FILM CLIPS : BOX-OFFICE TOP 10: WHO'S ENGROSSED?

Times Staff Writer

It has been a Tuesday-morning ritual for the film industry for decades. Grab Daily Variety or the Hollywood Reporter--whichever trade paper comes first--and turn to the weekly box-office grosses.

What's No. 1 this week? Is "Cobra" still coiled up at the top, or did "Top Gun" shoot it down? How much money did "Poltergeist II" scare up, and did "SpaceCamp" have a good launch? Maybe "Invaders From Mars" sneaked past them all.

You can understand why film people are interested. They may have worked on the movie, or they may still work for the studio that released it. Certainly, they know some of the people involved, and a few of them may actually be investors checking in on their money.

But lately, the weekly grosses have been embraced as urgent news by much wider-aiming media. Both wire services--United Press International and Associated Press--now transmit weekly box-office stories (with the Top 10), and the never list-less USA Today includes it as a routine Tuesday feature.

For those who can't wait that long, Cable News Network beats everyone to the poll with regular Monday-night reports.

Tom Pryor, Variety's respected editor, mused in a recent editorial whether anyone outside the industry really cares about the film industry's weekly performance, despite the regular doses of weekly grosses, cumes (totals earned to date), per-screen averages and plus-minus percentage shifts (this week versus last) that are being dumped like untreated sewage into the information pipeline.

The answer is that nobody knows. The weekly Top 10, inevitably laced with such contaminants as "Raw Deal" and "Cobra," has obvious appeal to entertainment editors who, in an era when people won't read anything that takes longer than a sneeze, are hungry for bite-size data to include in their pages or in their broadcasts.

"We think our readers love statistics and love information," says USA Today entertainment editor Joan Behrmann. "We think of USA Today readers as being information hungry, and it (the box-office list) is interesting information to throw into the pot."

There's no doubt that people like lists, especially in the area of entertainment. The Nielsen ratings, mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle, are reported as routinely on the TV pages as the Dow Jones industrials are reported on the business pages. There are best-seller lists for books and videocassette tapes, video rental rankings, and for audiophiles, the venerable tops in pops.

If Joan Collins listed her Top 10 lovers, every man in America would read it, if only to learn if his name was there (only kidding, Joan).

But is it fair, or prudent, to waste a split-second of someone's time on information that is useless to them, and possibly damaging to the people whose films either don't make the list, or aren't high enough on it?

The whole idea makes Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel mad enough to eat an adverb.

"The media that run these lists only do it because it's easy," Siskel says. "It's quick and it looks like news. But without having someone who understands the business analyzing the statistics, it is just putting irrelevant information into viewers' heads.

"What people should care about is whether a movie is any good, not how much it's making. I have never had anyone come up to me and say, 'What is the top-grossing picture in America?' They say, 'What's the best movie? What's out there that I should see?' "

Siskel thinks the lists, and the erroneous impressions they often leave, actually hurt films that don't get off to blockbuster box-office starts.

"I saw it happen to 'The Right Stuff,' " Siskel says. "The movie didn't open as well as the press predicted, so it was damaged goods by the next week. People figured, 'Well, it must not be any good.' "

The movie box-office rankings are mostly irrelevant even in the context of the list. Last week, for instance, "Cobra" was the No. 1 grossing film in America, which helped it to grab most of the headlines and leave casual readers with the obvious impression that it was also the hottest film in America.

It wasn't. "Cobra" was playing in 2,131 theaters, yet it barely out-grossed "Top Gun," which was showing on less than half as many screens. On the average, "Top Gun" took in $6,531 per theater, compared to "Cobra's" $3,525.

Are per-screen averages then the way to go? Not unless you want to get really confused. "Top Gun," which added nearly 500 theaters a week ago, rose to No. 1 on the chart last weekend. But if the leaders were listed by theater averages, "Top Gun" would have been the runner-up to "A Room With a View," which averaged $6,717 in 93 theaters.

By any standard, "A Room With a View" is doing well, but it's not in a league with "Top Gun." If a popular movie is playing in only one theater in a major city, it is naturally going to do more business in that theater than another popular movie will do in each of 15 theaters serving the same market.

Even then, comparisons are meaningless, since you don't know how many people each of the theaters actually seats.

On top of all this, the figures upon which the rankings are made come from the distributors themselves. ("Yes, Mr. Fox, and how many chickens did you eat today?")

The truth is that there is no accurate way of reflecting the relative success of films on a weekly basis. Ultimately, a movie either takes in more money than it costs to make (this is commercial success), or it falls short (this is failure). The only thing the weekly top 10 does is create the illusion of success.

Does the illusion influence anyone? Probably. How many bad books have you tried to read simply because they showed up on some best-seller list? It's doubtful that the mass consumption of the figures affects stock prices to any major degree, but the apparent success of some films probably lures a few people into the market.

Film industry people presumably have the savvy to read raw box-office data, and some of the mass media outlets reporting the lists do assign the analyses to writers who understand them. But in every instance where the list just appears, it is just a list. A bite-size morsel for information-starved readers who will swallow anything.

THUMBS UP: Gene Siskel, who was reportedly negotiating with the Chicago Sun-Times after his editors at the Chicago Tribune decided he could no longer review films, has signed a personal contract with the Tribune Co. calling for a weekly capsule movie review column and regular Sunday features.

Siskel's new deal, which is effective Aug. 1, comes after much speculation that he had been taken off the critic's beat at the Tribune because he and Roger Ebert, with whom he has done a syndicated television movie review program for the last 10 years, decided not to renew their TV contract with the Chicago Tribune Co. Instead, they signed a multiyear contract with Walt Disney Domestic Television.

Shortly after that switch was announced, Tribune editor Jim Squires announced that Siskel was being asked to accept another assignment at the paper.

Squires cited the excessive workload that would come with the more demanding Disney TV deal (it calls for several annual specials as well as a weekly half-hour review show). He also mentioned the potential conflict of interest in having Siskel review Disney movies for the paper. In an article in the April 12 edition of Editor and Publisher, a journalism trade magazine, Squires said his concerns were strictly over the workload.

Siskel and Ebert, who will each reportedly receive about $1 million a year from Disney, have not discussed specific reasons for jumping from the Tribune Co. to Disney, but if they needed a million and one reasons, there was the likelihood of having their show aired on the Tribune-owned KTLA in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles market is obviously important to Siskel and Ebert, regarded by many industry people as the most influential critics in the country, and the shift from the network-owned KABC-TV to an independent station could cost them viewers here.

Siskel said this week that he and Ebert will remain with KABC-TV when the new Disney show--called "Siskel & Ebert & the Movies"--begins airing in September.

Siskel, 40, who started his career with the Tribune 17 years ago, said he's happy with the new writing arangement, which will allow him to do more interviews and reflective pieces on the film industry.

His successor as The Tribune film critic has not named been named.

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