When a movie takes in close to $10 million dollars a day — as Batman Returns did in its first 11 days of release — it’s hard to imagine that a studio would see a need to fudge the film’s box office performance. But due to a quirk in the accepted industry practice of reporting box office revenues on a per-screen basis, that’s exactly what has happened with several recent hits.
Take Batman Returns, which grossed a record $47.7 million its opening weekend. Warner Bros. reported that Tim Burton’s sequel lit up the darkness at 2,644 screens, giving it a per-screen average of $18,049-one of the highest in history. And in the movie business, how much money a film makes per screen is the much looked-upon indicator of whether or not it will have ”legs.”
So what’s wrong with this picture? The reported screen count is actually the number of buildings that Batman Returns runs in, not the actual number of screens it’s playing on. With so many multiplexes now opting to devote more than one screen to blockbuster releases, Variety estimates the movie is in fact showing on a whopping 3,700 individual screens (that’s nearly 15 percent of the U.S. total). Other recent hits, including Lethal Weapon 3 and Alien3, also played on far more screens than was reported. The underestimating of the screen count makes a film’s per-screen average appear better than it really is. When Batman Returns’ first-weekend gross is divided by 3,700, its average turns out to be $12,897 — that’s $5,151 less than the reported figure.
So what’s the deal here? ”I’ve had explanations from all sides,” says Lawrence Cohn, Variety’s East Coast box office tabulator. ”The studios say these multiplex auditoriums are tiny, and three of them won’t match a 1,000-seat theater.” Warner Bros.’ distribution honcho Barry Reardon adds, ”We go by theaters. People go to theaters; they don’t go to screens.”
The industry seems in no rush to correct this anomaly in its record keeping. After all, when a movie like Batman Returns is breaking records every week, who’s counting?