a weblog of wordplay by Eric Harshbarger
Well, Moviegoers, Quite A Krazy Box Office Just HappenedThe year 2014 has not been a great one for the movie industry. The yearly box office returns so far are the lowest in many years, and there seem to have been more disappointments than breakout hits.
But I'm here to let Hollywood know that this week they managed to make history with the weekend box office results. This will not be a record that anyone in the industry will care about, and for that matter, likely 99.999...% of the rest of population could not care less about it either. But it certainly mattered to me, and I would bet that I am the only one in the world (literally -- and I literally mean "literally") who even realized what happened during the weekend of 26-28 September 2014.
Take a look at the U.S. domestic box office top ten movies:
Do you see it?
Do you see it?
First, a bit of history. Weekend box office results have been tracked by the movie industry as a valuable tool for decades. Variety magazine has, for a very, very long time, published total weekly estimates or, as tallying technology became more accurate, final totals. As the internet evolved and data accumulation improved even more, the grosses for movies on a daily basis have become available (at sites like Box Office Mojo and others).
The race to be the "first with the news" to those who care about such news has become so feverish that these days estimates for the whole weekend are announced on Sunday mornings, before the weekend is even over. The actual totals are then finalized and released on Monday morning usually.
And, of course, these being the days of the internet, past data is pretty easily available... at least for the past 30 years or so. Again referring to Box Office Mojo (though you can find similar information at the Rotten Tomatoes and other websites), you can scan the weekend results all the way back to 1982†.
And scan them I have. To say I'm a bit obsessed with lists might be an understatement. I've looked through all of those past box office weekend results to see how many titles contained colors. I've taken note of crazy trivia such as when the title of a Best-Picture-nominated film happens to be the name of a state whose capital was the title of a Best-Picture-nominated film from the year before (2013's Nebraska and 2012's Lincoln).
But, the bit of wordplay-movie-title trivia I am most interested in (and I'm now, finally, getting to the crux of this article) is pangrams.
A "pangram" is a sentence, list, or other collection of words that contains all twenty-six letters of the alphabet, A through Z. A classic example is the sentence, "The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog." which was supposedly used to test the keys of newly manufactured manual typewriters back in the day. Many wordsmiths try to invent shorter (and cleverer) sentences that are pangrammatic.
I've done that myself at times (maybe you understand my misspelling of "Krazy" in this article's title?), but back in early 2013 I became much more interested in whether or not the weekend box office results for U.S. movies had ever contained the whole alphabet. I've written about that topic a couple of times now on this very blog. For you see, after scanning over thirty years of results, I was disappointed to learn that the top ten weekend movies had never, in fact, been pangrammatic. The best that had ever been achieved was the top thirteen movies...
That is, until this weekend.
Look again at the above list of the top ten movies for this past weekend and jump back down to this paragraph after you've counted through the whole alphabet and found every letter, A through Z. They are all there.
Smashing the seemingly insurmountable record of Top-13 (which had occurred exactly four different times‡), this weekend bypassed Top-12, and Top-11 and provided us with a wonderfully clean, crisp, round list of the Top-10 films with all of the letters present and accounted for.
Does knowing, and caring, about this certify me as a complete word-nerd? Probably. But if it doesn't, then this fact will: I'd been eyeing this weekend for this very reason for over a year.
You see, movies studios announce upcoming film release dates way in advance (often many months if not well over a year or two for major movies), and back in 2013 when I heard that Sony Pictures was going to make a movie version of the old 80s TV series, The Equalizer, I got way too excited. I couldn't care less about the movie itself. Would it be true to the original TV show? Who would be in it? Who would direct it?
Who f**king cares. THE TITLE HAS BOTH A "Q" AND A "Z" IN IT!
The letter Q is notoriously infrequent when it comes to film titles. Sure, we all know it's not a very common letter in the English language, but its rarity in movie names is ridiculous. X and Z benefit from being "edgy" letters that get used whenever a movie title needs more snazziness, and J appears in numerous proper names (Jack, John, Juliet, etc), so it's not too uncommon.
But Q, poor Q. At times I think there is some industry-wide conspiracy to avoid the letter. In the two years before The Equalizer there were only three mid-to-major releases with a Q (The Quiet Ones, The Quartet, and Gangster Squad -- the latter two contributed to the most recent Top-13 pangrammatic weekends). More evidence of an anti-Q cabal in Hollywood? Recently Paramount renamed their February 2015 release of SpongeBob Squarepants 2. This was the next hope for a pangrammatic box office. But guess what? The new title suspiciously removes the Q (SpongeBob: Sponge Out of Water). At the moment I type this, one can preview the titles for announced movies through December 2015. One will find plenty of Js, Xs, and Zs. You will not find a single Q.
But back to early 2013... and here was The Equalizer with a Q... and a Z thrown in for good measure. And, then, as if to tease me even further, the release date was set as the same weekend as the movie The Boxtrolls. Suddenly the Q, X, and Z were all guaranteed to appear on the same weekend -- a weekend over twelve months away from the time I first realized it.
And it's not exaggeration to say that nearly every day of that duration I kept abreast of any movie title or release date changes that were announced about this weekend. Even though I had absolutely no control over what movies might eventually land on or around that date, the Q-X-Z combination had certainly gotten my hopes up.
But make no mistake, just having the three rarest letters among two movie titles was no guarantee. In the quest to get all twenty-six letters into the top ten, you might be surprised how often other rather innocuous letters are missing.
In fact, the top ten list above barely pulls off the feat. The X was actually taken care of by Guardians of the Galaxy before The Boxtrolls came into the picture, and The Maze Runner already had the Z locked up; but of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, six of them relied on single titles this weekend; had anyone of those titles not been present, this historic accomplishment would not have happened.
Never would I have imagined that I'd be so thankful that Let's Be Cops and ...Ninja Turtles had stayed in the theaters for so long.
And it's a good thing too. Because that J is definitely disappearing from the top ten next week, and by the time The Judge appears on 10 October, we'll be in the midst of a P-drought (no major release has a P in its title until Before I Go To Sleep on 31 October, and by then ...Cops and Dolphin Tale 2 will be long gone).
No, even with a movie entitled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day on the immediate horizon, if the top ten had not happened this week, there's no telling how much longer I would have been waiting.
But it did happen.
So now I can sleep (better) at night...
† Data for weekly or weekend box office results before 1982 is not readily available on the internet, but if anyone wants to go to their library and scan old microfilms of Variety to see if this record was established long before this weekend, you are welcome to it (and please let me know if you actually find such an occurrence).
‡ So, it turns out some of my earlier data was corrupted. Don't worry, this does not affect the pangrammatic Top Ten described above. However, the previous Top-13 weekends that I make mention of are changed. It turns out there had only be three such weekends previously, not four. For some reason (and I'm still not sure how or why) my data that I culled from Variety.com was bad. There was never a Top-13 pangrammatic weekend in September 1994 as previously believed. Until 2013 there had only ever been one such Top-13 weekend (all the way back in 1987). In 2013 there were then two more such weekends. And, now, of course, that is all moot because of the Top Ten achieved. Thanks to Mike Keith for getting me cleaner data and pointing out the error.
[29 September 2014]
Comments about this article:Actually, Y appears twice in the list, leaving 6 letters that occur only once. Interestingly, those 6 letters each appear again not too far below the top 10. As of the Sunday evening estimates, the list of the top 18 movies contains each letter at least twice.
Posted by: Eric S.
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