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No. 1 At The Box Office? Four Reasons Why It Doesn't Matter

This weekend, millions of Americans trekked across Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggins. The result? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was No. 1 at the North American box office. It joins the list of other films that ranked No. 1 one their opening weekends, such as Underworld Awakening, Paranormal Activity 4 and Batman.

But here's the thing: The weekend battle at the box office doesn't necessarily decide the war in Hollywood, says Edward J. Epstein, author of The Hollywood Economist. Epstein says to be skeptical of what you read in Hollywood rags.

"By giving a number every Sunday — 'The number one box office movie' — it creates the illusion that there is news about Hollywood," he says.

So why isn't it really news when a film ranks No. 1 on opening weekend? First reason: The race is rigged.

"It's already predetermined because of the size of the marketing campaign," Epstein says, "[or] because it has the basic requisites of Hollywood — a happy ending, action, a minimum of dialogue so that they can show it in Asia."

And foreign markets are key. Reason No. 2 why being top at the box office isn't all it's cracked up to be is that overseas tickets sales aren't taken into account. A majority of The Dark Knight Rises' revenue came from beyond our borders.

The third reason not to pay too much attention to the rankings is that even if a movie isn't No. 1, it can still make money. Take Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, for example. It was No. 16 on opening weekend. But there was no need for panic — the movie took in a steady amount of cash over the summer.

It's likely that Moonrise Kingdom will make money for years to come through long-term royalties. That brings us to reason No. 4 why winning opening weekend isn't news: Only a fraction of a film's total gross comes from opening weekend. In fact, you can be No. 1 on opening weekend and never make it out of the red.

Remember the movie New Years Eve? No? It opened at No. 1 around this time last year — and then took a nosedive.

So if the No. 1 movie isn't newsworthy or a sure moneymaker, what in fact is a No. 1 blockbuster?

According to University of Southern California Professor of Critical Studies Todd Boyd, it's a moment for the masses to share.

"[True blockbusters] are like the circus," Boyd says. "You know, they're like some huge event that for many people is an option for them to say that 'I participated in something that a lot of other people also participated in,' and this allows them to be defined as part of a group."

On Thursday night, Mona Sharaf, 16, waited with friend for hours outside of the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C., to see the first showing of The Hobbit at midnight.

"It's kind of the experience," Sharaf says. "People are dressed up, and it's a whole room of people who are just as excited about the film as you are, so it's a cool energy and it's exciting."

The scale of a movie like The Hobbit -- the excitement it brings — only happens a few weekends a year, Epstein says.

"You have six studios, so they each pick the weekends they want, and if there's a conflict they sort it out one way or another," he says.

Last weekend, The Hobbit opened in more than 4,000 theaters nationwide. This adventure shows no signs of slowing down, so it could sit at No. 1 next week, too.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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