Scorsese’s Complaints About Box Office Coverage: Are We Really Hurting Movies?

All credit goes to Scorsese for focusing on the essentials. But the reality is that overall box office coverage does more good than bad.

Decision to Kill (MUNI) grossed an impressive $96,000 in just three theaters this weekend. “Terrifier 2” (Cinedigm/Iconic) rose 28 percent in its second weekend to number eight among all films, despite only opening 700 theaters. If you’ve heard of either film, one reason could be their box office coverage.

At a screening of Personality Crisis: One Night Only on October 12 at the New York Film Festival, co-director Martin Scorsese criticized the box office coverage in the media.

“Since the ’80s you’ve focused on numbers, which is kind of off-putting … the emphasis now is on numbers, cost, the opening weekend, how much it’s made in the US, how much it’s made in England, how much it’s made in Asia, how much it has earned around the world, how many viewers it has.”

This comes after two consecutive weekends in which two notable studio releases have had disappointing results.

“Bros” (Universal), which focused on gay characters, grossed less than $5 million. David O. Russell’s $80 million “Amsterdam” (Disney) came in well short of the director’s previous hits at just $6.4 million. Both then received negative attention – “Bros” was heavily boosted by Billy Eichner’s ill-considered comments, “Amsterdam” by estimates of what Disney could lose (up to $100 million).

As someone who has followed box office coverage both as an exhibitor and now as an analyst, this affects me. My takeaway? While Scorsese is right that ultimately the focus should be on art and not business, his concern is overblown.

It is true that gross receipts are now entering the public consciousness at a faster rate. But the information has never been secret within the industry. What is happening now is that confirmed results – hopefully accurately reported – are more widely known. What damage this causes is unclear.

Certainly information, like everything else in the world, is heightened by social media with much greater intensity and possible responses. When a film fails, egos can be hurt.

The hype of “Decision to Kill” and “Terrifier 2” because of their box office successes is not uncommon. Exactly three years ago, “Parasite” started in three cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. His sizable initial gross was huge news that was reported for months. The film was the attraction, but the attention contributed to its unlikely path to success. Recently, India’s “RRR” has made $11 million domestically – little for studio films but news given its roots – is another case.



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Any given month can give examples. Box office coverage regularly supports a number of films. Check out “Smile” recently – it was the surprisingly biggest opening weekend of September. Coverage celebrated that. It had a B-Cinema score (not usually cheap) but fell just 18 percent over its second weekend, a surprisingly small drop. The glow around him helped. Success begets success, whether it’s film releases or other media.

Making bad results public hardly changes a trajectory. Eichner made sure everyone who didn’t know “Bros” had flopped did, making the situation worse. But if a film doesn’t find an audience, the die is cast and not reporting on it would change little.

In fact, for most wide-release films, the current system means the news of the failure affects viewers less than it did decades ago. During the period that Scorsese refers to pre-“Jaws”, most films were released at a slower pace. When they initially underperformed (“Harold and Maude,” the musical “Lost Horizon,” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love,” all prime examples), word later got around and it hurt.

There are examples today where box office receipts are not reported. Big hits for Netflix theatrical releases (e.g. Scorsese’s The Irishman), Amazon and Apple original films are kept hidden. That detracts from the attention they get, also arguing that you shouldn’t judge them like other films. But not having reported earnings doesn’t help levy them as real films.

It’s a point we’ve noted frequently since the arrival of COVID. The moment the severity of the impact became news was when China closed its cinemas. And the domestic impact became a story far beyond the meaning of an industry with earnings below McDonald’s in a year.

It is crucial for the future of cinema films that they are reported in the media far beyond their importance. Scorsese is right that art should be judged on creative criteria, not revenue. But the reality is that even if box office coverage has its issues, it wouldn’t help the films not getting covered.

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Lindsay Lowe

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