Yesterday the Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell observed that (a) the “crystal balls of box-office wizards, prophets and know-it-alls have gone cloudy in the weekly game of predicting which movie will top the charts,” and (b) the primary reason is that box-office expectations have in some cases been too high.

How to Train Your Dragon was initially called an under-performer, Howell writes, but is “still breathing fire” with $158 million in the till and therefore “a profitable slow-burner.” Kick-Ass‘s $19.8 million opening was called disappointing (it certainly wasn’t triumphant) but it “may yet prove to be” another steady earner, he says. Date Night‘s opening was also called a short-faller but has since become “more than just a one-night stand” with ticket buyers. Throw ’em all together and handicapping box-office stats has become like “playing the ponies or betting on Stanley Cup finalists,” he concludes.

Variety‘s Peter Bart and Box-Office Guru‘s Gitesh Pandya tell Howell that recent forecasts have been “wrong” and “out of whack,” but Howell doesn’t mention two important considerations.

One is that that box-office expectations are never primarily based on hunches and guesswork. They’re always based on tracking reports, particularly the definite interest and first-choice numbers among the four demographic quadrants — under-25 and over-25 males and females.

The other is that marketing experts in the employ of major distributors come up with more or less the same box-office expectations, and also that sometimes they’ll attempt to obscure this data by downplaying expectations in conversations with reporters in order to enhance the perception of a film’s performance.

So if anything, the issues at hand are (a) how accurate are tracking reports?, (b) what is lacking in their assessments of Average Joe sentiments about upcoming films?, and (c) how could their methodology change to improve things?