Movies - Box Office postsThursday March 12, 2009
Why a Film's Budget is Irrelevant
Here’s the bigger question that Goldstein and that wise old Hollywood hand don’t address: Does anyone outside of L.A. care about a film’s profit potential?
Seriously. What’s the point of having box office numbers in most newspapers on Monday morning? Why does a CBS news anchor, giving a news brief during the Sunday night broadcast, always tell us the weekend’s box office champ and how much it “raked in”?
What does box office represent?
It represents popularity. The reason the figure is in most newspapers, the reason CBS news cares about it, is that box office gives us some indication of which movie, and thus what kind of story, our neighbors (near and far-flung) care most about. This weekend.
So does a film’s budget have anything to do with what box office represents? No.
In fact, if you were going to add other figures besides a film’s gross numbers to establish a film’s popularity, here’s what you would add before a film’s budget:
1. Its theater countThis last one is particularly relevant. In the old days, a film’s box office represented not only popularity but — because films didn’t advertise beyond trailers — some measure of its quality. Back then, pictures rose and fell on word-of-mouth. Now it’s marketing blitz, saturation, screens. Get into town, rake it in, vamoose before they know what hit them. Harold Hill stuff.
2. Its screen count
3. Its per-theater average
4. Its per-screen average
5. Its marketing budget
How much a picture cost isn’t relevant. But how much they spent to get our asses into the seats — versus how much it made — is. Hell, I’d love to see a ratio on this. Something like: box office minus marketing budget divided by screen count. But good luck getting the marketing budget from these guys.
I understand why Goldstein, and that old Hollywood hand, care about a film’s profitability. They’re industry people. The rest of us just want to know if the thing's any damn good.
Movie Attendance Up Thanks to...WTF?
In today’s Times, they have a front-page, below-the-fold piece on how the movie industry is doing well in tough times. And it is. So far this year, ticket sales — not just box office, which is inflationary and thus easy to mask — but tickets sales are up 17.5 percent. Then Cieply and Barnes give us other, interesting stats. Ticket sales also increased by double digits in 1982, a time of unemployment and inflation (and “E.T.”), and in 1989, a time —although they don’t mention it — of rising inflation (and Michael Keaton’s “Batman”).
I even like their insider quote for a change. Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society (who knew?), says, of this year’s attendance jump, “It’s not rocket science. People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”
All well and good. Then more than halfway through the piece, Barnes and Cieply forget that it’s not rocket science. They give us this graf:
The film industry appears to have had a hand in its recent good luck. Over the last year or two, studios have released movies that are happier, scarier or just less depressing than what came before. After poor results for a spate of serious dramas built around the Middle East (“The Kingdom,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Rendition”), Hollywood got back to comedies like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” a review-proof lark about an overstuffed security guard.
What-the-effin’ eff, mother-effer!?!
OK, the big problems with this graf:
- Those serious dramas were released in the fall of 2007. “Paul Blart” was released in January 2009. Why compare these two items? Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare “Paul Blart” with what the studios released in January ’08 or ’07? Why go back to the fall of ’07 and those poor, over-commented-upon Middle East releases?
- The phrase “got back to.” Hollywood “got back to” comedies like “Paul Blart”? Sheeeeeeeyit. Hollywood never left comedies like “Paul Blart.” These things have always been around, particularly in the early months of the year. “Blart” is certainly doing better business than most ($123 million and counting) but I’d argue it doesn’t have much to do with “Paul Blart.” I’d argue it has to do with these tough economic times. In fact, isn't that what the whole article is about?
But of course the film industry wants to take credit, at least partial credit, for this uptake in attendance, and Cieply and Barnes are obliging them with this fatuous graf that compares apples and orangutans.
Dudes: Cover the industry. Don’t cover for the industry.
I’m also amused that we get the actual movie attendance numbers in a year when actual movie attendance is up. We don’t hear a whisper of it during years (i.e., most of the time) when it’s down. More good reporting.
An Ad For Something No One Needs
A friend once wrote a song called “Mr. Time,” which, in its overall sense of losing everything (inch by inch) while waiting for something, anything, to happen, I’ve always, unfortunately, identified. One stanza in particular hits home:
Tooth by tooth
You put on a smile
And stuff in a word for yourself
But every word on your own behalf
Is just an ad for something that no one needs
There’s doing and there’s selling. The great myth of America is that it’s all about doing (Horatio Alger, bootstraps, etc.), while the great reality of America is that it’s all about selling. I’m not a bad doer but I think I’m one of the worst sellers in the world. I can sell nothing, particularly myself, because of what’s articulated in “Mr. Time.” Every word on my own behalf does feel like an ad for something that no one needs.
This means, yes, I’m still thinking about Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece on Tim Palen and Hollywood marketers. Particularly these lines: “Publicity is selling what you have... Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have...” These are people so good at their craft they can sell what doesn’t exist. Remarkable. God, I hate them.
I do want to mention one area where I agree with marketers. It comes two-thirds of the way through the article and involves test audiences. Friend writes:
Yet testing is fraught: it rewards comedy, narrative, and familiar stars or plot elements, and often undervalues the new. Executives’ testing stories take divergent paths to the same punch line. Either they decided not to tamper with a “Pulp Fiction,” despite testing results invariably described as “the lowest scores in the studio’s history,” or they were confounded when an “Akeelah and the Bee” faltered commercially despite “the highest scores in the studio’s history.” In both scenarios, the numbers lied. “Testing is a sham,” one marketing consultant says. “All you’ve learned is what people thought of a movie they didn’t have to pay for. It does not mean they’re going to go pay for it.”
Ex-motherf---ing-actly. Particularly the line about undervaluing the new. It was the same for “Seinfeld” and the British “Office” and the American “Office”: low, low audience test scores. People didn’t get these shows. They didn’t get “Pulp Fiction.” I’ve never seen anything like this before so it can’t be any good. In this way, test audiences are actually like marketers, who, according to Friend’s article, have trouble selling the new because there’s no playbook for it. It takes a lot of luck for a “Seinfeld” to get through. One wonders how many “Seinfeld”s — and thus cash cows — get killed in the process.
So that’s the area where I agree with marketers. Here’s the area where I don’t get marketers. These are people who supposedly can sell anything — including something that doesn’t exist. They can sell crap and make us think it’s pudding. But they can’t sell quality.
The best films are sold on a limited basis, in select cities, and might, if carefully nurtured, make it into most big cities and most states. But that’s if it’s lucky and the zeitgeist is right. Otherwise, not.
I know marketers take their orders from someone else, as we all do, but some marketers, as Friend tells us, are now running the studios. Universal, run by a former marketer, is one of the worst culprits. Unless they know something I don’t, unless there’s a strategy here that I don’t see, they’re in the process of killing both “Frost/Nixon” and “Milk.”
There’s an assumption out there that people don’t want quality. There’s an assumption out there that people want (the same old) crap. I’m hardly a pollyanna but, more and more, I’m assuming the opposite.
That’s the unanswered question from Friend’s article. It’s the unasked question of marketers and admen everywhere: How good can you be if you can’t even sell quality?
A Universal Lack of Focus
After potential Oscar-nominee “Gran Torino” did so well at the box office, I checked out how the other Oscar contenders are faring:
|Film ||Studio||Thtr High ||Dom. B.O. |
|The Dark Knight ||WB ||4366||$531M|
|The Curious Case of Benjamin Button||Par.||2988||$94M |
|Slumdog Millionaire ||FoxS ||614||$34M |
|Milk||Focus ||356 ||$19M|
The box office for “Dark Knight” is obviously no surprise. It’s a good film but it’s in the running because of its box office. If it had made, say, $19 million, like “Milk,” you’d be hearing crickets.
Kudos to Paramount. They put “Benjamin Button” out there and people are responding. Kudos to people.
The box office for “Slumdog Millionaire,” meanwhile, is a nice surprise but shouldn’t be. Fox Searchlight is the same studio that smartly promoted “Sideways” in 2004, “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, and “Juno” in 2007. Apparently they know what they’re doing. Apparently they can sell a good film with universal themes even though it’s set in a foreign country. How about that?
But WTF with Universal and its specialty division Focus Features? Two of the most talked-about films of the fall, “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon,” and moviegoers have barely had the chance to see them. Is the studio waiting for the Oscar noms before they push? What if the noms are disappointing? What if the attention goes elsewhere? What then?
Perhaps I should cut Focus Features some slack — they slipped “Brokeback Mountain” into a homophobic America in 2005 and made $83 million — and one assumes the strategy for “Milk” is similar. But then there’s this worrisome report from Patrick Goldstein.
More, Focus’ strategy with “Milk” isn’t looking at all like their strategy for “Brokeback.” Check out the theater totals for the first seven weekends of both “Brokeback” and “Milk”:
Meanwhile, I have no idea what Universal is doing with “Frost/Nixon.” Ron Howard has had a long-time relationship with the studio. He’s made 10 films for them, including five that made more than $100 million, including, from those five, two Oscar contenders (“Apollo 13”; “A Beautiful Mind”), and every one of those 10 films played on more than a thousand screens. One assumes they know what they’re doing with “F/N,” too. On the other hand, the studio’s last movie with Howard was “Cinderella Man,” which the studio opened wide and disastrously in June 2005. Maybe they’re gun shy. Or maybe, to stay with the Nixonian theme, it’s as Deep Throat says in “All the President’s Men”: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand."
You might’ve seen this: a schadenfreude-y article about the horrendous opening weekend for the animated film “Delgo,” which, since it’s “celebrity-voiced,” is apparently deserving of scorn.
But the numbers are indeed horrible. “Delgo” opened in 2,160 theaters and barely made $500,000. How bad is that? The worst opener last year, for any film in 2,000+ theaters, was “P2,” which opened in 2,131 theaters and still made $2 million. So “Delgo” is four times worse than the worst movie that opened last year.
In fact, as the article indicates, “Delgo” has the lowest per-theater average ($237) for any “very wide” release (2,000+ theaters), and the third-lowest average for any “wide” release (600+ theaters) ever.
The only “wide” films that have opened worse are, at No. 2, “The Passion Recut,” which averaged $233 in 937 theaters, and “Proud American,” a series of vignettes highlighting the pride and determination of Americans, which opened in 750 theaters this September and made $128 per. Remember those numbers the next time someone at FOX-News reads too much into the dismal box office of Iraq War movies.
The big problem with “Delgo" is hardly those celebrity voices. Its distributor is Freestyle Releasing, and, of the 15 worst “wide” openings, Freestyle is responsible for three: “Delgo” at no. 3, “Nobel Son,” also released this month, at no. 6 ($374), and “Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour,” at no. 13 ($523). No other distributor has more than one film in the bottom 15. Not sure what they’re doing over there. Overbooking? Underadvertising? P.T. Barnum must be rolling over in his grave. Or guffawing. Anyone who can't sell schlock to the American public should probably get out of the business.