In 2006, the song “We Are Your Friends” — a remix of “Never Be Alone,” by the British band Simian, credited to Justice vs Simian — won the award for best video at the MTV Europe Music Awards. As members of Justice vs Simian went to collect their awards, Kanye West burst onto the stage to interrupt them, claiming that he’d been told he would win for “Touch the Sky” and saying he’d had a little “sippy sippy” beforehand. Fast-forward nearly a decade later. Kanye is smoking prior to awards shows now, and “We Are Your Friends” is in headlines again, but this time for a very different reason: The song has lent its name to one of the worst-debuting films of all time.
We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s moody trip into the world of DJ-bro euphoria and dudes wearing headphones around their necks, opened to $1.8 million in 2,333 theaters — the worst opening for a 2,000-plus-theater live-action release since 1982, according to Box Office Mojo. That per-theater average of $772 is worse than The Adventures of Pluto Nash. It’s worse than From Justin to Kelly. It’s less than half of what Mortdecai did on its first weekend earlier this year. It’s very, very bad, and it likely means that we’ll be seeing less of a few things going forward: movies about DJs, movies starring Zac Efron, movies named after French dance remixes, etc.
The poor opening is also in keeping with a pattern that’s spanned the month of August. The weekend of August 8, Meryl Streep’s Ricki and the Flash opened to $6.6 million in 1,603 theaters — on target with estimates, but Streep’s lowest-opening wide release since Lions for Lambs in 2007. Two weeks later, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s American Ultra bombed harder, taking in $5.6 million from 2,778 theaters. American Ultra’s rough start sent its screenwriter, Max Landis, on a Twitter rant that led him to a conclusion folks have been batting around for years now, ever since the onslaught of superhero movies and franchise installations began in earnest: “big level original ideas don't $.”
Although this is true in a very first-look sense — the highest-grossing original live-action release of 2015 is San Andreas, at No. 13, and San Andreas doesn’t scream “original” — it also overshadows a larger trend. The problem with all three of these movies is that potential moviegoers didn’t understand what they were. The ads conveyed little information about the central idea, much less a sense of what kind of tone, genre, or atmosphere could be expected. None of the three had solid enough reviews to lend them a prestige feeling, meaning tone, genre, and atmosphere should’ve been their stock in trade. In a time when concepts and franchises, not actors, are becoming the primary determinant of a movie's success, these three movies highlighted their stars and little else. The marketing failed them.
One of the most frequent caveats to the idea that original movies don’t gross is that Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are the two filmmakers left who can sell their own concepts to the public. Why is that? Is it because they make movies that are, by and large, good and entertaining? Sure. Is it because they have a built-in audience established years ago? Absolutely. But just as much, it comes from a very simple reason: Audiences know what they're getting. When someone goes to a Chris Nolan movie, they anticipate mind-bending plots, shiny A-listers acting anguished, and spectacular, innovative action sequences. With Tarantino, it’s even more consistent: the too-witty dialogue, the violence, the send-ups of pop culture and precedent. The problem these August movies faced, then, is one that Nolan and Tarantino’s movies don’t have: Potential audiences didn't know what to expect.
Ricki and the Flash was confusing: Streep played an aging rock-star. Right there, the Streep identification was rendered useless; viewers do not think of Meryl Streep as a rock star. The movie’s advertising campaign was Streep-forward, and yet it was hard to tell what she was even doing in the film — not to mention that the trailer was so maudlin, it would’ve made Lifetime blush. American Ultra, meanwhile, focused most of its press around Eisenberg and Stewart and weird drug-spy double entendres: an unclear prospect at its most straightforward, and incomprehensible in the scheme of the larger film, which combines so many genres that it can verge on pastiche. Where Pineapple Express, Ultra’s closest relative, played it much simpler — jeez, wouldn’t it be crazy if two stoners got caught in an action movie? — Ultra wanted to be both clever and sincere.
With We Are Your Friends, the issue was even more fundamental. Was it a comedy? Was it a drama? Was it a really long music video? And if you don’t pop molly at warehouse shows on a regular basis, would it even make sense? What advertising it did have focused on Efron, who has never headlined a non-romance that opened to more than $10 million. (Neighbors, a hit, used him as a sort of antithesis to Seth Rogen — ironic now, considering that Rogen’s a proven opener.)
You don’t even have to get that granular — you can see it simply in their names. Ricki and the Flash. American Ultra. We Are Your Friends. These aren’t names that suggest much beyond a vague idea, one that doesn’t even necessarily have to do with the film: a band, a nickname, a song. Even if We Are Your Friends succeeded, it still might never be as popular as its namesake, and American Ultra suggests so little, it’s essentially useless in terms of drawing interest.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Take one of the year’s most surprising success stories so far, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift. Budgeted at only $5 million, The Gift opened to just under $12 million across 2,503 theaters, a respectable $4,736 average, and in the following weeks has raised its gross to $36 million, a return of more than 600 percent. The Gift’s biggest star was Jason Bateman, and it was Edgerton’s writing and directorial debut, based on his own idea. All of these things should’ve meant that the movie would start slow, or not at all.
Instead, using a clear and consistent campaign — creepy neighbor; home invasion; surprise ending — it managed to catch on well without any sort of flashy hook. (It also helps that the reviews have been terrific.) This is the secret of horror, which tends to outperform nearly every other genre right now in terms of both gross and returns: Each new offering is unfamiliar, but fans still have an idea of why they’re heading to the theater.
With an abundance of choice so vast as to be overwhelming, audiences are sticking closer than ever to concepts they already know they like. It’s why fanboy culture is so consumptive, and why there’s such a hunger for the new Star Wars and Marvel movies, and even niche products like Community, which is kept alive, zombielike, by its hyperdedicated fans. The property has become a bigger draw than the star.
What marketers should be taking from this is that if a story is unfamiliar to their intended audience, they have to help them understand it in some fundamental way before they ever get to the theater. That can be as simple as a hook, or a mood: The indie Ex Machina, which has done $25 million on a $15 million budget, showed prospective viewers tension and a robot. Not every movie has a robot. But every movie needs to figure out what its robot is.