Six times a week, on average, Robert Bucksbaum goes to the movies but he doesn't munch popcorn. He takes notes, notes that help him cut through the smoke and mirrors that Hollywood uses to embellish its upcoming feature films.
As president of Los Angeles-based Reel Source Inc., Bucksbaum's job is to give theater owners and stock analysts the real dope about movies. In a world of multi-million-dollar budgets and superstar salaries, such information can be crucial.
And Bucksbaum has been on a roll.
Reel Source predicted that "Lost World: Jurassic Park" would earn $245 million at the box office. As of Sept. 21, it had earned $228.7 million. He predicted that the kooky "Men in Black' would earn $220 million. As of Sept. 21, it pulled in $240.9 million. And he predicted that "George of the Jungle" would bring in $100 million about where it now stands.
His notable miscue from the summer was Jodi Foster's "Contact," which Bucksbaum said would generate $145 million, but is now running at $97 million.
Bucksbaum publishes Reel Source Inc. News, a newsletter sent each week to subscribers with news about upcoming films, box office data and projections on how much box office new films are likely to generate when they are released.
Such forecasting distinguishes his service from competitors like as Entertainment Data Inc. and Exhibitor Relations Co., which have become mainstays in the gathering of weekly box office grosses.
"He goes out on a limb on gross projections, which is something the other services don't do," said Jim Tharp, president of distribution for DreamWorks SKG.
"It's an information source for us. It keeps us up on release dates and changes. I certainly pass it along to our marketing department and I haven't heard any complaints," Tharp said.
Bucksbaum also sells other services to exhibitors, including scouting reports on films in production and a schedule of major and independent releases up to two years in advance. In addition, subscribers can dial into his Web site on the Internet for data on upcoming films, storylines and box office information from 1982 to the present.
"What I like about Robert's service is that he taps into the buzz," said Dave Sikich, who runs ISA Releasing, a Chicago-based distributor of independent films. "It's not just the numbers. He gets into real details about a film."
Such information is gleaned from advance screenings, studio scuttlebutt and even the Internet, where he taps into chats by Web-browsing film buffs.
"It could save some clients who have one theater," Bucksbaum said. "It could break them if they did not have an 'In & Out' (Kevin Kline's new hit). You have to know how long to keep a film and what's coming down the road."
Louis Silverman, president of State College, Penn.-based Holiday Entertainment Corp., which controls 70 theaters in the Northeast United States, said Bucksbaum's service has been invaluable to him and his investors.
"I am very impressed with his approach," he said. "His information, methodology and computerization are useful tools, especially for small independents who don't have connections with the studios like the big chains do."
To help him judge the fate of a movie, Bucksbaum tries to see the film before it appears in a theater. That could be months ahead of its release date or just a few weeks before, like his recent viewing of New Line Cinema's thriller "Most Wanted," which stars Keenan Ivory Wayans, Jon Voight and Jill Hennessy.
Emerging from the darkness two hours after the lights went out, a disappointed Bucksbaum, 36, decreed that the rambling film, which he says cost $35 million to make, would make between $14 million and $17 million.
It will not do well, he predicted, at the upscale Century City complexes, but it might fare better at inner-city theaters, where Wayans' appeal with young African American audiences is greater.
Bucksbaum doesn't screen every film that is released. He hires reviewers who get between $20 and $30 for a critique.
He looks for the buzz about a movie months in advance of production. That draws him to the Internet, where he monitors film news and asks for movie goers' reactions to films, plots and concepts.
Then there is word of mouth, the Hollywood grapevine.
"Whenever I hear something about a movie, I stop and listen, whether it is at a restaurant or after a film," he said.
Bucksbaum began his newsletter in 1989 under the name Reel News, changing it to Reel Source in 1994. From 1986 to 1988, he was John Krier's partner at Exhibitor Relations Co., which he left to found his own company.
Krier declined to discuss Bucksbaum or his company, or the breakup of the relationship.
Several financial analysts also subscribe to Reel Source, including Los Angeles-based Houlihan, Lokey, Howard and Zukin.
Bucksbaum declined to discuss revenues for competitive reasons, but his faxed newsletter costs $25 a week. For $150 a month, a subscriber can order a package that includes the newsletter, film analysis, access to the Web site, future film credits on actors, directors and shooting locations, and a Sunday box office report.
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