Those who know me will not be at all surprised that I went to see the first showing of How to Train Your Dragon 2 possible this past Friday. I love animation, and, while HTTYD is not my favorite DreamWorks movie (That’s Kung Fu Panda 2–though HTTYD 2 may be stiff competition), I’m actually a big fan of the animated series. I also expected this movie to make a lot of money the opening weekend, so I checked the numbers Monday morning to see if The Fault In Our Stars had been dethroned.
I admit I was a little surprised HTTYD 2 only came in second after 22 Jump Street, but not too much. What surprised me more, though, was learning that HTTYD 2 only making $50 million in its opening weekend caused DreamWorks stock to fall 12%.
The reaction by DreamWorks investors is symptomatic of a greater overall problem with the current Hollywood approach to movies, particularly summer blockbusters. More and more, movies are becoming front-loaded. What this means is that movies today tend to have substantial opening weekends before experiencing extensively reduced sales in the next weeks. This year’s spring and summer movies have not only exemplified this phenomenon, but have taken to greater lengths than usual. Movies such as X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Godzilla have all had strong opening numbers only to have box-office sales fall over 60% the next week. The same is true of The Fault In Our Stars, but, fortunately for that film, it’s small budget allows it to sustain that drop.
Why these movies have had such drastic box-office declines is likely a combination of a variety of reasons. Spider-Man, for example, was not well reviewed, and was somewhat of a mess as a movie. I imagine those who wanted to watch X-Men were mostly fans of the franchise, and thus more likely to come as soon as the movie came out. The same is true for Fault In Our Stars. Godzilla completely mislead the audience with its marketing, and is thus in a tailspin domestically, though it did well opening in foreign markets.
Of course, why these films are dropping so rapidly may not be as significant as the end result. While these movies are often designed to smash the box-office before significantly cooling down, drops of over 60% are troubling and, if left unexamined, may lead to the the popping of what many have seen as a movie industry bubble, as was predicted by Spielberg and Lucas. Essentially, the more front-loaded movies become, the shorter all of their times in theaters will be. If executives believe a movie isn’t going to make any money domestically 3 weeks into release, then movies will only be in theaters 3 weeks. This means, not only will movie going become a more privileged experience for people with the available leisure time to get to movies that are in theaters one week and gone the next, but movies will become more safe and take fewer risks because they will no longer be able to rely on word-of-mouth to allow movies to have a slow burn of popularity. Additionally, even if movies continue to have bigger and bigger opening weekends, their profits will either remain stagnant or drop because of the overwhelming cost of many of these blockbusters that keeps rising.
Making money in a film’s opening weekend should not be the only indicator of success, and it certainly isn’t an indicator of quality. The opening weekend of a film is just as much, if not more, a result of the studio’s marketing than whether or not the movie is actually worth watching. It’s true that Rotten Tomatoes helps draw people to the theater when a movie is well reviewed, but, in my experience, people are more likely to go see the movie with better marketing that has been building excitement than the more quiet but better reviewed film. The success of a movie’s opening weekend, I’d argue, has very little to do with the actual movie and all to do with everything else. It has to do with whether the movie’s part of a franchise, which actors are in it, if it’s an adaption of a beloved property, what other movies came out, the weather, and whether the marketing team did their job.
To me, the proof of whether or not a movie is truly successful is whether or not people are willing to recommend it to their friends or even come back to the theater and see it again themselves. While it’s true Frozen had the biggest opening weekend of any Disney movie, that wasn’t what made it the stand out success of this past year. Frozen didn’t have a really good opening and then disappear the next week; it consistently stayed at the top of the box office because people who saw it loved it (not everyone, but many). Therefore, they went and told all of their friends to see it, and maybe saw it once or twice again themselves. Contrast this with Godzilla, which has had one of the more domestic slides since opening weekend. While many people who saw the movie liked it, there were also many who were disappointed or even angry by the end of the movie either because they were expecting a little more Godzilla than they were given or because they were expecting a lot more Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.
Why would they assume the movie would focus on Cranston and Watanabe? Maybe this trailer has something to do with it.
This trailer looks awesome. It looks dark, brooding, and like the movie may actually pull off the Jaws like atmosphere its trying to establish.
Unfortunately, when the movie came out, it turned out this trailer and much of the marketing was really just a bait-and-switch, and what people got was not what they paid for.
The problem with this method is that people tend to not like when they’re lied to.
It’s true that sometimes a bait-and-switch can work in a movie’s favor. This usually happens, in my experience, with animated movies that advertise themselves as 1 1/2 hours of goofing off but are actually very sincere movies with a lot of heart (See: Tangled, Frozen, and just about any decent DreamWorks movie). When it doesn’t work is when the preview seems like a much better movie than the end product. I would not hate Godzilla nearly as much if they had just been straightforward with their marketing. If they had just told me upfront that I was going to see a charisma-less guy who exists to make sure the military is as ever-present as possible in the movie, I might have actually been able to enjoy the final product. Instead, they lead me to believe that I was going to see a deeply emotional, traumatic movie with Bryan Cranston taking on corrupt powers-that-be because THE PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW! And frankly, that movie sounds way more awesome than monsters inexplicably following Cranston’s son everywhere he goes while said son stupidly tells his wife to stay in the city–where he knows the monsters are going to go–and his wife stupidly chooses to wait for him instead of getting the hell out of dodge.
Basically, what I’m saying is both of these movies had successful marketing in getting people to theaters. However, when a movie contradicts its marketing, it can often have on of two effects on the movie over the long-run. It can either help the movie (i.e. I know trailer for Frozen looked so stupid, but I actually loved it, and you should check it out) or it can hurt the movie (i.e. Hey, I saw Godzilla. You know how the trailers said it was going to be a Bryan Cranston movie? They lied).
Word of mouth is a key factor in the longterm success of movies because many people aren’t going to see a movie every week, so they rely on people who have seen it before them, and whose tastes are similar to theirs to tell them whether or not its worth the cost of admission and popcorn. These are the people who are likely to see a movie a few weeks into its run, and they are far less likely to have been manipulated by deceptive marketing.
Beyond the straggling, first-time movie goers, another group that contributes to ongoing ticket sales are those who are watching the movie again. For me, with the exception of dramas that are high quality, but a little tough to get through emotionally more than once, the true sign of a successful movie is one that I go to and think “I can’t wait to see that again!” Even if a movie is not a critical success, if I want to see it again, that movie has accomplished its objective. While not everyone re-watches movies to the extent I–and small children–do, movies are, in general, designed to be watched more than once. Otherwise, there would be no point to owning a movie digitally or on DVD. As I said before, re-watching definitely contributed to the success of Frozen, and I don’t doubt it will factor into the overall sales of HTTYD 2. Unfortunately, people going to see a movie for a second, third, or fourth time typically don’t factor into the opening week’s box office.
So, while a movie might be truly, deeply loved by a group of dedicated fans who are more than willing to pay to see their favorite movie over and over again, if that commitment isn’t obvious in the first few days of release, there’s a good chance distributors and theaters won’t give those repeated viewers a chance to make a difference.
Of course, this phenomenon is not solely the provence of film. TV has often cancelled good shows too soon only for the shows to gain tremendous support post-cancellation. The most obvious example is, of course, Firefly, which was not even given a full, 20 episode season before it was cancelled, yet accrued a dedicated fan base post-cancellation. Some shows such as Futurama have been repeatedly cancelled and returned to air on different networks.
And it’s completely understandable why this happens. Executives need to satisfy investors who don’t care about critical reviews or small-but-dedicated fan bases. They care about how much money a product is making and whether they’ll see a return on their investment, and they want to see that return made as soon as possible.
Movies are a business. There’s no denying that. However, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate what we mean by the term “investment.”
Here’s how my handy-dandy dictionary ap defines investment:
1 the action or process of investing money for profit or material result: a debate over private investment in road-building | a total investment of $50,000.
• a thing that is worth buying because it may be profitable or useful in the future: a used car is rarely a good investment.
• an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result: the time spent in attending a one-day seminar is an investment in our professional futures.
Currently, many of those in the film industry are focused on the first two definitions. They invest in a film because they believe it will turn a profit. This makes sense. As I said, movies are a business. But I also find too few are willing to embrace that last definition–the “devotion” to a project because they want a worthwhile product.
This isn’t to say no one is devoted to movies any more. I think many of the people involved in production care about quality. However, too often that is not the studios’ main concern. The thing is, it is entirely possible for studios to focus their efforts on the exemplifying the third definition, and through achieving quality also achieving profitability.
Even though there will always be bad or stupid movies that become successful, people are willing to pay to see a superior movie, and I’d argue most would prefer it.
So, when a good summer movie comes around, but doesn’t necessarily make $60-70 million in its first weekend, perhaps studios and theaters could find the courage to wait. Just wait. The same could be said for if a movie hits theaters and has a good opening weekend. Give movies time before they’re declared successes or disappointments.
After all, it tends to be a rule in our culture that, though first impressions are important, they shouldn’t be our only impressions. Audiences sometimes need time to get to know a show or movie, and if the movie is genuinely good, giving them that time will only help.
Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to go see How to Train Your Dragon 2 again because that movie was awesome.