This post serves as a companion piece and extended update to our previous article on rethinking film industry strategy, which can be found here.
“For me, the business of tentpoles is about generating franchises. The more tentpoles that are being made, the more risky the first installment of a potential franchise is going to be. That’s why I think everybody needs to be asking hard questions about what is a real tentpole and what is a faux tentpole.”
- Jean-Luc De Fanti, managing partner at Hemisphere Media Capital
Since our last post a few weeks ago on the need to rethink film industry strategy, when Steven Spielberg publicly predicted an “implosion” in the industry, the subject remains in the zeitgeist. As we referenced in our last post, Mr. Spielberg has some familiarity with the industry’s modus operandi, having created the blockbuster phenomenon way back in the 70s with Jaws. Like a mutant in a film of that genre though, the nature of blockbusters has changed since then. Jaws, were it made today, would look very different (i.e. terrible). Despite Mr. Spielberg’s warnings, studios presumably took some comfort in an animated sequel – Despicable Me 2 – becoming, in the words of NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke, “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios”, more than E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. Not only did it paint a picture of an industry continuing to grow (though presumably the figure did not take inflation into consideration), it must have also quietened any further calls for originality, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty lowbrow sequel that had triumphed.
The caveat is a large one though, that any proponents of summer blockbusters need to pay close attention to. Despicable Me 2 has made £437 million so far, with a production budget of just £50 million. While on the surface then Despicable Me 2 seems to prove how successful and profitable summer movies can be, it actually provides a lesson in what commercial success can look like with a small-budgeted film. Instead, the rule of thumb during the summer is more likely to involve investing some $200m+ in a film that fails spectacularly – think The Lone Ranger. Though this Disney production is the most visible disappointment of the season, it is by no means alone. The New York Times count “six big-budget duds since May 1“. It is interesting to note that Now You See Me, “the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing”, after costing $75m to make.
Those responsible try to spread the blame. Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer absolved themselves of wrongdoing for their involvement in The Lone Ranger by blaming the critics. Said Depp, “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that”. Yet it is easy to see how one might assume the film – created at such expense, with ripe intellectual property to be exploited, with talent involved in the phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – had all the appropriate ingredients to make it a blockbuster. Studios meanwhile harp on about Twitter, which lets people instantly share their thoughts on a film and is now considered a worrisome bellwether for box office potential. But this is a reaction to poor filmmaking, not a reason why a bad film exists in the first place. They also cite a tight calendar. As The New York Times elaborates, “One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience”. Again, this is no one’s fault but that of the industry. The idea of launching films in a specific time window, when consumers now enjoy time-shifting and device-shifting with their content, is antiquated. It is just as irrelevant in winter, when back-to-back “prestige” films clutter cinemas, desperate for Oscar attention. It is overwhelming for audiences, reduces choice, and in the case of the winter season implies that the voting member of the Academy have no long-term memory.
The summer product is so derivative that evidently audiences are pushing back, showing indifference to the “clones” that feature so prominently at Comic-Con. Films are either direct sequels / reimaginings, or strongly resemble other recent projects. Again, The New York Times has an excellent article on this, elaborating,
“Studios showcased another Amazing Spider-Man, another Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, another Avengers, another Thor and another Captain America… In addition to Godzilla, remakes teased here in recent days included RoboCop… and Riddick,… Even many of the original movies introduced at Comic-Con this year had a been-there-done-that feeling to them, notably Legendary’s sword-and-sorcery picture Seventh Son, which co-stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Ben Barnes. In thundering snippets of footage shown on Saturday, the movie at times resembled Clash of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”
Cheering news for Sony came last week when it announced a $35m profit in the last quarter, but turbulence lay beyond that. In our last post, we mentioned the imbroglio that Sony found itself in as investor Daniel Loeb – whose hedge fund owns roughly 7% of Sony – continued to urge Sony to spin off its entertainment assets. Last week, he wrote a third letter to Sony – the most aggressive yet, with the Financial Times calling it “blistering” – comparing the film division’s two recent duds After Earth and White House Down to Ishtar and Waterworld (two of the floppiest flops to ever flop). He wrote that the CEO, Kazuo Hirai was sitting by complacently while the film division remained “poorly managed, with a famously bloated corporate structure, generous perk packages, high salaries for underperforming executives and marketing budgets that do not seem to be in line with any sense of return on capital invested”. It was with some interest then that, this past Friday, Zeitgeist saw that none other than George Clooney had stepped into the fray, calling Loeb an “activist” who “knows nothing about our business”. He lambasted the hedge fund industry in general, saying “if you look at those guys, there is no conscience at work”.
Clooney added that the “climate of fear” Loeb was creating would lead to even more risk-averse productions. It is creative, rather than financial risk, that Hollywood is sorely in need of. Art doesn’t engage audiences when it is timid and derivative. It inspires people when it is innovative, daring and different. Usually such creative thoughts do not spring forth from the mind of a hedge fund manager. Such new thinking – involving a review of a market research firms say is suffering from “overcrowding” – will require a significant course correction, one that is not going to come anytime soon. The summer slate for 2015 currently includes a Terminator sequel, an Avengers sequel, a Smurfs sequel, Independence Day 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5.
Zeitgeist was lucky enough to be a guest at the BFI Imax the other day when a select few members of the press, film industry folk, hangers-on and, yes, Trekkies, were shown footage from the Star Trek film to be released next summer, “Into Darkness”. It was a mere nine-minute clip of the film – the rest of which is still under lock and key / being edited under the watchful gaze of J.J. Abrams – but it was deemed enough to hold a Friday morning event around, with a very well-catered brunch afterward. What made the morning special was the presence of two of the stars, Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as the producer, Bryan Burk. The Q&A session, preceded by video salutations from J.J. and Simon Pegg, had many Trekkies in the audience aflutter and was a nice bit of promotion.
Regarding the footage itself, any excitement at seeing fleeting glances of futuristic shots brimming with portent were somewhat diluted by the fact that the same nine minutes were to be shown from that day before select showings of “The Hobbit”. Which of course means it was also pretty much immediately available on YouTube (if only to be removed, in an understandable but somewhat counter-intuitive move by the studio).
The status quo at the moment is one in which films often have longer life-spans than ever before (especially if more than one iteration is being shot simultaneously a la Lord of the Rings, or the studio making the film falls into financial trouble, as with the last James Bond film, Skyfall). If the production time isn’t longer, the lead-in for marketing certainly is. Disney’s Tron remake, which came out in 2010, was several years in the making. The marketing campaign was three and a half years long. One promotional tactic used was to give away free – but very scarce – tickets to select sneak peeks at the film, several months before its release, which at the time Zeitgeist took full advantage of.
This is not without drawbacks for the studio of course, as early bad press could scupper a film’s chance of commercial success. But in part perhaps recognising the need to constantly remind people of a product, in a society today that values instantaneous media and loves to second-screen, the risk is one worth taking. It’s especially appropriate if the film has a built-in, excitable fanbase, which both Star Trek and Tron do, and you can feed them occasional scraps to keep them satisfied. The TV series Lost, which invited similar nerdy inclinations – and was another brainchild of J.J. Abrams – made a similar move when the studio behind it released tantalising clips on YouTube in an effort to stir interest. Crucially, it also meant they beat the pirates at their own game. All in all it was a nice little bit of promotion by Paramount, creating coverage in media old and new as the stars gave interviews afterwards, and keeping die-hard fans on the slow-boil, ensuring the film remained top of mind while the final product remains a work in progress.