Kid Cudi’s Day ‘N’ Night (the Crookers remix) has been stuck in my head. In a good way.
WHY FOLLOWING THE BOX OFFICE IS SO TERRIBLE
Of late both here and on the Chud boards there’s been discussions about the box office of a movie that is a month and a half out, and the attitude of the majority of people who chime in is that the film is set to fail. Such prompted me to say that following the box office is “for lames.” Which I must admit is a strange thing to say when I spend so much time writing about the box office.
Obviously I’m not trying to write a farewell, but the business has irrevocably changed over the last ten to twenty years. The main thing that changed this is home video. But the way in which home video and movies got into people’s homes has also fundamentally changed. When home video was introduced the ramifications were not fully understood. There were format wars, which led to the original business model: Home video was mostly a rental business, with some perennials being made available on the cheap. Newer releases were put at an expensive price point, and most video chains were mom and pop. As the eighties progressed, more and more homes were getting into home video (partly, as has been noted, because of pornography), but even as cable expanded, NBC, etc. were still happy to host Sunday nights at the movies. Into the nineties showing a film like Jurassic Park was an event that came months and months after home video release. And for home video releases, the window between its theatrical opening and home video availability were much larger, as the studios were willing to squeeze every last dollar out of their prints. An old boss used to tell me about how Purple Rain was a headache, because Warner Brothers didn’t think they had a hit so their announced video window almost screwed up the film’s success. When Batman came out on home video it was after a short release window and was price pointed for purchase. This was a rarity, and the film likely sold more units based on its oddity. Generally, only kids films came out as cheap.
But home video became more of an engine for business instead of a perk as retail chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood video streamlined rentals. Yes, they had catalog titles, but business was driven by having hundreds of copies of the newest, biggest, latest. They had guarantees to have a title in stock, and by buying hundreds of a copy of a title, with hundreds of stores operating under an umbrella they were able to drive the price point down for themselves, which meant that buying 400 copies was as expensive as buying 200, while also giving them a marketing gimmick. The shit worked.
And as homes were getting saddled with complete saturation of video cassette recorders, by the end of the century a new format debuted. Originally thought the province of tech savvy – a laserdisc plus, if you will – Warner Brothers had a ingenious idea: lowered price points. Though a new release video tape ran a store around a hundred bucks, give or take, and laserdiscs anywhere from twenty to forty dollars, the DVD price point was set around $15 to $25 dollars. Eventually other studios began following Warner’s lead, and when films like The Matrix, and Gladiator hit, it also offered additional content and better picture and sound. The format also benefited from being convenient and an extension of the last market changer for audio. As people had grown to accept compact discs, so too did they embrace digital video discs, and embraced the idea – especially in a time of disposable income – of circumventing rentals entirely. With the promised hours of additional content, you could spend a couple evenings absorbing all that a film had to offer, or just throw on the good parts without even waiting to access those moments (chapter stops). It’s easy to see how this also benefited pornography.
When DVD became a cash cow, the idea of delaying the release of a major title became wasted money, and the rise and fear of piracy made an extended window was seen as an excuse to lose money (look at Avatar). Sure, Academy pictures might play long, but a big summer release could generate more income, and also benefit from audience awareness by hitting three to four months after theatrical. Only Christmas films seem to get delayed releases now. The industry also embraced the weekend numbers. They had already liked them, but through the 90’s, you could see those numbers being a part of the conversation. Miramax was a serial abuser of the numbers, and the numbers were used to sell a success. They still do, of course. The process of this was both good and bad for the industry. Studios were cash rich, which meant they might take more chances, but it also polarized films quickly.
Cut to now. America is deep in a recession, and home video is now longer able to redeem a film like it used to. Where if a film made its budget theatrically, it could likely be considered successful because of home video sales, no longer are those numbers spiking. Almost a decade ago it was a big deal that 8 Mile and The Ring moved a million copies first week of release. Now you don’t hear about those numbers. This is also partly gimmickry. The industry created a shelf life for people’s interest in this, but I think a lot of people looked at their collection of shitty movies, and decided against being collectors in the grander sense, while Netflix made getting movies at home that much easier, though without the immediacy until Netflix instant. The nature of the industry is defined now by opening weekends. Though films are usually guaranteed a two week run, if the opening weekend or – even with limited releases – the per screen aren’t excellent, it changes the way marketing and efforts are arranged. But with limited releases now, bet-hedgings that aren’t your Preciouses or Junos, a film can be stopped dead in its tracks by a weak weekend. To wit, Warner Brothers made a concentrated effort to get Superman Returns to $200 Million, where those sort of efforts are done on a much smaller scale these days.
If a film succeeds because of an opening weekend, if a film’s relative worth is determined by its first three day gross, then one irrefutable fact emerges, which I would bold, highlight and underline if it wasn’t overkill: A film is judged a failure or a success because of marketing.
Last year opened with a string of long playing titles – Taken, Paul Blart and Gran Torino, but all opened, and didn’t fall off horribly. But such releases have proved anomalous. A decade earlier films like The Sixth Sense and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were also audience pictures as well. But (other than Wedding, which was a limited release to start) all of these pictures opened, while the success of those other titles suggested that they played well because of a weak market – now it’s been proven you can release films in the weaker months and get to nine digits. If you look at films of the 1980’s, a lot of the biggest hits didn’t start out on top, and audiences found some pictures. This is partly critical response, but also the cultural response, the word of mouth. That’s not to say that art was better or worse, but how a picture opened didn’t determine its fate. Nowadays, there are few films that even flat-line at the box office, and lately only on holiday weekends is it possible for a movie to outperform the previous weekend. This though happens less and less, because even if you hear a movie is good, it only takes three to four months to catch up with something in optimal quality. But there’s been fewer and fewer films like Austin Powers or Office Space, films that found their audience on home video.
Studios also have turnover rates on some executives, and often the current administration likes to fuck over the outgoing administrations titles. I’m reminded of the “write two letters” bit from Traffic. There’s also often some infighting about how to handle certain titles. Some titles sell themselves, some artists build enough of a pedigree that people will follow, but even they must do some battling to make sure that is preserved. Audiences don’t vote with their dollars, and the studio system moves toward what works in this system, which is easily digestible, easily sold and familiar. It takes artists to make this stuff, and sometimes artists emerge. But the industry is more interested in films like Iron Man 2 than Public Enemies, even if the latter is of equal quality. Is word of mouth a factor? Of course, but it’s been microwaved for immediacy, and arguably the word of mouth for Avatar had more to do with the experience than the film’s qualities. That said, if the experience is the movie, then, well. The commodification of movies was once beneficial to the system, but what it’s done is turned cinema into the disposable art it once was, but instead of studios cranking out a bunch of films based on plays and stupid premises, well, look around you.
A while ago I saw Carnival Magic at the New Beverly. It was introduced by Zack and Lars from the Alamo Drafhouse, and we were told it was the sole print in existence, and was found by accident. Everyone in the audience felt like they had a privileged experience. Well, they found more prints, and the film ended up on-line. And the film is no longer that thing, but in the cold light of day – when it becomes something you can own and experience repeatedly – it no longer has that pull. A couple friends saw The Garbage Pail Kids Movie at the New Bev, and I caught it on DVD. Different experiences entirely. As a movie lover, going to the theater has always had some magic to it, but when there’s no magic then it’s hard to get excited about a film rammed down throats for the hopes of a nine digit opening weekend. As I’ve said before, that a film makes money doesn’t mean people like it. Well… now more than ever.
SQUEEZE MY PREDICTIONS, TIL THE JUICE RUNS DOWN MY LEG
Knight and Day opened Wednesday, and didn’t do great business. Fox’s summer of suck continues. Grown Ups should have been huge, but all word has it being terrible, which means the combined forces couldn’t do any better than TV spots with urine stains. Great. Toy Story 3 will clear $200 and then some, so $400 is not out of reach, and should easily best Alice in Wonderland for the highest gross of the year.
1. Toy Story 3 – $70.5 Million
2. Grown Ups – $33.7 Million
3. Knight and Day – $21.9 Million
4. The Karate Kid – $18.7 Million
5. The A-Team – $6.9 Million
Sunday I hope to be knee deep in fun, but I hope to report the box office regardless.
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