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David Poland

By David Poland

Statistics Lie to Sell Stories

You know, I get tired of picking on the LA Times.
But there is this bizarre insistence of taking what I would call minor facts and turning them into misleading headlines.
Patrick Goldstein is previewing John Horn

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27 Responses to “Statistics Lie to Sell Stories”

  1. You touch on something that has driven me nuts for years. What so many people don’t get, on both sides of the isle, is that movie stars are only worth X dollars for Y project. Tobey McGuire is worth whatever they want to pay him for Spider-Man 4, but he’s barely worth a couple million in anything else. Ditto Christian Bale. If he wants $40 million for Batman 3/Shadow Of The Bat/etc, he should get it and does deserve it (for that matter, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman are probably worth $5 million a piece to maintain continuity, especially with so many actors and characters no longer on board). But if he demands more than $5 million for anything else, he should be laughed out of the room. Certain actors run into trouble when they demand franchise dollars for non-franchise pictures. Brendan Fraiser knew he was worth $12.5 million for The Mummy Returns, so he took it and ran like hell, knowing that he’d never get that kind of payday again unless he agreed to George Of The Jungle 2.
    Harrison Ford, objectively viewing acting as his job, always demanded that top-dollar salary, whether he was making Clear And Present Danger (deserves it) or Random Hearts (not so much). As a result, he priced himself out of the more interesting projects that could have kept his career at its 1992-2000 peak.
    On the other side of the coin, analysts and pundits are forever judging a star’s latest picture by the standard of their big franchises. So somehow Hildago is a failure despite opening at $18.5 million because, hey, Return Of The King opened to $73 million just two months ago right?
    And I’ve said this before, but Will Smith (arguably the only actor who is worth top dollar for anything and everything) is in for a world of bad press when his films return to the normal $140-170 million range that they were in for the last several years, prior to the 1-2 punch of I Am Legend and Hancock. Never mind if said Will Smith movie is, I dunno, a 2.5 romantic hour drama about genocide and heroin smuggling in the plains of Nepal.

  2. Jeff says:

    Oh, so that’s what 7 pounds is about. It was hard to tell from that crappy trailer.

  3. Yes, 7 Pounds is exactly the kind of movie that has no chance of making $200 million, but will gross 5x what it would have if it had starred any other actor.
    From IMDB(spoiler warning I suppose) – Ben (Will Smith) is an IRS agent who is depressed and guilt-ridden about mistakes from his past. He sets out to make amends by helping seven strangers. When he meets Emily (Rosario Dawson), a beautiful woman with a heart condition, he falls in love with her, thereby complicating his plans. Woody Harrelson also appears as a blind pianist who befriends Ben.

  4. Here here Dave. Totally agree. I’ve always believed it’s the story/characters that people go to the movie for and the actors are just icing.
    I must say I was shocked when you say Tobey Maguire would be 40. I thought “just a typo. surely he meant 30”, but no Maguire was born in ’75. He’ll probably be 36 when Spider-Man 4 is out. Crazy.

  5. EthanG says:

    Totally agree, it is only about the stars when it is in the rights roles. I can only think of a few star driven movies coming out this entire fall:
    Max Payne, HSM3, Quantum of Solace, Transporter 3, Milk, Seven Pounds, Revolutionary Road.
    Everything else is story driven.

  6. hcat says:

    I would argue that Iron Man’s opening was also star driven. Downey wasn’t a box office star but was a known presence and the trailers and marketing leading up to opening weekend centered around his wisecracks as opposed to the on-screen action. And with the Dark Knight they sold the hell out of the film not with Bale’s starpower but with Ledger’s. The three times as many people showed up for dark knight as opposed to begins was to see Ledger’s performance. Isn’t that a star driven opening?

  7. Joe Leydon says:

    No, Hcat — unfortunately, that’s a death-driven opening. To paraphrase the old Daffy Duck cartoon: The trouble is, you can pull that trick only once.

  8. Iron Man is a perfect case of ‘right actor right project’. It’s why The Soloist will not open to $98 million despite starring Downey Jr and Jamie Fox. Although I believe that Downey Jr. will get an Oscar nomination for it so the Academy can get out of giving him a justified nom for Iron Man (his performance was the only thing that tricked people into thinking the movie was even remotely decent). Did Downey help a lot? Of course, certainly in the long run via word of mouth, but it was the brand, the macho marketing, and the summer-kick off slot that helped just as much. The problem arises if studios and pundits believe that any action or genre film starring Robert Downey Jr. should do Iron Man business.
    As for The Dark Knight, I think that’s more of a ‘circumstance-driven’ opening. Had Ledger actually been alive and well, the opening wouldn’t have been nearly as big. Obviously the terrific buzz, the iconic status of The Joker, the goodwill from the first film, and the peerless ad campaign deserves oodles of credit, which by themselves probably would have led to a $90-100 million+ opening.
    But Ledger’s demise turned the film from a must-see summer blockbuster into a cultural event. As a result of Ledger’s death, lots of people who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested were inclined to show up, and then spread the word to their uninterested friends about the film’s quality. And, the studios are aware, even if they’ll never admit it. So when John Cho is hit by a bus in mid-April, or Shia LaBeouf ODs on cocaine in June, you heard it here first.
    By the same coin, Mr. And Mrs. Smith would have been lucky to break $40 million without the gossip-filled production history and the off screen romance that developed. It’s not like Jolie was on fire at the time, although Pitt was coming off Troy. Unless Jolie is holding a gun and looking uber-dolled up, don’t expect an even decent opening weekend. Again, that’s a case of right star, right project, with the lucky break of bringing every US-reading female into the theater on opening weekend.

  9. Kim Voynar says:

    I was pretty depressed about Beverly Hills Chihuahua knocking it out of the park (though, in fairness, I haven’t seen it, so for all I know the damn dog should be getting Oscar buzz for a remarkably nuanced performance).
    But when I see a film like that getting big box office, I have to think that it’s some convergence of the dumbing down of movie audiences and mental exhaustion from the serious state of our economy that’s driving people to go see a film like this. Body of Lies would probably not do huge box office even if it was an amazing film — which it’s not — because it’s about Iraq and everyone’s sick to death of seeing Iraq War films, and has been for a long while now.
    I was, at least, somewhat heartened by the sold-out crowd at last night’s screening of Happy-Go-Lucky here in Seattle. Although the cinephile crowd who turned out for that probably wasn’t contributing to Chihuahua’s box office anyhow.

  10. hcat says:

    Is Beverly Hills Chihuahua any worse a hit than the Love Bug? Disney has always been able to pitch crap to families from the Kurt Russel movies, to the Jodie Foster movies, to the Mighty Ducks. I wouldn’t call any decade of their generic family programers any dumber than another.
    Glad to hear Happy Go Lucky is getting attention. That has crossover potential written all over it and after Blindness and Smart People, Miramax could sure use a hit.
    as far as Iron Man I think the Downey brought a lot more to the opening weekend table than the brand. Iron Man is not an iconic comic book hero like Batman or Spidey. And unless I am mistaken the character of Tony Stark in the comics is nowhere close to what Downey did on screen. So I would still argue that since the film relied on Downey’s quips in the marketing more than they relied on the whiz bang of the suit, he should be credited for the opening as much as Jolie would be for hers.

  11. yancyskancy says:

    I, too, am stunned by the success of a talking Chihuahua movie. What’s next? Talking pigs, living toys, gourmet chef rats? Costumed, super-powered crimefighters? Elves and hobbits? Boy wizards?
    We can only blame all the arthouse-loving families who cancelled their planned trips to “Rachel Getting Married” the moment the Dow dipped, opting instead for something a little more feel-good.
    🙂 Sorry, couldn’t resist. I mean, looking over the competition, was anyone really expecting Chihuahua to get trounced by Nick and Norah, Appaloosa or Blindness?

  12. jeffmcm says:

    Of those ‘star-driven’ movies listed up above, High School Musical 3, Quantum of Solace, Max Payne, and Transporter 3 are all franchise-based.

  13. hcat says:

    Jeff’s statement sort of goes into the grey area here. Is there a Transporter franchise without Stratham? I would say that film is star-driven since it was a vehicle tailor made for him as opposed to Max Payne which simply has a star plugged in.
    And while I love Craig, it is strange to consider a Bond movie star-driven due to the fact that so many different people have played him.
    And Rachel Getting Married is doing just fine. The per screen was something like 33k, I think that might have been SPC’s biggest opening since Bad Education.

  14. storymark says:

    I think saying that three times more people showed up for The Dark Knight becuase of Ledger’s death is a bit rediculous. Some, yes, of course. But he never had a movie that successfull alive, and he’s not the first actor to have died before his film was released.
    And the big business was from a lot of repeat viewings, which you could perhaps attribute to his performance, but not so much to morbid curiosity.

  15. David Poland says:

    On Iron Man and Dark Knight… you are deluding yourself if you think it was Downey or Ledger that drove those movies, aside from people liking those performances.
    As I keep reminding people, Batman breaking box office records happened on five of the seven movies. This number is big, but it isn’t quite as stunning as everyone wants it to be. When Shrek 2 broke the domestic record even more surprisingly, none of the online hysteria. Why? Because it wasn’t Batman.
    As for Iron Man… it was the suit. And then it was a movie that was well liked…. that was where the legs came from. But the opening was The Suit, 93%.

  16. jeffmcm says:

    What does that mean? It’s like saying any given Superman movie’s opening is ‘the flying and super strength and invulnerability and red and blue tights’.

  17. Kim Voynar says:

    “As for Iron Man… it was the suit. And then it was a movie that was well liked…. that was where the legs came from. But the opening was The Suit, 93%.”
    Seriously? I kinda find that hard to swallow, David. I didn’t give two craps about the suit, I wanted to see Iron Man because of Downey and nothing else. I mean, my 8YO son wanted to see it because of the suit (well, and the cool-ass talking Iron Man we got in the mail), but you really think that’s what drove most of the grown-ups to see it?
    Loved the film overall, but for me (and, I expect, for a lot of other people) it was the casting-against-type of Downey that was the major draw.

  18. hcat says:

    David the Batman films provide the grey area that I mentioned above. How do we seperate what is attributed to the star and which is the franchise. True the Batman films broke box office records four of the six times (though I am sure that is an accurate prediction for the seventh), but it was due to the star power of the villians.
    People were there opening weekend and the months that followed to see Nicholson as the Joker, Pfieffer’s meow in the commercials was probably good for $15 million of the first weekend’s take, and how did they bring people back after the dark second installment, by casting kid and teen favorite Jim Carrey, who was right in the middle of his metoric rise to superstardom. It is when they had Arnold in the midst of his decline and the unknown to wide audiences Cillian Murphy as the villians that the series has stumbled.
    As for Iron Man, when I watched Downey’s performance as Tony Stark I was reminded that Cruise had circled this role for awhile, and it would have been perfect for his cocky delivery style, the scene in the jeep would have suited him to a T. Now if Cruise would have been cast, and given the exact same performance, and the film did identical numbers this would have been called a star vehicle.

  19. hcat says:

    What does that mean? It’s like saying any given Superman movie’s opening is ‘the flying and super strength and invulnerability and red and blue tights’.
    Actually that I would agree with. People went to see Superman to see a man fly, they didn’t know who was in the suit, Warners just lucked out finding the perfect guy to fit the role. My argument about Iron Man is the role is different than the source material and the marketing emphasised Downey. I’m not diminishing the suit and the genre, but if it starred, lets say, Tim Robbins it would have opened to 50 million on the strength of the genre, with Downey 100 million.

  20. jeffmcm says:

    Hcat, my point was that DP keeps using ‘The Suit’ as a way to explain why people went to a movie that he didn’t (for reasons I don’t totally understand) like. You’re right: In the Iron Man comics, The Suit is The Hero. But in Iron Man the Movie, it was The Suit + compelling cast led by Downey.

  21. David Poland says:

    And Spider-Man?
    Downey and the attitude he brought to the table certainly made the trailer better than a lesser light. But “I went to Iron Man on opening weekend because of Robert Downey Jr” might be .5% of the ticket sales… same as Tobey Maguire… same as Christian Bale (and Heath Ledger, for that matter).
    I am a fan of Downey’s. And I think he made a movie that would have been The Incredible Hulk with a cooler CG effect into something better.
    When a movie works, it is a good thing. But people blur this notion of what drives opening weekend business and what drives “good” often.

  22. jeffmcm says:


  23. yancyskancy says:

    I don’t know what the demo breakdown was for Iron Man’s opening weekend, but surely the female audience didn’t show up for The Suit. Isn’t that where Downey might’ve been the big draw (as Kim suggests)?

  24. LexG says:


  25. leahnz says:

    mr. poland, it is my firm belief that you are WAAAAAY underestimating the pull of downey jr on the female population in regards to ‘iron man’ ticket sales (.5%? move that decimal point right two places and you’d be closer to the mark). men (straight men at least) just don’t seem to get the tremendous appeal of robert, who is sex on legs and has talent in spades. why do you think ‘iron man’ made so much bloody money? bring in the chicks and rake in the cash…we fancy us some wisecracking, ‘stashed n’ bearded rdjr in the dark, oh yeah. even down here at the ass end of the planet.

  26. jeffmcm says:

    Lex, I really need to meet you in person because I think that’s the only way to beat sense into your head. Do you have any open mikes schheduled (he said knowing the answer would be no)?

  27. hcat says:

    I would say that you are right on Spiderman, Maguire didn’t bring in anyone to the opening, just like Reeve didn’t bring anyone into Superman. But both Superman and Spiderman are part of our national pop culture identity in a way the Iron Man is not.
    And I agree Bale is not a draw for Batman. But I still argue Ledger was (even if just for morbid reasons) just as the first four Batman’s were sold on the villains star power. In the lead up to the release Ledger’s performance was heralded as the reason to see it opening weekend. It was a brillant mulit-faceted marketing campaign but at its very center it was sold on “Why So Serious?”, just as the first Batman was sold on “Wait till they get a load of me.”.
    Now I realize that we can go back and forth on this on whether the star delivered on the opening or merely gave the film its long legs but I would like to suggest that in the age of internet, comic-con, early reviews and whatnot, it is possible to create a star driven opening around an actor without a box office history. Nothing in Downey’s or Ledger’s history suggest a hundred million opening. But the same was true of Depp who managed to open the first Pirates movie despite lacking any previous blockbuster appeal (and with people activily groaning about the fact that a franchise was being launched from the idea of a theme park ride). But with the mixture of wall to wall marketing including 20 minute previews at certain forums, along with early advanced reviews, the hype can be created around a performer that brings the audience in to see them in that particular role. Which I would consider a star driven opening.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon