To me, one of the most annoying non-stories of the summer — trumping even items involving Britney Spears — has to be the “crisis” caused by the box office slump.

For those who’ve somehow missed the articles, here’s the quick summary: weekend-by-weekend, the total box office was less than it was for 2004. This slump lasted from February until July, a total of 19 weekends. Along with the numbers, every Monday brought new speculation about just what was causing the downturn, and What It Really Meant. Could the problem be the poor state of movie theaters, the growth of DVD, the price of gasoline? Fingers were pointed everywhere, but most often at the movies themselves.

The movies stunk.

Whew! Glad we got that settled. You hear that Hollywood? You have to start making better movies! Movies people want to see!

Thank God we have the conventional wisdom. All we have to do is keep repeating it, and everything will be okay. Just this morning, the Los Angeles Times had a front-page story on the issue: “This Just in: Flops Caused Box Office Slump.” In the article, various studio big-wigs take responsibility for how badly the summer movies fared:

After months of hand-wringing and doomsday forecasts about the permanent erosion of moviegoing, the lunchtime chatter at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills and other industry haunts has turned decidedly inward. Now, four straight weekends of crowded theaters have forced moguls and creative executives to admit in public what they have spent months avoiding: They were clueless about what audiences wanted.

The story has quotes from the likes of Amy Pascal and Brian Grazer. I can imagine how those conversations went:

Journalist: “Would you say the slump was caused because the movies were awful?”

Executive: “Umm, maybe. I guess.”

Journalist: “No, seriously. Say it.”

What makes this self-flagellation so annoying and unwarranted is that the “box office slump” is basically a myth. The Los Angeles Times included a chart which ostensibly shows the crisis, but in reality disproves it.

Box Office Chart

Week by week, the black line is a little below the gray line — except when it’s above it. More importantly, it tracks very closely. A more honest chart would have also included a line for 2001, which was at the time the pinnacle of box office grosses. This summer had that beat.

An analogy: Let’s say one year you have record rainfall. If you’re a journalist covering the weather, you write about how much above average it is.

The next summer, you’re back to a more typical rainfall. That’s not interesting. That doesn’t merit a story. But if you write about the “shortfall” compared to last year, well, now that’s worrying. And fallacious.

To their credit, buried deeper in the story, the LA Times writers do reveal the less-exciting truth: “Ticket sales lag behind 2004′s numbers by only 6%, with attendance off 8.7%.” Since Labor Day, the numbers have been running significantly ahead of last year, so by the time January rolls around, the year-end totals may not be very far from the $9.4 billion that movies brought in last year.

Which leaves an open question: did this summer’s movies really stink? There were some outright bombs (Stealth, Bewitched) and some quality misfires (Cinderella Man). But I think trying to correlate a quantitative measure (how much movies make) with a qualitative one (how good they are) is pseudo-science at best. Case in point: Fantastic Four made a lot of money, but it won’t end up on any best-picture lists.

Let’s ask the question: What if one of the late-spring movies had made a fortune? Say, xXx 2: State of the Union. Just one mega-hit would have erased the supposed slump, and the week-to-week numbers would be higher. Which brings up two points:

  1. Is there really an industry crisis if just one movie would eliminate it?
  2. If the numbers were better, would you still write about how bad the movies were this summer?

The final apples-to-oranges comparison in the story is perhaps the most annoying. Bennett Miller, a talented documentarian whose first narrative film Capote opens soon, is asked to comment on the state of the box office. What he says is less revealing than the fact that they asked him at all. It’s like writing a story about the auto industry and interviewing a guy who makes bicycles.

I hope Capote is great. But I’m not counting on it to save the film industry, which, for the record, I don’t think needs to be saved.

Hollywood makes some shitty movies. It always has, and always will. But trying to conflate popular sentiment with specious data does a disservice to everyone.