18 August 2008

Catch Us If You Can

I call it "Dave Clark Five marketing." Back in January 1964 (not that I was around then), the Beatles had held the top spot on the UK singles chart for many weeks with "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." But after a while, nearly every teenager in Britain owned those records, and their sales and airplay faded.

The Dave Clark Five's "Glad All Over" happened to be the single peaking best that week, with good but not phenomenal sales. But immediately that group's record label crowed that the "Tottenham sound" had beaten the "Liverpool sound." The group was brought to the US as the Beatles' main rivals, and were successful here, too. Now I like the Dave Clark Five's sound a lot when I'm in the right mood, but history has shown that group was no rival to the Beatles in either creativity or sustained sales. Despite all the hype, as shown by the magazine cover above preserved at the Ward-o-Matic.

We see the same phenomenon in publishing after a huge bestseller's numbers start to slide. Once everyone in the world has bought the latest Harry Potter novel, then of course its sales taper, and whatever novel is posting the best above-average numbers will be said to have "knocked Harry Potter off the top of the bestseller list."

This week's example was a raft of headlines announcing that Tropic Thunder had toppled The Dark Knight from the top of the movie box office charts. Ben Stiller's comedy earned $26 million on its first weekend while the Batman movie earned $17 million on its fifth, so Tropic Thunder's marketers got to boast of being number one.

Two weeks ago, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor earned $40 million in its opening weekend, and the week before that Stepbrothers took in nearly $31 million. Because The Dark Knight was still raking in huge amounts of cash then, neither of those movies got to be number one, but any studio accountant would prefer their opening weekends to Tropic Thunder's.

And don't get me started about this Monday's other box-office-based stories that The Dark Knight has overtaken Star Wars in total domestic box office revenue. When we adjust for inflation, as we must when comparing dollar figures from different years, Gone with the Wind remains unsurpassed as the all-time box-office moneymaker. The Dark Knight is #39 and gaining on Beverly Hills Cop, Cleopatra, and Pinocchio.


Bkbuds said...

Ah, very insightful and I feel a slight blush creeping in. I started a new job re-writing wire copy for radio stations. I have a good reputation for putting hard news in context in the 30-45 seconds I'm allotted per story.

But the celebrity stuff I treat as fluff. So when this very same box office story came my way, with this very same angle about Tropic Thunder trouncing The Dark Knight, that's how millions of radio listeners heard it later that night.

I am chastened. I'll be treating box office numbers with the same scrutiny as those about Wall Street or the economy now.

Anne Levy

PS--You up for another round of Cybils? We're starting up again soon.

J. L. Bell said...

The weekly box-office take seems to have become a combination of the Dow Jones average and the latest sports scores, and I'm not sure how. But once those revenue figures have become public news and entertainment, we want to find narratives in the numbers. "Toppling" is one of the recurring stories, so you'll have plenty of chances to check it.

As for the Cybils, I'm up for another season. It will give me an incentive to finish posting comments about this year's nominees!