Stanley Kubrick, Movieguide® and the Advance of Motion Picture Tracking
By David Outten
These days the top movies of the past weekend make news on television, radio, in print, and on the Internet. You can almost track movies like stocks. Several websites give daily box office results. This was not always the case. Look for box office results going back in history, and the numbers are very sporadic. Variety magazine has long provided results from theaters in major cities, but national accounting used to be hard to obtain.
Enter Stanley Kubrick, the director of DR. STRANGELOVE, PATHS OF GLORY, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and BARRY LYNDON. Unlike most directors, Kubrick wanted to play a part in picking the best theaters to show his movie A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (which originally came out rated X). He did this partly because he was disappointed in the way MGM handled his science fiction opus, 2001.
So, Kubrick began gathering data from Variety and compiling it in a database. He studied the data to see what kinds of movies did best in which theaters. He wanted theaters that would be receptive to his unusually vulgar movie.
His previous movie 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY featured a fictional, very powerful computer known as HAL 9000. Word spread that Kubrick was using an advanced computerized system to track theater box office. In reality, he was simply creating notebooks. When A CLOCKWORK ORANGE did better in the carefully selected theaters than many people expected, Variety called to ask about his computer system.
By the 1980s computer databases could be built on personal computers to track anything you wished. Gradually, box office returns were tracked on a daily basis, and movies of similar types were meticulously compared. Today, websites like Box Office Mojo (boxofficemojo.com) actually predict each coming weekend’s box office and seldom miss by a wide margin. Movies are tracked by the number of screens each week as well as the rate at which their box office diminishes week to week. Family movies tend to hold up better week-to-week than vulgar adult movies.
Movieguide® has taken box office analysis in another direction. Since 1985 Movieguide® has given movies codes for the level of sex, violence, nudity, and foul language, as well as alcohol and drug use and worldviews such as “Christian,” “Biblical,” “Pagan,” “Humanist,” and “Romantic.” When these codes are compared to the box office, major myths are debunked. The results show that sex does not sell, and that adding foul language reduces box office.
The results of this box office tracking are printed each year in Movieguide®’s Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry. This 80-page document is given out to studio executives at the Annual Faith & Values Awards Gala sponsored by Movieguide®. Several studio executives have told Movieguide® that the information provided has resulted in a reduction of sex and foul language and the inclusion of elements appealing to Christian audiences.
Ironically, Kubrick could have benefitted from Movieguide®’s research. In 1975, he released BARRY LYNDON. The quality of the production was stunning, and the use of classical music was breathtaking, but the content was not very appetizing. Barry Lyndon, the lead character played by Ryan O’Neal, was beyond unlikable – he was an immortal, selfish scoundrel. Rather than make a movie with content and characters American audiences would love, Kubrick searched for theaters that would generate the highest box office for an ugly story he wanted to tell.
This remains a problem today. The audience that made THE BIBLE a huge hit on television and THE BLIND SIDE a huge hit in theaters is not being served like they used to be in the days of BEN HUR, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
In light of this problem, Movieguide® intends to make its rating analysis more public. We intend to expand on our 2012 test of Major Studio Report Cards. We are initiating weekly reports on more than just the major studios. In the coming months, we intend to create studio report cards for years going back to 1990. This new information will result in readers at www.movieguide.org being able to see what content has benefitted the movie industry most over time. It will identify the most successful movie studios and what kinds of movies they’re making.
In doing so, we hope the Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry will have one more laurel to add to the careers of those who are making the best, most family-friendly, most inspiring, and most godly movies.