Exactly When Did B.O. Stop Meaning "Body Odor"?


Riddle me that, Frank Gorshin! Oops, everyone's favorite Batman villain is dead.

But riddle me this, Hit & Run readers: Why do we care about movie box office performance? Witness this article in today's Wash Post Style section Revenge of the Sith's box office coup (or semi-coup) over the weekend. Or this tally over at Movies.com.

Maybe we don't really care, but it does seem to me that there's a helluva more general attention paid to movie b.o. than, say, 20 years ago, when this sort of thing was largely confined to Variety and industry trades.

I'm not saying it's a bad thing, just an interesting thing. And I'm curious to know why we care more now.

NEXT: Good Luck With That

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  1. There will be absolutely nothing informative — or interesting — about these sorts of stories until they start adjusting the numbers for inflation.

    (And adjusting for changes in ticket prices, while they’re at it.)

  2. It’s a nice selling point. Like networks saying their show is the most watched in America, the movies are basically peer pressuring you. Everyone else has seen it, why haven’t you?

    Also, it gives movie geeks something to argue about on message boards. Being something of a geek myself I’ve witnessed a few arguments online that basically came down to, “millions of dollars were paid for my favorite movie, it has to be good!”

  3. Since I don’t care, I can’t rightly say. But I suppose I would guess that the interest in b.o. stems from it something concrete, with a winner and standings and such. Of course, that still doesn’t explain why the attention it receives has increased; perhaps that’s explained by the media zeroing in on what the public wants. There must be an economic term for that, but I don’t know what it is. Just building a better product to answer to consumer demand over time. If interest really has increased in the public, I cannot explain why. AGain, I’m out of that loop. Maybe industry pressure on the media has some effect, too (with the change being part of the same pheomenon of zeroing in on what works).

  4. Independence Day wasn’t all bad–I liked watching the White House blow up, and I like the fact that the movie had an exotic dancer who was not portrayed as a stupid, futureless junkie.

  5. Commentary at Slate:


    Did some interesting reading lately about how the “multiplex” shift in the way movies are presented has led to dramatically shorter average theatrical “runs.” The expansion of choices at the theater has also shortened average delay between theatrical opening and home video release. From a marketing standpoint, this means that there has been an increase in the pressure on a given film to hit a home-run early in the release cycle in order to maximize ticket sales during ever shortening “runs.”

    So, IMHO, the “fascination” with B.O. totals is more of a PR driven shift in what is published as “news.”


  6. Ask the box office mojo (boxofficemojo.com). (He said this morning on the radio that he expects Sith to take in over $2B. Two Billion. Gebezus!

    As to the q, my guess is that entertainment writers and (especially) t.v. folk are fed the numbers and they’ve simply come to rely on them to fill time/space.

  7. I really don’t think anyone gives a hoot. If they weren’t published, would you miss them? Doubtful. Why are they published? Dunno, though it is mildly amusing to see a $300mm movie make $50mm b/c they forgot to spend money on making the movie good instead of just making the movie.

  8. There is a book about this very subject. I haven’t read it, but for those who would like to:

    Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession


  9. It’s part of the need to talk about everything in superlative terms that we seem to have these days. Things are apparently only interesting if they’re they best/worst ever. Even things that don’t really make sense in terms of record-breaking get discussed in this fashion.

    Box office, which with similar ticket sales will always have record highs, is a good example of an easy superlative to hit. Except that Titanic blew it for everyone, so they’re relegated to talk of record opening weekends. Another good example is the Olympics, How many sports journalist seemed let down by the Phelps kid only winning 4 gold medals.

  10. Aren’t revenue and market share the only true measures of how good a product is?

    The growing public interest in box office figures is a sign that the general population is finally getting its priorities right.

  11. Aren’t revenue and market share the only true measures of how good a product is?

    The defense presents Exhibit A, the Von Dutch phenomenon.

  12. “?it does seem to me that there’s a helluva more general attention paid to movie b.o. than, say, 20 years ago?”

    Maybe there is more argle-barble now than 20 years ago. But the opening b.o. take entered the public lexicon 30 years ago when Jaws opened on a kagillion screens, setting a new all time record, enthroning b.o. as the yardstick, and making widespread openings a necessary component of creating a modern block-buster. Of course it also makes for spectacular failures when the hype flounders and the up-front promotion fails to pay-off

  13. I get the impression that it wants to be a self-fulfilling prophecy like the best seller list is for books but somehow it too often comes up short. When a book makes the list, it drives sales of that book up and it has the benefit of giving a probable bounce to the authors next book. A movie doesn’t get to earn a pedigree in the same way, the lineage is much different and more dynamic. Movies need an anchor. That anchor can be a previous movie, star and/or director power or popular literary heritage. It is by no means a guarantee but it does seem to be an accepted recipe and it is often the case that those anchors feed off one another (leaving nothing for the audience).

  14. ” …it does seem to me that there’s a helluva more general attention paid to movie b.o. than, say, 20 years ago, when this sort of thing was largely confined to Variety and industry trades.”

    One factor must be Drudge. Like him or not he’s got a popular web site, and there’s nearly always a showbiz biz story on the page. Gets people talking.

  15. A bit of new news, or “news,” to fill out the Monday morning doldrums. If they released weekend grosses on Wednesday, nobody would ever notice.

  16. Drudge is part of it, along with the entertainment-industry programs on the teevee every weeknight. They usually run these things between the local and national news (where I live, anyway).

    I don’t care, usually, but on the rare occasion when I go to a movie theater — like I did this wknd to see Star Wars — I get so disgusted by all the idiot trailers (“Russell Crowe in the craptacular peak of his career, as Cinderella!”) that it’s sorta fun to look at the box office when these turkeys are released & see just how badly they failed. Every time a Ron Howard or Speilberg movie fails, we are a better nation.

  17. sm,

    Everyone’s going to pretend they have no idea what you’re talking about.

    Until the next time one of the writers excoriates the “snobs at the New York Review of Books” for criticizing a highly popular book, at which time everyone will repeat your comment, sans irony.

  18. If “we” care more now, it’s because of “Entertainment Tonight” and all the fawning over actors instead of people like the late mathematician George Dantzig. Personally, I miss “The Daily Show” box-office reports from several years back that weighed in with grosses in Italian lire. Now those were real numbers!

  19. smk,

    Howard Stern used to have a segment titled “Who Wants to be a (Turkish) Millionaire?”

    I think the prize came out to about $14.

  20. This web site now has commenters named “SD,” “SM” “s.m. koppelman” and “smk.”

    I’m going back to Semolina Pilchard.

  21. There’s people still going to the movies?!

  22. I don’t think we care more for b.o. now–body odor we’re still just as compulsive about–I think it’s a sign of media folk trying to save a buck. They’re running scared, and pinching pennies.
    It’s related to the fad of “reality” TV shows.
    Like polls, it’s a way for media folks to create a cheap buzz.

  23. It’s like Top 40.

    There’s a certain sort of person who likes to know what’s popular. This was prevelant prior to Gen X obsessions with authenticity, etc; in old days they used to have the Hit Parade.

    B.O. obsession is just an extension of that I think.

  24. The only guy I’ve ever met who paid attention to B.O. dollar scores used them as a metric to gauge which movie he should probably see next.
    I kinda thought all y’all self-proclaimed ‘Libertarians’ would be used to the concept of ‘voting with dollars.’

  25. Well, I don’t care about b.o. figures.

  26. Box Office figures give me useful info as a consumer. If a film that was well-reviewed by a critic I trust tanks during its opening week, it is a signal to me that, if I want to see it on the big screen, I’d better hustle to put my keister in a theatre seat, as it is not likely to be around for long. If it does well, and especially if it exceeds expectations, I can take my sweet time about getting out to see it, as it will probably stick around, and, in the case of indy films and imports, maybe even get rolled out to more screens, including one more convenient to me.

    Back before the turn of the century, a bad enough box office total might have delayed, or even precluded a video release, meaning that if you didn’t see the film during its short first run, you’d never get a chance to view it.

    None of this speaks to why the flacks tout the big numbers, though. That’s all about the bandwagon effect. Huge numbers also let you know if there might be a sequel, which is a mixed good.


  27. I’d assume that it has something to do with the fact that many of the large TV networks also own film studios and want to pump up interest in their products. When a Disney film does boffo, you can bet ABC will make it a priority to point out the box office figures. Same for Fox and Viacom. At this point, they’re so used to doing it that it’s just routine.

  28. I kinda thought all y’all self-proclaimed ‘Libertarians’ would be used to the concept of ‘voting with dollars.’
    The problem with dollar amount as meter is that it doesn’t reflect votes directly, it represents some abstract relation of what fanatics might pay to be the first to see a movie and what the general population is willing to pay along with several other variables. They could charge $30 per ticket to some of those willing to wait in line for a week. That is unless they were paid to wait in line for a little extra hype.

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