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Word of Mouth Is Still (Mostly) Meaningless

By Dustin Rowles | Box Office Round-Ups | July 20, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Box Office Round-Ups | July 20, 2009 |

With only one major release this weekend, there wasn’t a lot of competition or excitement in the box-office results. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as expected, crushed everything else at the box-office, earning $160 million since it opened on Wednesday, $80 million of that over the weekend. It represented the sixth biggest opening five-day period, but fell $40 million short of where Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened a few weeks ago. However, more impressively, Half-Blood Prince did break Spider-Man 3’s international box-office record, racking up $396 million globally in its first five days.

Meanwhile, in only its second weekend, Bruno got killed, falling 72 percent, taking in only another $8 million, bringing it’s grand total just short of $50. It won’t make it to $70 million.

Which brings up an interesting item I heard the other day on NPR: An L.A. Times journalist, John Horn, suggested that immediate word-of-mouth, particularly in places like Twitter, has been hurting box-office receipts this summer, although it’s 11 percent up over last summer so far. But it was up over 19 percent earlier this summer and, he argues, it’s been word-of-mouth that’s caused the deterioration, offering examples such as the failures of Land of the Lost, Imagine That, and now, Bruno. He says that, because of the immediacy of word-of-mouth, studios will be forced to offer better movies if they expect to get bigger grossing movies over an extended period of time.

I respectfully disagree.

Horn presupposes that positive word-of-mouth reflects the quality of the movie. Imagine That had no chance to begin with — Eddie Murphy hasn’t had a hit family film in years — Imagine That, in fact, opened in line with Meet Dave and better than Pluto Nash. Word of mouth didn’t necessarily kill Land of the Lost, either. There was never a huge audience for it to begin with — people who grew up on Sid and Marty Krofft don’t intersect much with people who love Will Ferrell movies. Its $48 million gross is decent, given the lack of interest in the beginning. And as for Bruno, word of mouth was just as mixed as the critics’ reception. It certainly wasn’t overwhelmingly negative. The people who were going to see Bruno saw it on opening day — and there weren’t a lot of other people interested in seeing it at any point. The consensus, before the movie even opened, was: I saw Borat, I don’t need to see the same movie with a gay character.

If, anything, positive word of mouth has helped to prop up bad movies. See: Revenge of the Fallen, the biggest movie of the year. It wasn’t good or bad word of mouth, I’d argue, that propelled it as high as it is. It’s the fact that word of mouth existed — it was probably the top trending topic on Twitter for days (or at least until MJ died). People saw it so they could add to the word of mouth. And if you look at the top 11 films so far this year, from a critic’s perspective, at least five of them were terrible, but positive word of mouth increased their box-office take all the same.

All of which is to say: Studios still don’t have to make better films to make a lot of money (although, it helps; see The Hangover and Star Trek, which benefited from positive word-of-mouth) as long as those providing the word of mouth aren’t particularly discriminating. And as long as audiences continue to love Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Transformers, studios have no incentive to make better films.

In fact, just look at the indie box-office so far this year: Despite quite a few fantastic indies (Away We Go, The Brothers Bloom, Sunshine Cleaning, The Hurt Locker, and Sugar), there have been no breakout hits despite good word of mouth (just not widespread word of mouth). Actually, Imagine That has fared better than all of them.

That, however, may change soon. (500) Days of Summer opened over the weekend in just 27 theaters, and still managed to make $838,000, which was good for $31,000 per theater (compare that to $18,000 per theater for Half-Blood Prince). I heard that lines to get into Days of Summer were as crazy as the lines were for Harry Potter, which is very heartening. Unfortunately, although word of mouth is crazy positive, the backlash is already beginning, and it’s being spearheaded by a few critics who are clearly more concerned with being anti-hipster than they are in allowing themselves to enjoy one goddamn great film. Give it a rest. Loving (500) Days of Summer doesn’t make you a hipster; it makes you a fan of good movies. And if you want to trash a great movie because you don’t want to identify with its perceived audience, that just makes you a dick.

Here’s your top five:

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ($79.9 million; $159.9 million)

2. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs ($17 million; $152 million)

3. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($13 million; $363 million)

4. Bruno ($8 million; $49 million)

5. The Hangover ($8 million; $235 million)

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.