Can you believe it’s July already? It seems just yesterday that I was suffering in the winter looking at Christmas decorations and designing for Valentine’s Day. Time flies, etc. So, it’s time to do a mid-year check-in!
Call me crazy, but this year seems absolutely flooded with megabudget tentpole releases. It seems that, since March, we’ve been inundated with a brand-new high-profile release that dominate our media landscape. March 4th kicked off the Summer Movie season with a triple threat of London Has Fallen, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Zootopia. From March 4th through mid-August, only 3 weeks don’t have a tentpole release competing with all of the other tentpole releases. It shouldn’t be surprising that, of those major releases, I’ve only seen 4. Many of them just don’t hold much of an interest for me, and those that do seem to get middling reviews from our own tentpole expert, NerdInTheBasement.
With the inundation of mega releases, many of them are domestically “flopping” by barely making back their production budget through box office returns. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a prime example of the megabudget flop. With a production budget of $250m, BvS “flopped” by being the 6th highest grossing movie of the year so far, and only grossing $330m in the domestic box office. It was further considered a fiscal disappointment because it did not skate across the $1b watermark in worldwide box office.
By flooding the cineplex with so many tentpole movies so frequently, mid-budget dramas and low-budget indies have struggled even more to compete for the remaining ticket purchases. High profile directors (The Coen Brothers, Nicholas Winding Refn) have had their movies perform below expectations along with relatively obscure critical darlings (The Lobster, Midnight Special). Competition among the lower-budgeted films is so tight that Alex Ross Perry wrote an essay bemoaning the fiscal expectations and failure of Refn’s The Neon Demon by blaming it on Amazon Studios’ mishandling of the film.
We talk about a movie’s box office not because popularity means something is a successful piece of art (was Jurassic World the second best movie of the year last year?), but because movies that turn a profit encourage the funding of other movies of the same type. If Batman v Superman makes a decent return on its investment, studios will be encouraged to make more DC movies; if The Boss makes money, we may see more female-driven comedies; if The Lobster makes money, we’ll see more obscure arthouse dramas that push the envelope of reality. Traditionally, the tent poles are made to cover any losses created by the more serious-minded fare. In turn, prestige awards have been created to justify the creation of unprofitable serious-minded fare.
If we must talk about box office, and we must because Hollywood is a business more than it is an art, we should take care to talk about it in terms of marketing and distribution. In the era of nationwide advertising and massive film roll outs, distribution companies need to employ a nuanced strategy that fully embraces the complexities of a nationwide internet and the fleeting and fickle attention spans of modern culture. To wit, I think we need to have a discussion of the release strategy of both The Witch and The Neon Demon, two polarizing horror movies that saw a wide chasm in their release strategy and respective success.
The Witch made its premiere at Sundance in January 2015 where it was purchased by A24 for theatrical distribution. Over the course of the next year, it spun its wheels at various film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, gathering buzz from various audiences and critics along the way. In the 13 months between its premiere at Sundance and its theatrical release, A24 developed a high profile advertising campaign with a well-crafted movie trailer that played before wide release films, an intense movie poster seen at cineplexes, and a television campaign to boot. A24 then released The Witch on 2,000+ screens across the country. We should also note that The Witch was a relatively well-received critical darling giving strength to the advanced word of mouth. In the end, The Witch, a rather difficult arthouse horror film from a first time director, opened with $8m, and has a final box office of $22m on a budget of $3m.
The Neon Demon, produced by Amazon Studios, made its relatively controversial premiere at Cannes in May 2016. It was booed by the audience of critics and other sorts of high profile Hollywood taste makers. Instead of spinning its wheels for a year and letting a difficult movie settle with the various audiences, Amazon pushed The Neon Demon into 900 theaters the following month. With hardly any advertising, and a conflicted critical consensus, Amazon did not allow time for The Neon Demon to actually build buzz. It was dropped unceremoniously into theaters 3 weeks ago, where it died a fast death and is almost out of theaters already. The Neon Demon, a not-that-difficult arthouse horror film from an established director, only made $2m on a $7m budget.
It’s easy for filmmakers to say “if its good, it should succeed.” But, the audience has to know something actually exists before they can know it is actually good. I texted my friend on Thursday telling her that she needs to see The Neon Demon as soon as possible, and she had no idea what I was talking about. I suspect that this is true for most of America, who are flooded with mega budget blockbusters to the point that anything smaller than a 4,000 theater release will probably be ignored. As painful as it is to say, the release strategy of a film is a key element to its success.
Do release strategies influence your viewing habits? Are slow roll-outs inherently better than gigantic national drops? Did the internet change the slow-roll out because advertising and reviews are now at national levels, making the weeks between initial reviews and wide distribution a period of dead time? Can we blame the ubiquity of tentpole movies? I’m not a strategist, but I think there’s a lot more nuance than what Amazon Studios actually used.