The Reel Truth

Hollywood Claims the Sky is Falling. To Which We Say Puh-lease.

If you go to Rotten Tomatoes, the Web site that compiles more than 100 film critics' reviews each week, you will find at the top of the "Certified Fresh" list a single movie that was the very best-reviewed of 2005. It was not a remake or a sequel, nor did it cost $200 million and star a pubescent wizard or a computer-generated ape. It was a made-for-cheap documentary about men confined to scrap-metal wheelchairs who play a violent game of quadriplegic rugby, which involves rolling across gymnasium floors at high speed and hitting your opponent as hard as you can. If you knock him out of his chair, so much the better.

Titled Murderball, it was released in July to nearly unanimous acclaim, and the execs at THINKFilm, the New York City distributor that put Murderball into theaters, had every reason to believe audiences would run to a funny, furious movie about men who cannot walk. Before its release, one of its stars, Mark Zupan, appeared alongside Jay Leno and David Letterman and was even touted on the cover of Entertainment Weekly as the summer's unlikeliest action hero. A&E Network bought Murderball for broadcast, MTV Films signed on as a promotional partner and Reebok put up billboards pushing this latest extreme sport. And just a week before the movie came out, Participant Productions--the socially progressive company owned by eBay founder Jeff Skoll--partnered with THINKFilm to help give the movie a promotional push on the Internet.

"If you had asked me and a number of people in this company and a number of industry observers what the box office would be," says THINKFilm's Mark Urman, "I think everybody would have predicted multiple, multiple millions for Murderball."

Murderball's Mark Zupan can kick your ass without leaving his chair.
Murderball's Mark Zupan can kick your ass without leaving his chair.

Instead, it made just one million--$1.5 mil, to be precise--during its three-month theatrical run. The shoulda-been hit missed by a mile, which stunned Urman. All the post-screening polling suggested it was universally loved: 99 percent of the men who saw it said they would recommend it; 100 percent of women said the same thing.

"The movie was going to be a big hit," Urman says. "Of course, that was a perfect illustration of what market research does. It tells you what you don't need to know and is often very misleading."

On the surface, the failure of Murderball would appear to render it one more casualty of The Year the Movies Died, a so-called trend trumpeted in newspaper headlines on an almost-weekly basis. But don't weep for Mark Urman; the man ain't losing money, even on a money-loser at the theater. Welcome to the economics of Hollywood, where great apes and Jedi knights aren't the only computer-generated illusions.

Throughout the year, dozens of newspapers and TV news shows insisted studio revenues were off 5 percent from the same period in 2004; some had it as high as 7 or 8 percent. The most commonly cited stat was that Hollywood had lost $500 million, give or take, for the first half of 2005 compared with last year.

Which wasn't true. At all.

Fact is, the major studios took in more from the box office in the first quarter of 2005 ($870 million) than they did during the first quarter of 2004 (when receipts totaled $797 million). How do we know this? Because Edward Jay Epstein reported it on the online site Slate, where he contributes a weekly column called "The Hollywood Economist." Epstein got his numbers from "a secretive unit of the Motion Picture Association" called Worldwide Market Research, which provides revenue breakdowns to the highest-level studio execs but keeps those numbers away from journalists. Yes, Epstein says, audiences were down, but "this came mainly at the expense of independent, foreign and documentary movies." The studios, he insists, suffered no slump whatsoever.

Epstein, whose book The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood was published by Random House in February, has spent the better part of 2005 demystifying and debunking Hollywood's woes on Slate. He is no embedded trade-mag reporter, no Variety shill, but a writer of books on subjects ranging from the collapse of TV news to the Warren Commission to the diamond trade; he's a serious man of sober purpose. So his numbers ring true, as do his assertions that Hollywood is in the business of peddling not only big-screen myths, but business-pages ones as well.

"The reason I have stayed on the subject all year is the inability or unwillingness of the media, of people who report on Hollywood, to try to get the real numbers and see what's really happening," Epstein says. "They have no willingness to accept that box office numbers are not the studio numbers. They treat it as though it's some sort of a joke...People say this film did this or this film did that, and it's like talking about how some clothing did at a fashion show rather than the retail store."

Spend an hour talking to Epstein, and he will run down his estimable list of myths promulgated by and about Hollywood. He will tell you studio execs hate making movies for kids, hate watering them down for the demo-pleasing PG-13 rating. "People in Hollywood are generally smart, thoughtful and pretty nice guys...and if they make movies that are terrible, they're not doing it because they want to," Epstein says. "It's because their business is to find audiences, and the audience they can find the easiest are teenagers, and the only movies they can get merchandising tie-ins for are children's movies."

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