Our strange fascination with box-office numbers.
It's not just a game of populists vs. the elitists, though. Box-office performance is equated with cultural impact. In 2004, pundits peered at the gross receipts of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 to predict (simultaneously) that George W. Bush and John Kerry were going to win the presidential election. Last winter, one of the troubadours at National Review Online's group blog, the Corner, cheered when The Chronicles of Narnia sped past blockbusters that were not based on Christian parables.
There's something reassuring about following the box office, as long as it's going your way. The old adage was that going to the movies made everyone into a critic. Peering at the numbers has made everyone into a studio executive.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.