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Dear Matthew Alice:

What is the symbolism of a teardrop tattoo at the outside corner of an eye?

-- Anonymous, somewhere

Bigger subject than it might seem. What the teardrop means depends on who's wearing it, how old they are, where they're from. Many variables. Best people can tell, it was originally a prison thing, from the 1940s, Latino mostly. (White and black prisoners have their own variations of the teardrop.) If you're Cuban or Puerto Rican, it meant you had killed somebody. For others, it stood for the prison time they've done. One teardrop for your first year. Or one teardrop for every five years you were down. The tear stands for the sadness at being separated from your family and friends. More recently it can represent the death of a friend or family member or solidarity with a gang. The teardrop language can get very complicated. Is the drop an outline? Filled in? Left eye or right eye? Some are even in colors. The meaning varies, depending on who you are and where you are, so you really have to get up the nerve to ask the guy who's wearing it to get the truth. Of course, if you're Li'l Wayne, it's all just for show.

Heymatt:

Every time a new blockbuster movie is released, they brag about breaking all previous attendance figures in terms of dollars. Well, of course they are going to keep breaking records because the price of movie tickets keeps increasing. Wouldn't it be more accurate to tell us how many "paid admissions" there were? (I know, they would lose bragging rights.) If Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz were released in today's market, what would the box office amount be? Which movie of all time has had the largest attendance?

-- Exasperated Movie Customer, via e-mail

Yay! Another Hollywood question. It's been wa-a-a-ay too long since we've had a chance to poke them with a stick. Grandma got so excited she broke out the industrial corn popper and Coke machine, put on her paper hat, and was all set to do business. But the elves refused to pay $5 for a drink they know cost Grandma a dime to make. They snubbed her $10 "Silo" (last year known as the "Vat-O-Corn"), even though she had added a handle and little wheels on the container to make it easier to maneuver down the aisle. Instead, they smuggled Kudos bars and some cans of Rock Star past her and were ready to go.

So, Butts in Seats is the number you want. Well, unfortunately, you're the only one. Hollywood is all about gross receipts. Big numbers with dollar signs and lots of commas. We checked with the Matthew Alice staff mole at Previous Century Fox, but, contrary to billing, he was mostly a weasel.

He admits that nobody outside of the movie biz really cares about gross receipts, and, aside from promotional value, he isn't quite sure why the numbers now are reported on news shows nationwide. He says that's a media thing, not Hollywood's fault. And you're right, EMC, each year will probably produce another wowie-zowie, biggest, grossest weekend grossing film of all eternity because of (1) increasing ticket prices and (2) the trend toward having simultaneous worldwide releases for big films, with world dollars included in the "opening-weekend blockbuster" figures. These days, at the same time kids are lined up in Springfield for the launch of the newest Spidey nonsense, they're lined up in Berlin and Tokyo and Sidney, too.

There are sources outside the industry for some of your answers about the Real Hollywood. Adjusted for ticket-price inflation, the biggest domestic-release grosser of all time is Gone with the Wind (1939) -- $1,329,453,600. The only other billion-dollars-plus film is 1977's Star Wars, about 200 adjusted millions short of GWTW. Number 3, The Sound of Music (1965); 4, ET (1982); 5, The Ten Commandments (1956).

In a list of the top 100 (adjusted, domestic) grossing films, only 18 have been released since 2000. The 2007 releases: Spider-Man III ranks 86th, Shrek the Third, 93rd, and Transformers, 95th.

Box Office Mojo, the source for these figures, admits it takes a lot of calculating and educated estimates to translate industry hard figures into their top 100 adjusted rankings. One reason is that Hollywood doesn't count tickets sold. But an outfit called Media by Numbers has taken a shot at translating dollars back into Butts in Seats. Here's an example. Apparently, "a $4 billion summer" (the best ever) was Hollywood's aspiration this past May 1, the official opening of summer blockbuster season. With Spidey, Shrek, and Depp at the end of the world, it was a lock, natch. By Labor Day, we'd given the tinselheads 4.1 bil. All Hollywood took the day off and had a big lunch. Up 8 percent over summer 2006! But, says Media BN, actual Butts in Seats in summer 2007? Up only 3 percent -- 606 million tix sold. Turns out, 2007 was first in dollars but only sixth in butts. DVDs, downloads, pirates, and home theaters seem to be nibbling at their glittery little toes. And obviously they can't fool you, Exasperated MC.

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