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Arthur Murphy, 70; Turned Box Office Data Into a Studio Science

June 18, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Arthur D. Murphy, a longtime entertainment reporter who launched the trend of reporting box office grosses and founded the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program at USC, has died. He was 70.

Murphy died Monday in a nursing facility in San Luis Obispo after a long battle with lung cancer.

Widely respected among journalists and executives in Hollywood for his thorough analysis of each studio's gross -- the money theaters collect -- Murphy worked for Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

Previously, the only data the studios kept were film rentals, the portion of the grosses returned by theaters.

Murphy began compiling numbers in the late 1960s, long before any of the studios had collective data on their own grosses or their competition's. He thus became a valuable resource for studio executives, many of whom called him to get information on grosses, the number of prints going out to theaters and historical analysis of dates, years and months when movies were released and how they performed.

"He discovered patterns of distribution and kept finding those mathematical truisms in what was a by-the-seat-of-the-pants business," said Richard Kahn, former head of marketing for MGM International and a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences board of governors.

"He was the go-to guy when no one else had numbers," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution at Warner Bros.

"If you needed something you would pick up the phone and call Art," Fellman said.

"Murf," as he was known for his signature on Variety reviews, also had no patience with people who fudged the numbers.

"If anyone tried to give him a phony number, he would catch you in a minute," said Tom Sherak, a partner of Revolution Studios, whose long career in the industry began in distribution.

"He would say, 'Hey Tom, that number seems a bit high, let's look at it again,' " Sherak said.

Born in Worcester, Mass., Murphy described himself as an Irish Sagittarian.

The Navy veteran began his career at Variety in 1964 after receiving a master's degree in systems analysis and operations research from the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey.

He started out as a film critic, eventually becoming motion picture editor, financial editor and theatrical news reporter for weekly and daily Variety.

Having received an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, Murphy figured he could glean newsworthy information by reading each of the studios' year-end financial statements at a time when few bothered.

"He was fascinated by what numbers could reveal," said Phil Barlow, former head of distribution for Disney.

"By analyzing the numbers, he could come up with independent judgments and not just a rehash of whatever a vested interest wanted him to think," Barlow said.

Today, the business of reporting box office has become de rigueur for studios and most media outlets.

It is an industry unto itself with scores of Web sites and self-appointed box office analysts.

Beyond that, studios look to the numbers to jockey for release dates.

In 1993, after nearly 30 years at Variety, Murphy switched to the Hollywood Reporter, where he became chief box office consultant and analyst.

Peter Bart, editor of Variety, described Murphy "as something of a curmudgeon," but he was a "kind of a teddy bear" deep down, said Peter Pryor, executive editor at the Hollywood Reporter, whose father, Tom, hired Murphy at Variety.

"He was a walking college on the entertainment industry," said Pryor, who saw him as a mentor.

One of Murphy's most enduring legacies is the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program at the USC School of Cinema-Television, which was founded in 1979.

He convinced top Hollywood executives like Barry Diller, then head of Paramount, and producers such as Ray Stark to contribute enough money to found the program.

In the end, Stark gave $1 million and requested that the program be named after his son Peter, who had died at the age of 23.

Murphy, a tall, bearded man who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, was known as a gruff character who had no tolerance for lies and half-truths.

He became a legendary, rigorously demanding professor.

Some of his students included producers John Wells ("ER," "Far From Heaven"), Edward Saxon ("Silence of the Lambs"), Stacy Sher ("Erin Brockovich") and Neal Moritz ("The Fast and the Furious").

Kahn said Wells noted in his 1998 speech to the school's graduates that "he would like to thank Art Murphy for his Bentley and house in Malibu."

He was well known for his smoking, but even when it was banned at the school, his classroom was exempt.

But he quit the day he was diagnosed as having lung cancer.

He remained director of the Stark program until 1990 but continued teaching until 1997, when he retired and moved to San Luis Obispo.

Five years ago, he had one lung removed and the cancer went into remission, said Kathy Fogg, assistant director of the Stark program. It was only in the last few months that the cancer reemerged, she said.

Services are scheduled for Monday at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, 6657 Sunset Blvd., with burial following at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in the Hollywood Hills.

He has no family survivors, Fogg said. "We tell our students that they are his descendants."

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