Peddling Risk Aversion

Brent Lang offers up some specious reasoning and doomsaying in Variety today.

“Tomorrowland’s” middling debut points to a nagging problem in Hollywood. As much as people claim they love fresh and unique movies, they’re more likely to shell out money for sequels and reboots.

A few problems with that. First, and foremost, is reading too much into the performance of a single film opening. There are so many factors that can contribute, or detract, from any film opening. Indeed, you can wind the clock back to November and see interstellar box office numbers from … Well, Interstellar. As Brent writes about several paragraphs later:

Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the failure of one film. After all, original pictures like “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “Inception” have enjoyed commercial success.

Brent does highlight that he might not really be using “original” correctly because this is, of course, a feature film tangentially related to a themed attraction. Much in the same way that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was related to 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Remember those “original” films? They had nothing to do with the ride, really, and the ride was redone to hew more closely to the films.

Brent points out that sequels and reboots are the only things people turn out for, but the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise declined, financially at the very least, after the second one. $46M opening box office for the first one, $135M opening for the second, $114M opening for the third, and $90M for the fourth. More alarming, the fourth had a lifetime gross that’s 80% of the first film.

After four years, they’re going to release a fifth pirates film, but will it be labelled a success or an example of declining sequels? If it has a $50M opening weekend, will Variety run a piece about how audiences won’t turn out for sequels?

I completely agree with Brent that the production budgets put an enormous amount of pressure on films at this scale, but I don’t think the solution is to take fewer risks, as he does. The first Avengers might not seem like a huge risk, but it was, and that risk worked out well. That Tomorrowland isn’t Avengers should surprise no one. That it isn’t as financially successful shouldn’t merit a piece about how people don’t like original stuff.

I’m not worried that this will make Disney less risk averse than they already were. Every few years they release something expensive that doesn’t work out. John Carter and The Haunted Mansion being two films that spring to mind, which had big budgets, but weren’t original, and had disappointing box office numbers.

Disney is flush with cash. They should be taking as many chances as they can.

Just like the other studios trying to mirror the success of the Marvel films at Disney, I worry that other studios will try to dodge these “obvious” failures from Disney. That those studios will look at this piece in Variety and greenlight as many, competing Ghostbusters movies as possible. Only making financially successful movies isn’t a realistic strategy.

Marketing is another area worth dwelling on. Brad Bird has hinted that he hasn’t been completely happy with the trailers. Particularly with the most recent one. This isn’t the first time Brad Bird has had a low opening weekend because the potential movie-going audience didn’t understand what his movie was. Look at The Iron Giant which Bird made for Warner Bros. before they decided they didn’t want to make animated movies, and sabotaged the film. It’s a cult classic, and a risky movie.

Like Brent, I also can’t tell you what is happening in the film based on any of the trailers. There is some place, a pin that lets you see the place, George Clooney’s inventions, a ship, and they have to save something while being chased by [thing that might be a spoiler but is in the trailer]. I still intended to see it, because of Brad Bird, but that isn’t a selling point for everyone. Whatever tension exists between marketing and Brad Bird is reflected in the low turnout and 61% adult audience for this summer “tentpole”. Maybe this is a movie that shouldn’t have been a tentpole? Maybe this is a movie that needs to build with word-of-mouth instead of an explosive opening weekend? That’s all speculation.

The only thing that isn’t speculation is that this isn’t a teachable moment about why original properties should be avoided. That’s not filmmaking, that’s accounting.

2015-05-26 12:45:00

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