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'Deep Throat' Numbers Just Don't Add Up

Michael Hiltzik / GOLDEN STATE

February 24, 2005|Michael Hiltzik

Having come of age in the '70s, I am certainly familiar with "Deep Throat" as a cultural phenomenon: its status as the epitome of "porno chic," the way it made Linda Lovelace a household name, Bob Woodward's appropriation of the title as the code name for his secret Watergate source.

With "Deep Throat" the prodigious profit-making machine, however, I was unfamiliar until recently.

That is, until the publicity pitch for "Inside Deep Throat," a new documentary about the movie, made a pair of remarkable claims: that it is the most profitable picture ever made, and that it has grossed $600 million.

The information came from the distributor of "Inside," General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, certainly an upstanding company. After a moment's contemplation, though, I knew

what to think of these claims: Baloney.

Leaving aside that "Deep Throat" was financed by mobsters and that therefore any figures are suspect, logic and arithmetic alone are enough to tell you that its box-office gross could not remotely have approached $600 million.

We're talking about a movie that was released in 1972, banned in half the country and generally exhibited in one theater at a time even in the biggest cities, such as New York and Los Angeles.

The average U.S. ticket price in 1972, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, was $2.05. By 1980, when the "Deep Throat" phenomenon was way played out, the average was still only $2.69.

For the movie to have made $600 million at the box office, in other words, it would have had to sell tickets to enough customers to populate the entire United States one and a half times over.

The No. 1 mainstream movie of the 1970s, by the way, was "Star Wars." To date, its domestic theatrical gross is $461 million. You want to tell me that "Deep Throat" has sold more tickets than "Star Wars"?

One credulous report in the New York Times recently attributed the lofty gross enjoyed by "Deep Throat" to "videocassette and DVD sales and rentals." Unfortunately, home video players didn't even appear on the market until two years after the movie's release, and didn't become a mass-market device until after 1990. (In 1985, the average price of a home VCR still exceeded $600.)

I've seen references to a videocassette of "Deep Throat" being the "bestselling sex videotape of all time," but hype is hype. Oddly enough, this miraculous product seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth without leaving a trace; you can't even find it on EBay.

Contemporary box-office reports also put the lie to Universal's PR. The most commonly cited estimates of ticket sales when the movie became the focus of a 1976 obscenity trial in Memphis were $30 million to $50 million, nationwide.

In 1981, Pussycat Theaters, an X-rated franchise in Los Angeles that screened the movie for 10 years straight, placed its L.A. gross over that period at $6 million -- and that included money attributable to pictures with which it shared a double bill. Are there 100 other cities where "Deep Throat" was shown nonstop for a decade? Is there one?

It should surprise no connoisseur of journalistic indolence to know that the press has accepted the $600-million figure as gospel for years. My newspaper database turned up no fewer than 200 references dating back to 1980. The majority have appeared in recent months, thanks to Universal's publicity machine.

Not a single story attributes the figure to an authoritative source. Indeed, it's always accompanied by weasel words such as "by some accounts," "reportedly," "said to be," etc.

When I queried NBC Universal about all this, I was assured that the documentary makers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, "are pretty careful about this sort of thing."

The Universal people then e-mailed me what they called a list of "sources" for the $600-million figure. This documentation amounted to references to articles from three newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times), one website and one out-of-print guide to X-rated movies. None of the articles gave any prior reference for their estimates.

Even more curious, two don't even support the $600-million figure; one (The Times) merely quoted someone saying that $100 million would be an "understatement," and another cited a possible range of $300 million to $600 million.

I'm reluctant to criticize NBC Universal for inflating the film's box-office take in its publicity materials. Exaggeration is a natural instinct of movie studios; you can't blame them for doing it any more than you can blame a dog for drinking out of the toilet.

But what about the press?

Have our reporters, editors and critics become so mathematically ignorant that a patently inflated figure like this no longer leaps out and demands authentication? Or have they become so accustomed to hearing the unvarnished truth from Hollywood flacks that they no longer bother to vet what they're told before shoveling it into print?

As it happens, I believe I have tracked the inflated estimate for "Deep Throat" to its first known source. It's Linda Lovelace herself -- or rather Linda Boreman, to use the family name she returned to before her accidental death in 2002.

According to Mike McGrady, a former Newsday columnist who co-wrote two autobiographies in which she chronicled a life of abuse by the husband who forced her into the porn business, she gave him the figure and he put it in the books.

But there the well runs dry. "I don't know where she got it," McGrady told me the other day from his home in Washington state. "I think it was something she heard from somebody."

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.

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