I imagine that predicting box-office grosses on a weekly basis in a pre-social media, pre-Internet environment would not only have been difficult, but virtually impossible to register with any accuracy, unless said prognosticator held a position of some esteem within the film industry. Let’s give this pre-era a concrete date—say, roughly 1999. I choose this year not because of Y2K or the neat temporal markers brought about by a new millennium, but because that year introduced Brandon Grey’s website Box Office Mojo, which specializes not just in forums meant for box-office speak, but seeks to function as a comprehensive, online database for the domestic and international grosses of every film released in North American theaters within the modern era. Now, 14 years later, the site offers such information dating back to 1980, a year significant to film history for many reasons, though more because it’s a year that symbolizes the death of New Hollywood filmmaking and the full-on emergence of a blockbuster mentality within the studio system. The Empire Strikes Back was the highest-grossing film of the year; Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was met with devastating financial and critical failure, to the extent that United Artists went bankrupt. Moreover, Peter Bogdanovich has suggested that contemporary film students possess no conception of film history prior to Raging Bull—also released in 1980.
That Box Office Mojo is unconcerned with yearly grosses prior to 1980 isn’t meant as a knock against the website; rather, the date is emblematic of an era that still persists with its interest in a perpetual present, with little recourse to either works of art or events prior to this rigidly definitive timeline. Essentially, box-office grosses are becoming less about indications of taste from moviegoers and a means to evaluate cultural developments than mere statistics to be batted around among industry insiders and fans, with the opening-weekend gross of Riddick yielding little separation from, say, how many yards Peyton Manning threw for in his season opener. While this tendency has likely been active since the emergence of websites offering box-office banter, these interests have reached a hyperactive status. That status primarily derives from a service provided by boxoffice.com known as the Twitter Index. This model offers readers the number of tweets over a given day about a specific film, ranks them in order from most to least active, and even provides a ratio of positive-to-negative tweets. The numbers are updated numerous times a day, giving readers an often accurate indicator of the brewing buzz surrounding a given film. Accurate information and rapidly updating figures—what could be the problem?
Problem is, the numbers, and a mastery of them, becomes a form of hollow formalism yielding little knowledge about the surrounding production cultures that actively produce these films. The Twitter Index turns Insidious: Chapter 2 not into a cultural product, but a detached, abstracted vehicle for testing economic accuracy among both prognosticators and forum junkies. That is, simply knowing Riddick made $19 million this past weekend yields a cultural capital as knowledge within these contexts; however, interests are also tantamount to “training in observation without comprehension,” as television scholar Todd Gitlin once wrote in relation to statistics culture in sports. The stats are viewed as a source of knowledge, rather than understood as a “tangential function of commodity.” Giant box-office figures are batted around with little explanation for where the money comes from, where it goes afterward, or even that the films are financial endeavors, first and foremost. The Twitter Index turns these inclinations into an almost absurdly abstracted discussion of “outguess the expert,” which essentially functions as a means to blind the babble as it pertains to the underlying, capitalistic subjugation of the consumer.
Having said that, Insidious: Chapter 2 is “tracking” at 45,453 tweets on Tuesday, with a pos:neg ratio of 7:1. In other words: big weekend coming. What does that mean removed from the banal exercise of simply predicting weekend box-office grosses? That’s difficult to say, given the lack of critical distance box-office discussions have unfortunately embraced. Without socio-cultural analysis, box-office reporting is simply Fantasy Football.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Insidious: Chapter 2: $38.2 NEW
2. The Family: $7.4 NEW
3. Riddick: $6.9 -59%
4. Instructions Not Included: $6.4 -21%
5. Lee Daniels’ The Butler: $5.3 -37%
6. We’re the Millers: $5.2 -33%
7. Planes: $2.4 -42%
8. Elysium: $1.7 -45%
9. Blue Jasmine: $1.6 -31%
10. One Direction: This Is Us: $1.4 -66%