Box Office Round Up – October 21 – 23, 2016

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Get behind the numbers of last week’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer delves into why the teen pregnancy rates are dropping in the United States and what the hell that has to do with a cross-dressing grandmother (Boo! A Madea Halloween) and the worst titled film of the year, Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back

by Chris Neumer

EDITOR’S NOTE: After we posted this piece, we saw an article involving Tyler Perry questioning the very same things we questioned in this piece.  We were unaware of this article prior to publishing this story.

This last weekend’s box office featured America’s favorite cross-dresser narrowly beating out Paramount Pictures’ latest attempt to create a franchise where there is none. Naturally, I want to start by discussing… Occam’s Razor and teen pregnancy rates.

Several years ago, I was at an event discussing several of my favorite razors. Positing that “among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected”, Occam’s Razor is by far the most well known of the philosophical razors, but certainly not the only one out there.*

* I learned this bit of information while researching this column: philosophical razors are named as such because they are lines of reasoning that allow people to, “shave off unlikely explanations for a phenomenon”. They really, truly are philosophical razors!

My personal favorite is Hanlon’s Razor (sometimes referred to as Heinlein’s Razor), which states: never attribute to malice, that which can be explained by stupidity. It works so well it almost every situation.

I even mentioned my own Razor, “Greatness that cannot be explained ceases to be great”. Sure, it’s close-ish to Hitchens’ Razor, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” but it’s (probably) far enough away that it merits its own standing.

We finally circled back to Occam’s Razor and someone asked me if there’d ever been an instance where Occam’s Razor had failed me. And there was. It involved teen pregnancy rates.

I had been reading a book on the decline of urban society and noticed a study that showed that the rate of teen pregnancies has been dropping precipitously in the United States. In 1991, there were roughly 60 teen pregnancies per 1,000 females; in 2014, there were roughly 24. That’s good!

When it came time to begin to understand why the teen pregnancy rate was dropping, the author of the book went into a series of long, complex and wildly drawn out theories that caused my eyes to gloss over. What the author was suggesting was completely speculative and seemed like he could have saved a lot of time by simply stating that lifestyles had changed… which isn’t an answer anyway.  I began wondering what might have actually happened to drop the rates so quickly and after a minute of thinking, I started laughing because I knew that if I applied Occam’s Razor to the situation, it would suggest one thing: that teens were getting less fertile. And that’s ridiculous.

Tyler Perry’s latest critically reviled Madea film, Boo! A Madea Halloween, came out this last weekend and took the top spot at the box office, pulling in an estimated $27.6 million. This topped Tom Cruise’s latest film, Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back* by about $3 million.

* This is seriously the film’s title. If you thought that the original title of Jack Reacher was bad—and I most certainly did—this is like doubling down on the bad. Forget the fact that the title seems to be warning the audience to not see the second installment of the series, consider this: if you hear this title out loud, it sounds like “Jack Reacher to Never Go Back”. What’s the plot about? Oh, Jack Reacher goes back… or THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF WHAT THE TITLE STATES!   Just once, I’d like to see a movie with a subtitle like ‘Never Go Back’ where the lead character does not, in fact, go back. Jack Reacher is a man of his word. He vowed he wasn’t going back and, uh… well… he doesn’t goes back.  What are some better options for the title?  You’ll see.

However…

If you just look at the two films’ total grosses, they appear almost even. When you look a few other numbers though, Madea pulls away drastically. Madea’s per theater number was over $12,000, while Jack Reacher 2: Reacher’s Around earned just $6,000. The reason for this was that Jack Reacher 2: Cruise Control opened in 3,780 theaters and Boo! A Madea Halloween opened in just 2,260.

When I saw this wild disparity between the two films, Jack Reacher 2: Still Reaching opened in almost double the theaters that Madea did, but Madea did double the per theater numbers, I instantly wondered: why didn’t Madea open in more theaters? It seemed like the powers-that-be were just leaving money on the table.

The answer to this question, as I have noted time and time again, is that someone in Hollywood decreed that movies that are aimed at black audiences only get released to 2,100 theaters, give or take a hundred theaters. Boo! A Madea Halloween was aimed at black audiences, so it got released in 2,260 theaters.

The logic in this statement is sound, even if it doesn’t help to explain why things are the way they are. But the problem with this situation is that there’s no way to go about proving that Boo! A Madea Halloween would have made more money if it had opened in more theaters.

I would guess that the reason that Hollywood has movies aimed at black audiences open in only 2,100 theaters or so is because those 2,100 theaters are the ones in the areas where there are black audience members. According to the latest census, only 12% of the country identifies as black. That means that there are a lot of areas (think Idaho), where there just aren’t a lot of black people.

For example, Malibu, California is one of the whitest cities I could think of.   Not only is it 91.5% white, but it also has more people who identify as Pacific Islanders, 182, than African-American, 148. According to Fandango, none of the four major theaters closest to Malibu, are playing Boo! A Madea Halloween. All four are playing Jack Reacher 2: Fast 2 Furious. Conversely, all of the theaters closest to historically black Compton, California are playing Boo! A Madea Halloween.

The question was whether movies aimed at black audiences deserved (financially) to get wider distribution. I figured that a surefire way to see whether this was deserved or not would be to take a look at the top 50 movies of 2016 and see how many of them were aimed at black audiences. If there were a whole bunch in that list, it stood to reason that movies aimed at black audiences should have been getting wider releases. The converse seemed apt as well.

As it turns out, there is one movie that was aimed at black audiences in 2016’s top 50. #45 was Barbershop: The Next Cut. The next movie on the list was #65, When the Bough Breaks.

From those numbers, it seemed obvious: movies aimed at black audiences didn’t make enough money to engender wider releases. Even Occam would have agreed!

However, what this simple result didn’t take into effect was the possibility that perhaps black-themed movies didn’t make as much money as other films precisely because they were released in far fewer theaters.

In the end, it’s hard to state definitively whether movies aimed at black audiences should be released into more theaters. There are compelling, yet short sighted arguments for both sides and neither of them can be remotely close to proven.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the whole mess, just know that the teen pregnancy rate is way down.

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