Box-Office Bingo

This week's sixth-most-popular movie in the U.S. is Wild Wild West—a flashy, expensive and largely panned film starring Will Smith as an African-American lawman battling an evil genius armed with a mechanical tarantula in the old West. In theaters for just three weeks, the film has already raked in $102 million.

For more reasons than the film's dreadful storyline, Wild Wild West probably doesn't deserve that kind of money. But, in fact, it's difficult to determine exactly how much money any movie makes.

That's because of theater hopping. Especially since early June, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) directed theaters to start carding youths asking for R-rated film tickets, kids everywhere know that tickets are checked at the cineplex entrance—but not necessarily at each theater inside. In other words, buying a ticket for a G- or PG-rated movie like Tarzan, Big Daddy or Wild Wild West is usually enough to get the youngsters into American Pie, South Park or The Blair Witch Project.

“I always buy a ticket to whatever I can get into and then go see whatever I want to,” said Jennifer, a 15-year-old shopping at the Brea Mall.

Her response was typical. In dozens of interviews throughout Orange County, kids acknowledged that they have circumvented the under-17 ban to see their favorite summer movies.

“I've paid to see Wild Wild West three times,” said one 16-year-old shopping at the Irvine Spectrum. “But I haven't seen it once.” Will he? “Probably not—or maybe on video. I've heard it's pretty crappy.”

That buy-and-switch raises reasonable questions about the accuracy of reported box office sales, Hollywood's primary measure of a film's success. Good box office can make careers of nobodies (witness this summer's out-of-nowhere hit, Blair Witch Project); bad box office has destroyed the careers of well-known actors, directors and studio heads. Some say director Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate brought down Cimino (whose previous work included The Deer Hunter) and United Artists, the studio that released the 1980 box-office disaster.

“That's a really interesting question,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, the LA-based company that collects and ranks box-office receipts. “But it's nearly impossible to quantify the effects of theater hopping.”

Dergarabedian acknowledged that theater hopping occurs but said his company has no way to account for it when it ranks box-office grosses. He said movie theaters themselves don't account for it either.

“There's anecdotal evidence that shows this definitely goes on, but whether it goes on in any statistically relevant way is unknown,” he said. “We don't see any real way to track it.”

Research assistance by Jake Sager.

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