making the sausage

Polone: The Three Ways a Studio Can Screw Up Your Movie Release

Photo: Mary-Louise Price; Photos: iStockphoto

I can’t tell you how many times some random person, who happened to see one of my lower-grossing projects on an airplane or late-night cable TV, has said to me,“That movie was so good, what happened?” With the excellent Ricky Gervais film Ghost Town, I can say, “I don’t know, I guess the audience just didn’t want to see it.” But that is a unique situation. In every other case that one of my films underperformed compared to its quality, it was a result of bad studio decision-making when it came to the distribution and/or marketing of the picture. The thinking behind these bad decisions usually stems from a loss of confidence in the movie, choosing the wrong date for the release, or a lame idea on how to sell the movie — or some combination of the three. Of course, all of those involved in these mistakes had the best of intentions, but when you’ve devoted years to getting a project into production and countless hours on the set and in the editing room to make it good, the well meaning fuck-up by someone much less invested in the outcome than yourself can make you want to occupy that person’s ass with your foot.

The first theatrically released film I produced was 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, a satire of small-town beauty pageants starring Kirsten Dunst. I am quite proud of that film and most people I know who have seen it also liked it. The studio, New Line Cinema, gave every indication that they liked it, too. However, it only cost them $9 million to produce, and after selling the international distribution for a good price and being assured of home video revenue, they were guaranteed a profit irrespective of its box-office performance if they didn’t spend much putting out the film — and so they didn’t. The marketing campaign was anemic and the movie only brought in about $10 million theatrically. Conversely, the next year, Universal did go for it with Dunst’s Bring It On, which thematically bore a lot of similarity to Drop Dead Gorgeous. Universal opened Bring It On in twice as many theaters with robust advertising and scored $68 million. Even more frustrating were two reviews I read of Bring It On, which specifically said it was fine but not as good as Drop Dead Gorgeous.

Another way a good movie can get screwed is when a studio loses confidence and tries to sell it as something that it isn’t. The 2009 film Adventureland, which I didn’t produce but admired, was a thoughtful coming-of-age story set in the late eighties that, though funny, was more romantic and emotional than broadly comedic. Yet Miramax decided to market it as the director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to his hugely successful prior film Superbad. The trailer packed in clips of physical and off-color humor from the movie, combining it with swoosh and whip-crack sound effects, and downplaying anything deep or poignant. The result was that not enough adults were made interested in seeing it and the juveniles who did go were disappointed that it wasn’t what they thought it would be. I’ve never seen this marketing tactic work on a movie: You can’t succeed by fooling the audience. 

Choosing a release date is not an exact science and often difficult, given how many movies are in the marketplace at any one time. Part of what made the release of Drop Dead Gorgeous so disappointing was that New Line had chosen a great date, opening up against a horror film called The Haunting and the children’s offering Inspector Gadget, neither of which were competing for the same audience as our film. I did not have this luxury when it came to one of the best movies I have produced, Stir of Echoes, which Artisan (the distribution company that eventually merged with Lion’s Gate) decided we should open against another horror film, Stigmata, in September of 1999. Stigmata had a bigger ad spend and was coming out in more theaters, but that wasn’t even our biggest threat: Buena Vista’s blockbuster The Sixth Sense — which, like Stir of Echoes, was about a boy seeing ghosts — was still in 2,800 theaters across the country on our opening day. Our film had been finished and ready for exhibition much earlier in the year, but Artisan’s distribution executives were certain that September was the best time for a horror film. When director David Koepp and I heard this, knowing that the Bruce Willis starrer was coming, we asked for a conference call with the studio and tried to get them to exhibit Stir in the spring. We expressed our apprehension that The Sixth Sense had the bigger star and Buena Vista would outspend us two to one, so it would be advantageous to come out earlier and not be the second “kid sees ghost” movie of the year. The executives told us that they had heard The Sixth Sense was really bad and would surely bomb, and not to worry about it. Obviously, things didn’t work out as they predicted … though Stir of Echoes did do well enough to warrant a direct-to-DVD sequel. Of course, it didn’t do well enough to pay me a cent of my deferred compensation nor profit participation. And, in case you’re wondering, I was paid nothing on the sequel, either.

Studio executives are people just doing their jobs. They have to make decisions based on their experience and best guesses, as well as finite marketing budgets and a limited number of distribution slots. Yet I’m fortunate if I get to make one movie every eighteen months, whereas they make and market twelve to sixteen a year, allowing them to punt one or four and maintain a pretty good record. It can be really difficult to cede so much power over your success or failure to someone who can just call “next” to whomever is standing in front of the deli counter right after he has fucked up your sandwich. Therefore, in order to avoid discouragement, I have found that it is best to focus on and appreciate the penultimate result of my job, and care less about what gets reported the Monday after an opening weekend. And when someone asks me, “What happened?” about something I produced, I can just reply, “What happened is that we made a good movie.” 

And, of course, “I got screwed out of my profit participation.”

Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company, Pariah, has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Follow him on Twitter: @gavinpolone.

Polone: The Three Ways a Studio Can Screw Up Your Movie Release