Armchair Executives | Are Movie Lovers Putting the Horse Race Before the Art?
Here are some recent headlines: Screenrant: “The Mummy Tops Worldwide Box Office for Second Weekend.” Escapist: “Beauty and the Beast Sets March Box Office Record.” Superherohype: “Spider-Man: Homecoming Soundtrack Details, Box Office Tracking Revealed.” Gamespot: “Wonder Woman Buries The Mummy To Stay Top Of US Box Office.”
You may notice that none of these are from industry trade papers.
It was perhaps back in the late 1980s that I began reading the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times with something approaching a regularity. Once the funnies were finished, I would move on to movie news, occasional reviews, box office reports, studio deals, and other such industry insider information. I wasn’t necessarily obsessed. There was no part of my brain that was deliberately amassing this information for later use. But I did want to know more about movies than I did about, say, politics or sports. I recall reading about what films had grossed the most over the weekends, and all about the financial horse race that resulted from said numbers.
It wasn’t until later in life, when I became more intimately connected with the comings and goings of the Hollywood machine, that I realized this casual study of box office reports and studio politics was a unique experience for kids living in L.A., specifically. There was a time in this country when feature film grosses were not published in papers outside of Los Angeles, and studio deals were rarely seen outside of the usual trade papers. For the most part, general audiences didn’t know every detail of a film’s production as it unfolded on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis.
This, of course, is one of the many facets of journalism that the internet has changed. Information about movies now disseminates instantly, allowing even the most dimly involved fans to know who has been signed to what project, what property has been picked up for another 12-picture deal, how much money one film has made over another. That last facet has also spawned its own brand of pundit who likes to postulate about the future of the industry based on box office numbers, and has their own theories as to how Hollywood should behave to ensure that they either make more profitable movies or, perhaps more exactly, how they will continue to make the types of movies that the pundit enjoys watching.
These pundits – not involved in the film industry, not hired by studios or trade publications, not possessed of any financial stake in the performance of any film – are the armchair executives of the world.
“Armchair executive,” of course, does not refer to legitimate box office analysts; the work Scott Mendelson does at Forbes, for example, is first rate, accurate, and refreshingly cynical at times. I’m talking about the phenomenon of fans, and even casual audiences, now taking a more personal, vested interest in the background financial workings of an industry they are not personally involved in.
The common filmgoer now naturally and casually uses words like “franchise” to describe a film series, “worldwide grosses” to talk about a film’s success, and concern themselves with the breaking of box office records. They discuss, on a daily basis, who is moving on and off of projects, when extra scenes are being re-shot, and how films are tracking in China. And, given their up-to-the-hour access to financial information, they are free to postulate, predict, and dictate what the makes of the films ought to do in order to make more money next time.
The phrase “armchair executive” merely describes audiences – now with easy access to information readily available on BoxOfficeMojo, Variety, and numerous other places – who have changed the way they think about movies. In addition to merely enjoying a film, there is now also a contest mentality surrounding many of the larger ones. Remember when Mad Max: Fury Road opened at #2 to the ire of its many fans? How about when Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice experienced one of the sharpest second-weekend dropoffs in earning history?
The current narratives at play in the armchair executive’s consciousnesses are about how Wonder Woman is raking in money by doing something novel: featuring a woman as the lead character in a big-budget superhero flick, why the latest entry in the previously “critic-proof” Transformers franchise is performing below box office expectations, and how The Mummy, in an attempt to launch a cinematic universe, will only be able to do so with large overseas numbers, given that it performed so poorly domestically.
The question at hand, though, is why? Why do we care? Thinking back to that time in the late 1980s, those box office numbers were printed in the L.A. newspapers because many industry insiders lived locally. The rest of the country, meanwhile, didn’t know how much money films were earning. They didn’t know about production troubles well in advance, and they had no stake as to whether or not something became a strong chapter in an ongoing franchise. And they didn’t necessarily much care. They simply went to the films they wanted to see.
It’s difficult to say when the switch flipped, but it most certainly had something to do with the internet. Suddenly all the “insider” information was more or less made public, and non-executives could begin to behave like all those Hollywood insiders they would occasionally read about. Over the ensuing decades, an entire subculture of would-be Robert Evanses sprang up, fostered themselves, assembled a new tone of movie discussion, and now being an armchair executive is simply the central part of film journalism’s discourse. Fans and executives are speaking the same language, and that’s baffling. I have personally overheard 12-year-old boys casually discussing box office details, and a mentioning one film’s given financial success over another. They, too, were playing the game.
Perhaps I am merely a nostalgic Old Person (I’m quite guilty of that, in fact), but it seems that this constant financial quibbling has taken away a good deal of general enjoyment from movies. Not that people are no longer enjoying films, but the discourse has allowed a myriad of metrics and box office numbers to take the place of our discussion and criticism and spirited, casual love of the cinematic form. With review aggregating sites, box office reports, and Metacritic numbers, there is now a clear “winner” when it comes to comparing films. These numbers have taken hold in people’s minds, replacing any sort of analysis, dissection, or perhaps even simply joy with a provable “truth” about a given film. Wonder Women may have moved and exhilarated you, but the discussion will now also include how well it did compared to other movies and what the producers will do next with the series.
Sorry. “Franchise.” Wonder Woman was great, but how many points did it score?
We all have a instinct to root for our horse in a horse race, to cheer our home team, and to hope that our favorite films make a lot of money. But when we don’t have any sort of personal financial stake in the box office outcome of a given film, we need to start asking ourselves why we care so much to track their numbers. Industry professionals and journalists may need to know these facts and figures, but fans have been scooping them up and reducing exciting cinematic art into a mere game of crunching numbers and mashing stats.
Ultimately, this has only served to heat up and enrage film discussions. Because now, with stats on their side, those who argue about film now have gained the right to be correct about something. If you loved Wonder Woman, then you have an aggregate, large box office numbers, and knowledge of DC’s forthcoming deals to validate you. If you hated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you are fighting a tide of billions of dollars, a fact that the film’s proponents can easily cite.
To editorialize, we perhaps shouldn’t need those numbers when it comes to discussing films. Unless we are industry professionals who make our living with movies, we shouldn’t much care. Indeed, looking back over the history of film, many of the films often considered the best weren’t necessarily box office successes. But some of them were. It was kind of random. History, and the taste of the people, frothing critics, and a slow burn of cultural accumulation has decided which films should live on, which ones are classics, and which ones will be forgotten. We discovered these films in spite of the armchair executive metrics, and not because of them.
Perhaps we should concern ourselves less with how an executive might view the industry, and more with the way we, as mere audience members, respond to the actual film.
Top Image: Paramount Pictures
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.