Coming to Terms

I can’t tell you why people see a certain movie on opening weekend before word-of-mouth has coalesced around any kind of consensus opinion, but, then again, neither can the studios (if they could, they’d only invest in the winners!)  On the other hand, there is plenty of data available to gauge pre-release interest in upcoming titles, originating from focus groups, tracking scores, advance ticket sales, web banner hits, and general internet buzz — all of which helps signal to distributors whether or not their movie has a chance of winning its opening weekend.

This past weekend, The Lorax earned a stunning $70 million upon release, breaking all sorts of records in the process.  That’s a truly incredible opening, any way you look at it.  To put that $70 million number in a bit of context, Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin was released only three months prior — when kids were on school vacation! — and only managed a paltry $77 million domestically during its entire eleven week run.

I have a son in the first grade, and I can tell you that the teachers at his school were all reading Dr. Seuss books for a couple of weeks leading up to The Lorax‘s opening.  Also, the movie was released on Ted Geisel’s actual birthday, so not only was my son assigned a book report on a Seuss story, but a few parents in his class organized a trip to The Lorax movie this past Sunday, even going as far as to pick up group tickets in advance.

Lou Dobbs, who believes Hollywood is indoctrinating our kids to have respect for the environment (the horror!) must be upset about all this, but Universal is thrilled, and The Lorax stands a chance of making serious money in the next few weeks.  The truth is that box office is booming across the board in 2012.  As if a switch were pulled in the first week of January, when The Devil Inside opened to $33 million, movies have been selling a whole lot more tickets so far this year than they did in 2011.  My first post of the new year was all about how 2012 was on course to be a historically bad one for the studios; it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong!  Some experts point to the improving economy, others to a warmer than usual winter.  Whatever the reason, box office numbers are back to pre-2011 levels, and returns have been steady and impressive.

Instead of last year’s numbers serving as further proof of a downward trend in the motion picture business, it now appears as if 2011 was an outlier — that it was simply a bad year.  There are still many systemic issues facing the film industry, but there have also been plenty of fixes already put in place in order to stave off disaster.

Of the top 15 titles so far this year, according to boxofficemojo.com, nine were produced for $30 million or less (I’m including the two 3D conversions in this category.  The original budgets for those movies far exceeded $30 million, but their 3D conversion processes did not).  Also, many of the films in the top 15 were produced independently and picked up for distribution by a major studio, including The Vow, Contraband, Underworld: Awakening, The Woman in Black, and Red Tails, which serves to further insulate the studios from the risks associated with cost overruns.  Chronicle and Act of Valor, as well as this past weekend’s number two movie, Project X, were shot on video cameras for around $12 million each — unheard amounts for supposedly “big budget” commercial releases — though The Devil Inside had them all beat with its infamous $1 million budget.  I was surprised to learn that Act of Valor, shot by DP and HDSLR guru Shane Hurlbut, was photographed primarily on the Canon 5D, a $2,500 prosumer camera!  With each passing month, it seems audiences have grown accustomed to the aesthetic of digital filmmaking (especially the whole “found footage” phenomenon), and may even have begun to perceive of the digital look as a viable replacement for celluloid (a less generous reading of this development would be that audiences simply can’t tell the difference between video and film, or perhaps don’t care one way or the other).

Of the more traditional Hollywood releases on that current list of top 15 titles — movies that cost on average $70 million to produce and were, for the most part, developed in-house, Safe House did better than expected business, but, with its $85 million budget, was also the most expensive to produce.  Journey 2 also performed way above projections, whereas Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and, coming in at number 16, This Means War, never really got any traction.  Underworld: Awakening was also budgeted in this $70 million range, but was financed by Screen Gems and distributed by Sony.

Where does The Lorax stand in all of this?  Is it a typical Hollywood release?  Not exactly.  Universal partnered with Illumination Entertainment to make the film for the relatively modest price tag of $70 million (modest for a 3D animated picture).  The animation was done by the French effects studio Mac Guff, which was recently acquired by Illumination.  Mac Guff and Illumination were the team behind the enormously successful Despicable Me, which is getting a sequel of its own in 2013.

It’s not entirely clear to me how much influence Universal had on the development of The Lorax.  They can certainly take full credit (or blame, as the case may be) for the marketing of the film, but one can imagine a scenario in which the movie’s strongly pro-environmental message might easily scare off a corporate parent company unless its budget were co-financed by a partner.  Co.create (part of the Fast Company universe) has put up a nice interview with Illumination producer Chris Meledandri, but even though he seems to have been the driving force behind the movie, I can’t quite figure out who actually wrote the checks.  If Illumination indeed took on much of the risk and Universal served mainly as distributor and marketer, then it would reinforce the impression that studios, at least on certain projects, have begun to shift away from their historic role as content creators and are acting more as content distributors.

But any conversation about $30 million movies, or $70 million movies, is about to change in four days, when Disney’s John Carter hits theaters.  Whether it cost $250 million or $300 million to produce is entirely beside the point: the picture is a monster in every sense of the word, and the aftershocks of its gargantuan budget and unconventional late-winter release will reverberate for some time to come.  But John Carter is only the beginning of an onslaught of massive, would-be blockbusters about to land at your local multiplex.

Traditionally, the majors chose to release their most expensive pictures in the summer, when kids are out of school.  But in recent years Hollywood has begun to challenge the notion that high-concept popcorn movies do best in the summer.  We’re currently living in the era of endless summer — and I’m not even talking about climate change!  I was way off when I predicted that a movie such as The Hunger Games would fail to catch on with audiences; even if John Carter only opens to a soft $50 million, The Hunger Games is now projected to open at $100 million or more — in other words, one movie’s relative failure will have zero impact on another’s success.  And titles such as Mirror Mirror, Wrath of the Titans, The Avengers, Battleship, Men In Black 3, Prometheus, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation are all waiting in the wings for release not even halfway through the new year.

It seems as if I may have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders.  No, not “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”  Only slightly less well-known is this: Never confuse the quality of a movie with its box office prospects.  If I need to ask why the heck anyone would want to see a movie about a woman who loses her memory and the husband who tries to win back her love all over again, then I probably shouldn’t be making box office predictions.

And I won’t be, going forward…for a while anyway.  But I’ve also begun to question whether part of my fascination with these numbers is a desire to root against movies I don’t like.  I hope that’s not the case, but, on the other hand, there are countless more bad movies coming out of Hollywood than good ones these days, and that’s a ratio I’d like to see reversed.  Interestingly, this past weekend I finally rented Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  You wouldn’t have caught me dead buying a ticket for that movie last summer — not after what Tim Burton did to that beloved franchise in 2001 — but, watching this new “reboot” at home, I ended up loving it!  It was so beautifully structured by screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who also shared producing credits, and it built so carefully and deliberately toward its breathtaking escape sequence, that, in spite of my initial apprehension, I quickly realized Rise of the Planet of the Apes would become one of my favorite films of the past year.

Let’s face it, there’s a real danger in passing judgement on movies I haven’t seen.  But it’s more than that: there’s a danger in painting all commercial filmmaking with the same somewhat condescending brush.  My opinion that Hollywood movies in general are not living up to the standards set by past decades has not wavered.  But, at the same time, the last thing I would ever hope to see is the demise of the American film industry.

I can handle the fact that studios aren’t in the business of making movies for 40-something east coast dads.  It’s also pretty clear to me that these same studios have come to terms with the probability that I’m not going to buy tickets to most of their mainstream movies in release.  Other than The Lorax, which I’m required by some official statute to take my son to, my eyeballs will probably never catch glimpses of The Vow, Safe House, Contraband, Chronicle, The Grey, Act of Valor, or any of the other movies on the current top 15 list (once was more than enough for The Phantom Menace, thank you very much).  But the big news out of 2012 is that general audiences do like these movies.  Folks are getting into their cars and driving to the mall to pay full price to see these titles, and that’s the kind of welcome news that even I can get excited about.

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