Repeating a seemingly innocent ritual of our time, newspaper and TV reports blared the latest weekend results from Hollywood's cinematic horse race:
Paramount's "Fatal Attraction" ranked No. 1 at the motion picture box office, scoring a hot $7.6 million in 758 theaters.
Tri-Star's "The Principal," starring Jim Belushi, came in second with a zingy gross of $4.7 million.
Meanwhile, New World's "Hellraiser," a grisly horror flick, was close behind, with $4.65 million in tickets sold.
And that's the way it was on the weekend that ended Sunday, Sept. 20. Maybe.
In fact, movie executives have become embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious--if largely private--debate over both the accuracy and value of such box-office statistics.
In recent years, weekend box-office reports have become a staple of the entertainment media, this newspaper included.
But some film executives claim the widespread dissemination of box-office numbers is pushing audiences toward an unwelcome "win-place-show" attitude toward movie viewing. And that mentality, they say, has at least occasionally driven companies into misreporting numbers to gain an edge on important movie scoreboards compiled by USA Today, Daily Variety, "Entertainment Tonight" and others.
"The jockeying for position has become incredibly intense," said Thomas Sherak, marketing and distribution president for 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
Sherak added: "(Padding of numbers) happens on occasion. No one can tell you with any certainty when it happens. But it's usually when pictures are bunched closely in gross."
Such "bunching" occurred last month when--according to grosses reported by the individual studios themselves--"The Principal" and "Hellraiser" narrowly outsold Fox's "The Pick-Up Artist," a romantic comedy that took in about $4.5 million over the weekend that ended Sept. 20.
But executives of several studios have complained privately that Tri-Star's reported figures for "The Principal," and to a lesser extent New World's reported "Hellraiser" grosses, were measurably higher than their own informed estimates for those films--and by just enough to put them ahead of the Fox release.
In reporting grosses for the two movies, the trade paper Daily Variety took the complaints seriously enough to add an unusual addendum that read: "Other distribution sources place totals for these pictures at between $200,000-$500,000 less."
Daily Variety editor Thomas Pryor would only say that his paper ran the disclaimer in keeping with its practice of double-checking company reports in at least some instances with competitors or others. "We have certain individuals with certain companies who will give us an honest reading. You know the old story: It's 'sources,' " he said.
Tri-Star distribution chief Jerry Esbin didn't return calls seeking comment, and Sherak declined to discuss the incident.
New World executives strongly maintain that their company's numbers were accurate. "Variety never called us (to question the figures), and nobody complained," added Frank Wright, the New World publicist who is responsible for reporting the independent studio's grosses.
Ironically, such disputes over the integrity of box-office numbers appear to have become more intense as the gathering of movie statistics became more sophisticated in the 1980s, thanks largely to computerization.
As recently as the late 1970s, individual film studios took as long as a week to telephone theater owners for reports on their grosses--and then disclosed the numbers publicly only for major hits such as Universal's "Jaws," which made enough money to send corporate parent MCA's stock soaring.
According to entertainment analyst Art Murphy, media and shareholder pressure compelled all major studios to begin routinely revealing weekend grosses by 1981.
But the numbers remained rough approximations until several years ago, when Entertainment Data Inc., a Los Angeles company, began electronically compiling nationwide box-office reports on everybody's movies--and selling them to competitors, who watch each other carefully for signs of padding.
The Entertainment Data reports, showing each weekend night's ticket sales for each picture in theaters accounting for between 70% and 80% of the total U.S. box office, are delivered to about 100 subscribing film and theater executives (often at home) by 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings.
Based on the reports, studio executives quickly make sophisticated estimates of total performance of not only their own films but also the movies put out by rivals.
Later on Monday, each studio relays estimated grosses for its own films to reporters from the key entertainment press and television services.