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Behind America's box-office obsession

Both the media and the public love a winner, especially as summer blockbusters compete for first place.

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On the Monday morning after the biggest Memorial Day box-office weekend in Hollywood history, number-cruncher Paul Dergarabedian says he is a "crazed mess." Led by "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," the weekend tally topped $255 million.

One of the top go-to guys for box-office numbers, Mr. Dergarabedian is a one-man help desk. His cellphone jangles nonstop and his call-waiting beeps constantly, interrupting his all-important calls to media and studio contacts. At the same time, he also pounds away on his laptop, fielding e-mails and online faxes full of movie stats. At eight minutes past his 9:30 a.m. deadline for sending out the first round of figures, he's sweating over the 100 or so clients who are waiting for the magic numbers emerging from beneath his fingers.

"The number of people interested in these figures has grown tremendously," he says.

Interest in entertainment statistics has exploded as the number of celebrity news outlets has mushroomed, but most observers say it started in earnest in 1993 when "Jurassic Park" opened with a then-record $50 million weekend. Information that once languished deep inside fusty business news has become headline worthy. Whether driven by a simple fascination with big money or the sense that anyone can be a Hollywood insider, the expanding obsession with movie statistics acts as a lens on the national psyche, magnifying America's innate love of competition and crowning a winner.


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