franchises released in the past few years. What is going on? Are audiences clamoring to see yet another installment of Transformers or Shrek?

Hollywood certainly seems to think so. The theaters in the past few years have been flooded with sequels, reboots, remakes, more sequels, sequels of reboots, and of course a bajillion comic book movies. While this is not all bad – I loved both Iron Mans, the two latest Batman movies, Thor and the latest Star Trek incarnation – it can be a bit overwhelming at times. Just yesterday when I went to see Thor, I saw a giant movie poster for a Shrek spin-off: Puss In Boots. After we had all been assured by Dreamworks that they were done with Shrek movies.

What is happening is what I call “Griffith’s Law of Hollywood”. As the cost of making a big, blockbuster movie goes up, the amount of risk Hollywood studios are willing to take goes down. It is safer to make a sequel to an established brand name with a guaranteed minimum audience than to risk hundreds of millions on building a new movie from scratch.

Sure, occasionally movies like Avatar and Inception will make all kinds of money, but then you have movies like Pandorum that clearly were meant to be the start of a new franchise but didn’t make the box office figures to merit any sequels.

So far, “Griffith’s Law” seems to be doing well for Hollywood; they are setting all kinds of records almost every weekend in the summertime. Or are they?

Yes, most of the highest-grossing movies are recent films that made their millions off of a franchise that people recognized. But these figures do not account for a very simple, blatantly obvious factor.

Inflation.

Yesterday, when I went to see Thor, my brother and I paid $18 for our tickets. When I went to see The Dark Knight three years ago, two people were with me, and the tickets cost about the same amount. The price of a ticket three years ago is way more than it was ten years ago, and so on.

It makes sense, really. Someone once told me (I think it was when I took a class on advertising) in order to have a successful summer blockbuster, you need to spend $125 million to make the movie and another $125 million to promote it. This means that the big studios will be charging theaters more to carry films, and theaters will pass that cost to you, the moviegoer.

The problem is that this will completely muck with and skew the numbers for highest-grossing films. No wonder so many records are being set – it isn’t because audiences are desperate to catch a new Cars movie, it is because the people who are devoted fans of the franchise and will attend anyway will be paying more of their hard-earned cash for their tickets.

This is far from a minor oversight. Think about it from a business standpoint: those higher prices for tickets are not increasing Hollywood’s profits. They are paying the studio’s bills, but according to a study by Ernst & Young, from 2006 to 2010 the movie industry had the lowest profit margins in the media industry. Hollywood is barely breaking even.

Maybe Hollywood would be wise to see what has succeeded in the past, and use figures that have been adjusted for inflation. This way, they see what, over time, audiences have been willing to give up their disposable income for. With this one factor included, you get a completely different list.

Avatar is no match for Clark Gable.

  1. Gone With the Wind, $1.6 billion
  2. Star Wars, $1.4 billion
  3. The Sound of Music, $1.1 billion
  4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, $1.1 billion
  5. The Ten Commandments, $1.0 billion
  6. Titanic, $1.0 billion
  7. Jaws, $1.0 billion
  8. Doctor Zhivago, $976 million
  9. The Exorcist, $869 million
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, $856 million

Avatar doesn’t appear until number 14 on the list, two spots below The Empire Strikes Back, the first sequel on the list. The Dark Knight is waaaay down at #28.

It appears people are far more interested in original movies with a classic story, great acting, great cinematography, a stunning soundtrack, and memorable moments than a bunch of brainless action shlock that was made to pay the bills. So when you see headlines that the box office records have been broken – something that will probably happen several times this summer – ignore them. It is only part of Hollywood’s cycle of self-delusion. Just go see a movie that you will enjoy, and let the chips fall where they may.

Sweet deals and crazy scams you won’t believe

Today, I’m paying homage to some of the sweet deals and crazy scams that you won’t believe actually were pulled off. When I first heard these, I was taken aback, and so will you, when you read about…

The Bear Clan: Landlords of the Hopi

There are fifty clans in the Hopi tribe, and each clan has a chunk of land that they traditionally farm. The land is inherited through the mother’s line, and men move in with their wives when they marry. It’s a pretty stable system that has endured for centuries. Even so, every once in a while there would be a dispute over land. You know the drill, two clans arguing over where the property line is. Fortunately, the Hopi have a way to resolve these arguments. Just go to the Bear Clan, and they will settle the issue.

Why? Well because all Hopi land is owned by the Bear Clan. Everyone else just rents.

It must be hard to bear these landlords... hahaha, get it? Yeah, I guess that was lame.

I know, right? Fifty Hopi clans but only one owns all the land? How did they get that privilege? How did the other 49 agree to this system? Sadly, this is a story that has been lost to history. Nobody is sure why the Bear Clan have this special place in Hopi society. Maybe at one point a charismatic figure convinced everyone to let him arbitrate all land disputes, and his descendants continued in that role. Or maybe the Bear Clan kicked the other clans’ butts and handed it to them on a platter. Or maybe the Bear Clan were the first clan, and all the other clans either spun off from it or were an unrelated group that moved in and were assimilated into Hopi society. One Hopi legend falls into that last pattern, saying the Bear Clan arrived in the traditional Hopi lands first, followed by the other clans. It even goes so far as to explain where clans got their names.

Coin collecting scam on cable TV

This one personally bugs me. It must work, or else they wouldn’t keep making these ads.

Can you spot what is wrong with that video? Here’s a hint: he starts out by talking about this super-rare, .9999 pure gold coin that is extremely valuable. Then he goes on to tell you how you can get yours for $19.95. Wait… how can they give you this kind of discount?

The devil’s in the details. Watch that again, and pay careful attention to his words. He is NOT selling that super-rare coin; he is selling a “proof” that is “based on” the super-rare gold coin. He says “reserve your own copy”. He is selling a cheap knock-off coin.

Oh, sure, it is “clad” in pure gold. Anyone with access to a high school lab materials catalog can “clad” things in pure gold.

Then he says the price could only be guaranteed for seven days. He then mentions a “strict limit of five proofs per caller”, implying rarity. Except I recall seeing that commercial run for more than a year on some of the less-popular cable channels I sometimes watch. They didn’t raise the price in that time, and if it ran so long it must really not be all that rare.

To top it all off, you get a Certificate of Authenticity. Heaven forbid that you might get a fake knock-off.

Fighting wars for oil and diamonds. Only in a good way.

Such an unassuming name.

Financing a military is really expensive. There’s weapons, vehicles, ammunition, uniforms, combat gear, helmets and bulletproof vests, food and other logistical supplies, insurance policies, and of course your soldiers’ salaries. When you are a national government, you can pay for all of this with tax dollars and bonds. It gets harder when you are a for-profit corporation with stockholders to deal with.

Oh, yes. Militaries run by corporations and made up of mercenaries are not just the work of some screenwriter for a science fiction dystopian movie. They actually exist. They also actually have to be paid under contract.

This becomes a problem when you are a poor, broke, third world African country with a weak military being ransacked by thuggish rebels who prey on innocent civilians. This was the very problem facing Angola and Sierra Leone. In each case, the rebels were not what you would call freedom fighters; they were nasty brutes whose atrocities made global headlines. Many in Sierra Leone lost limbs because of the rebels. As much as they wanted to, the governments of these countries couldn’t protect their own people without outside help.

Enter Executive Outcomes, a company founded by a group of South African soldiers who found themselves out of work when apartheid ended.

"I'm not convinced you have the skill set we're looking for at this company."

These ex-soldiers were looking for work. Angola and Sierra Leone needed help. The only problem was payment. Executive Outcomes came up with an ingenious solution: “We’ll fight for you… if you give us royalties from your country’s mining rights for the next 25 years.”

Angola has lots of oil just offshore, and Sierra Leone is famous (or infamous) for its diamonds. Executive Outcomes signed contracts with these countries where they took a cut of that money in return for fighting the rebels and training the local army. Once the ink was dry, the mercenaries set to work and were profoundly successful. Using advanced weaponry, psychological warfare, and the kind of precision special-ops stuff they had all been trained in, they took the rebels down and restored peace and order. The people loved them for saving their countries.

But then the international community saw this and completely freaked out. I guess the UN was squeamish that mercenaries could be that powerful. After all, they work for the highest bidder, right? Right, wrong, or indifferent, the world’s major powers decided that they didn’t like the precedent this was setting and sent in UN peacekeepers to the area. The governments of Angola and Sierra Leone were pressured to cancel their contract with Executive Outcomes. Sorry, guys, no mining rights for you.

Oh, and after the mercenaries left and the peacekeepers took over, the civil war just started right back up again. So, I guess everyone got hosed.

But I know what will make it all better.

QUESADILLAS!!!!!!

They solve everything.

You asked for it, you got it… QUESADILLAS!!!!

Don’t say I don’t listen to my audience. You voted for Quesadillas and I’m giving you Quesadillas.

Like many foods around the world, the origins of this tasty snack have been lost to history. Knowing how easy it is to make and how obvious an idea it is, though, I’m guessing this dish was spontaneously invented by dozens of people in different places at different times, completely unaware of each other. I mean, it’s a natural idea: the indigenous people of Mexico had these tortillas they used every day, and the Spanish, who had domesticated cattle, brought cheese to the New World. Someone probably just wanted a quick and easy snack and thought this fit the bill.

I mean, making a quesadilla is not hard. You need two tortillas of any kind and some yellow cheese that has been broken into small bits. The cheese doesn’t have to be shredded; I’ve made plenty from those “Kraft” sandwich cheese slices that I’ve folded into pieces. You also can make quesadillas with one tortilla instead of two; just fold the thing over.

And the fillings. Chicken, turkey, ham; it just has to be in smaller-than-bite-size pieces. It has got to be one of the cheapest and easiest recipes on any Taco Bell or other Mexican Restaurant’s menu. You can make them at home with no trouble. I like eating quesadillas for breakfast, myself.

There you have it, Catflaggers. Quesadillas for everyone!

Cat Flag: giving the people what they want since, well, 2011.

Stay tuned to this blog… I plan to keep posting new stuff twice a week for your enjoyment. You can follow me on Twitter, too to be informed of new updates.

Cal Poly students put on a comedy about commies

Communism may not seem like the most obvious source of humor, but there is plenty to laugh about in SMASH, a play that Cal Poly theater students are putting on this weekend.

Based on “An Unsociable Socialist” by George Bernard Shaw, the play tells the story about a rich man who leaves his bride and his life behind for the revolution. I was given an exclusive backstage look at their preparations:

Performances are at 8 p.m. on May 19, 20, and 21 with an additional showing at 2 p.m. on the 21st. Tickets are available through this link.

Morro Bay entrepreneur shares his story of success

Huy Ngo, local entrepreneur

If there is one thing Huy Ngo likes about being an entrepreneur, it is being his own boss. “Why earn money for someone else when you can earn money for yourself?” he says. That is why he has, in turn, owned a party supply store, a speed-dating service, a street donut stand, and a paralegal service. His brain is always bubbling with new ideas.

His latest venture is different, though. This time, he is involving the whole family in the business. His new family-owned restaurant at 1698 Main Street in Morro Bay will specialize in custom-to-order hamburgers and hot dogs as well as fresh-cut fries. It will also serve coffee and pastries in the morning, and primarily focus on attracting local customers. Everything in the restaurant will be under $10, he assures me.

Born in Vietnam, Ngo came to the United States as a small child and grew up in Morro Bay. He is well-connected with local politicians and the Chamber of Commerce, and also has many friends in the police department. He formerly worked at a local candy store, but was laid off recently. Rather than take that as a bad thing, he has used his newfound free time to work on getting his restaurant ready to open.

Ngo’s friends always ask him what his secret to success is, but Huy insists there is no secret – you merely need to do what you love.

Ngo’s new restaurant is still under construction, but he plans to open by July 4 of this year.