Eleven Lessons Hollywood Should Learn From Summer Movie Season

(L-r) DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter and WARWICK DAVIS as Griphook in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Last November, Jon Favreau augured that the summer of 2011 would be remembered as “a bloodbath” — one so violently competitive it would “be looked back upon as Omaha Beach” — and that there wouldn’t be a weekend “where there won’t be teeth on the floor.” As it turned out, his prophecy of mayhem (and emergency dentistry) applied far more to his own film, Cowboys & Aliens (now stuck at $90 million, with a $163 million reported budget), than most other summer releases: Instead of having bled to death on French sand, Hollywood appears on track to lift the summer box office by a healthy 6 percent over last year’s. How was doom averted in the end? Read on and see the eleven lessons of the summer that just was.

In years past, studios reveled in the internecine strategy of crowding every weekend with big films, making it far more likely that someone was going to get crushed. This summer, fewer films were scheduled, making for sparser weekends and less competition. A long-in-the-tooth franchise like Fast Five had summer-flick DNA but might have gotten overlooked in the heavy traffic of Spandex superheroes, pirates, and wizards. Instead, Universal wisely aimed for Spring Break (April 29); it was rewarded with the franchise’s biggest-grossing opening weekend ever ($86 million) and went on to reap $600 million in worldwide grosses. Disney followed the same strategy with its fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, On Stranger Tides. As it was the only movie opening on the weekend of May 19, Disney could afford to make it the widest release of the year up until that point (4,100-plus theaters), and even as critics and many moviegoers yawned, it still plundered $90 million in opening grosses. People may have been tired of the franchise, but there was no other new and shiny option. It’s important to note that this less crowded summer wasn’t a brilliant strategic choice on the part of studios; it was more a byproduct of the 2008 writers strike, which reduced the number of pictures the major studios could have ready. “If we’d had the movies we probably would have released them,” concedes one marketing chief, adding, “But the lesson is still the same: Less product means you can make more money during that summer.” We’ll see if that lesson is learned next summer.
Regardless of their actual quality, sequels continue to be powered by our love of the past, while remakes are suffering from our unwillingness to tamper with the past. “There’s a reason they started putting Oreos in theaters a couple years ago,” says one former studio marketing exec, “You ask someone if they like a cookie, and it’s ‘Maybe, it depends…what kind?’ But everyone knows what Oreos are, and everyone likes them.” And so, while neither Cars 2 nor Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides nor Transformers: Dark of the Moon were that good (“better than the last piece of crap” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”), this marketing insider says, “People still went to them, because in tough times, they’re known brands: You’ve got to take a bunch of kids to the movies, park and feed them, you want to know what you’re getting.” There are limits, of course, to the seductive power of happy multiplex memories. For example, you have to make sure that your core audience didn’t grow out of your franchise. Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World posted the lowest opening of any Kids film in the history of its franchise. Eight years had elapsed since the last one, so both its original audience and its cast (Original Spy Kid Alex Vega is now not only a kid, but married, for crying out loud!) had both long since outgrown the franchise. Remakes, on the other hand, aren’t so much affected by the passage of time as by our unwillingness to tamper with our own view of the past: Why watch a new version of your old favorite when you can so easily Netflix the original? The recent twin flops of Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night, says one marketing consultant, don’t bode well for the remake of Footloose this October or the still-undated and moldering Red Dawn.
Sony opened its dark, raunchy, R-rated comedy Bad Teacher against Pixar’s kiddie flick Cars 2. Teacher easily mopped up the older teens and twentysomething singles, and, priced at $20 million and taking in $98.1 million, Bad Teacher was almost as profitable as it was instructive. Sony also profited from its Smurfs being pitted against Cowboys & Aliens: When C&A’s marketing revealed it to be a dark, brooding take on a silly concept, it left all the families of younger kids for Smurfs. But the key is to make sure your audiences are wholly separate. Disney ran into trouble placing Winnie the Pooh against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, perhaps assuming that they would get the little kids while the Potter finale would take the older ones. With 10-year-olds as interested in Potter as 40-year-olds, parents of wee ones everywhere probably didn’t even notice Pooh, either because their own slightly older kids were begging to see Potter or they were intent on seeing it themselves. (One wonders how Pooh might have done if it had been released now, when camp is over but school hasn’t yet started in most places, and parents are itching for any diversion to occupy their youngest offspring.)
The summer’s only two original blockbusters – Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens – were sold on the name and credibility of their directors (JJ Abrams and Jon Favreau, respectively). Super 8 made a solid $125.7 million, though marketing experts told Vulture that its secretive marketing may have left millions on the table: Abrams had a huge influence over the publicity, and his “Mystery Box” philosophy had him adamant that the trailers, ads, and posters reveal nothing of the film’s central alien. (Compare this to Inception, which announced itself with a long hard look at its streets-rolling-up money shot.) Favreau also had a lot of input on the marketing for C&A, which arguably never recovered from the early, dour anticlimactic reveals in its first trailer and subsequent Super Bowl ad. Both films also traded on the directors’ names, making them central to the marketing, assuming their track record with geeks would mean a massive turnout. But insiders with access to Q-ratings and other marketing data say that both directors aren’t nearly the household names that their geek love would indicate. And Super 8 also traded on the name of its producer (and homage recipient) Steven Spielberg. While as a director his name means a certain quality, people are learning to shrug off the sight of his name anywhere else in the credits after seeing him touted as a producer on everything from Transformers to Eagle Eye to The Lovely Bones. (He was also an executive producer on C&A.) Says one studio marketing chief, “He strikes me as Paul McCartney, who’s dating a new girl and putting out techno remixes of his old songs. His name is on three TV shows, and how many movies in addition to his own [directing efforts]? But it’s not working.”
This summer’s Midnight in Paris has – by at least $10 million – overpowered 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters as Allen’s highest-grossing film of the last 25 years. Perhaps he’s the exception to the previous rule? Perhaps, but … here’s a more interesting theory: Could he have just found a way to build the perfect wormhole of nostalgia to lure in a nation of moviegoers? The movie pounces on the very timely notion that in difficult times we long for what we rose-tintedly perceive as simpler times. And, come to think of it, remember how in those simpler times we used to love those old Woody Allen movies? Look, he’s got a movie out now … and it stars a Woody Allen doppelgänger longing for simpler times! First stop, Midnight in Paris, next stop, the womb! However, one should pause before proclaiming him a reliable draw again. After his 2005 Match Point “comeback” he made the largely ignored Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream before again getting acclaim with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And his next film is set in Berlin, which makes us wary because the words “Germany” and “funny” aren’t typically in the same sentence.
Even in limited release, the poignant Mel Gibson drama The Beaver couldn’t overcome his baggage; it flopped, taking in only a little over $100,000 at 22 locations. By comparison, Rutger Hauer’s barely-a-movie-at-86-minutes, Hobo With a Shotgun, grossed twice as much per theater that weekend. Maybe he can still get in The Hangover 3?
Cars 2 may have grossed half a billion worldwide, but its noisy subpar-ness stunned audiences who thought that in an unsteady world, the one thing they could count on was Pixar quality. One alarmist marketing exec says, “The idea that they made a sequel just for the licensing violates their core principles … Everyone has a run. With what Universal and Fox are doing in animation now, Pixar is now very much a ‘Watch this space.’ company.” That may be a little extreme; one incredibly profitable sub-standard move doesn’t not a slippery slope make. It’s more of an emotional disappointment, really. Pixar’s unerring ability to turn any concept into a wonderful film, no matter how counterintuitive it may have seemed on the surface (think of all the “this time they may have a flop on their hands” grumbling before they debuted their movies about a rat and an old man), made them something very special to people. It was a sign that it was humanly possible to put aside all craven, synergistic, corporate instincts and just make a movie for the love of it. And then they went and made a movie to sell toys, and God wept.
Spin it however you please, but the fact remains: Marvel’s movies all worked; DC’s didn’t. It can’t be blamed on the fact that Green Lantern was an older, lesser-known character, as Thor was just as fringe outside the comics world. Nor can one point to movie stars, where DC had the advantage. Ryan Reynolds, after all, is far better known than the fresh-off-the-farm Chris Hemsworth or the lower-profile Chris Evans. The reality is that for the better part of a decade, Marvel has been swimming amid the majors, while DC has been a pilot fish under the slavering jaws of Warner Bros., forced to wait until Warners and Warners alone was good and ready to make a film. As Hamlet says, “The readiness is all.” (Note to Marvel: What about a superheroic Hamlet?!? OMG!)
The summer was awash in male gross-out comedies, though weariness seemed to set in gradually over the summer. Look at the descending grosses: The Hangover Part II ($254.2 million) started things off in May, Horrible Bosses ($113 million) on July 8, Friends With Benefits ($54 million) on July 22, then things petered out with The Change-Up ($32 million) and 30 Minutes or Less ($28.4 million). If the summer had one more month, maybe a movie called Get Your Balls Out of There could have gotten down to $400,000. The Judd Apatow influence has now caused a glut, and people may be getting dirty talking man-child fatigue, or at least are becoming more discerning about not running to every film that has a red band trailer. Now, some would look at the success of Bridesmaids ($167.8 million) and Bad Teacher ($98.1 million) and say that it is time for women to brush aside the Hills, McBrides, Vaughns, Sudeikises, and Batemans who have abused their power and take over the F-bomb throne. But it is less likely that they would supplant the men than it is that they would just blend in with them: Both of these distaff films came out in the first part of the summer, before audiences became inured to shock. (Bad Teacher was released in June, the season’s third major comedy; had it come out in August it might not have overcome its terrible reviews.) And one studio marketing source says that now that studios have discovered female comedies, it’s imperative that they not treat them as comedies for females. “Bridesmaids wasn’t just the funniest movie of the summer,” says the source (not based at Universal), “It was also the dirtiest and raunchiest. There was no reason to market it the way they did. I know plenty of straight American men – too many, in fact – who didn’t go see that movie, because they thought ‘It wasn’t meant for me.’ Universal should have, could have opened at $40 million, not $26 million, but for the fact that you’ve got a bunch of chicks in pink dresses on the one-sheet [poster].”
Not all that long ago, August was traditionally the dumping ground for unwanted pooches, but that has changed as the studios have used the month to open such hits as Julie & Julia, Tropic Thunder, and Pineapple Express. And this year Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help both scored in August. Part of the reason is that by the last stretch of the summer the pack is thinned and there’s little worry that cut-rate vampires or barbarians might intrude on a big film’s grosses; also, at this point, the regular moviegoing audience has finally gotten their fill of superheroes and gross-out gags and are looking for something new. And even stalwart studio execs were stunned by both films’ success with the smart set, which usually skips the multiplex this time of year. “An audience that doesn’t usually show up, did,” said one Fox executive. However, no exec seems willing to try out a smart, big movie at the end of August. Instead, it becomes the dumping ground for genre fare like Conan the Barbarian, 30 Minutes or Less, and Fright Night. The adult romance One Day made an interesting test case, but its poor reviews will likely stop execs from making any rash moves and jumping into the dead zone with their adult fare.
Some movies are much more entertaining than they are marketable. Asif Kapadia’s Formula One documentary Senna is just such a film. Though it started, like so many indies, in just two theaters, it’s on its way to a much wider release because it plays so broadly well: Test screenings showed that it’s liked even more by women than by racing fans, which is why Senna is not just the highest-grossing documentary but the fourth-best specialty release of the year so far. To its credit, Universal sensed this with Bridesmaids, screening the film literally hundreds of times nationally in advance of its release to build buzz. But one wonders how Super 8 might have done had Abrams not been so adamant about keeping his movie’s monsters under lock and key, or how Winne the Pooh would have fared if Disney had shown it to more parents. Or would Attack the Block have become My Big Fat Alien Invasion if they’d showed it to more teens and college students? This labor-intensive way of marketing requires a lot more show than tell, and isn’t easy. Fortunately, it is called showbiz. There’s a lesson in that, too.
Eleven Lessons Hollywood Should Learn From Summer Movie Season