The Lesson From This Summer’s Movies: There Are No Formulas

Now that the summer movie season has come to a close, it is worth taking a look at the business side of movies, and find out what can be learnt from the financial successes and failures of the latest batch that the industry has produced. We have been reminded of how in film, as with any artistic medium, there are no proven formulas. Take, for instance, The Lone Ranger. Same creative team as the wildly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, same Johnny Depp on the posters, and westerns are similar to pirate films in being older genres ripe for pulpy adventures. Instead of following in Pirate’s footsteps, it stumbled, and has turned out to be one of the biggest flops this year. It will be interesting to see what lessons can potentially be learnt from this summer, particularly given the industry’s plans for 2015, which is shaping up to be one of the biggest, and busiest, summers ever.

If any genre has ‘won’ the summer, that crown would go to horror. Cheap to make, and with dependable audiences, none of these films made huge profits, but they were successful. Compared to Man of Steel failing to join the billion dollar club (as once hoped), or the flops of The Lone Ranger and Jack The Giant Slayer, they are far less risky ventures. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently argued that the industry’s current model of ‘tent-pole’ pictures, big investments bound to make money that in turn prop up other ventures, isn’t a particularly sound one. We see this claim supported by recent film performance.

However, showing that the above is no hard and fast rule, Iron Man 3’s $1.2 billion success shows that the undisclosed, but presumably huge, amount Marvel Studios have paid Robert Downey Jr. to be in Avengers 2 and 3 are worth it. This being the 5th most successful film ever, and Avengers Assemble (of which Downey Jr. was arguably the lead) being the 3rd, indicate that he is still the star of the franchise. It will be interesting to see how Thor 2 does, particularly as Thor made a respectable, but significantly smaller, half billion. If Marvel is to succeed with their plans to continue making films up until at least 2021, they need to wean themselves off Downey Jr.

It is interesting that the industry was surprised by the success of The Great Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the biggest film stars left and, particularly given that he was riding the success of Django Unchained, it isn’t a surprise people went to see it. On top of that, it is a generally well-made film, and while ‘Great Gatsby parties’ show some fans may well have missed the point, it makes sense that it had such strong word of mouth. In contrast, the disappointing performances of Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, and Will Smith’s After Earth, show us that a big name isn’t enough. A recognisable name on the poster won’t make people see your film, particularly in such an oversaturated market.

The financial disappointment of Star Trek: Into Darkness shows that JJ Abrams’ ‘Mystery Box’ method of marketing may have run its course. The basic idea behind it is that withholding key bits of information from your audience, in this case the identity of Star Trek’s main villain, will build up suspense. While this may have worked with his earlier success, most notably Lost, the audience seems to have wizened up to this trick. As such, lets hope that Disney will choose a different approach for The Abrams directed Star War: Episode VII, coming in 2015.

Meanwhile, Pacific Rim has shown us not only can film journalists be quick to declare something a flop, but also that America is becoming less and less important to Hollywood. Most of the initial claims that the film was going to be a failure came from America, and were based on American box office reports. However, the film has done very well internationally, particularly in China, being Warner Brothers’ most successful open there, ever. Its hardly a surprise that the film did well around the world, as it focuses on a collective, international response, with all countries sharing the effort, compared to it simply being America saving the day again.

Of course, the conclusions and predictions drawn here should not be seen as certainties. In the next two years, Robert Downey Jr. could over-expose himself, and be less of a draw come Avengers: Age of Ultron. Horror could become less reliable, and people might start digging JJ Abrams’ ‘Mystery Box’. However, it is very unlikely that all those things will come to pass, and if one is interested in understanding how movies are likely to perform, which decides which films are likely to be made, it is worth studying how each batch does.  The lesson this time: There Are No Certainties.

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One thought on “The Lesson From This Summer’s Movies: There Are No Formulas

  1. Well-reasoned and full of lots of interesting facts about numbers and ting. There’s also a cinematic myth which proclaims that “people don’t like sci fi any more”, something which also reinforces your idea about the American market no longer being important (Tom Cruise’s Oblivion being a key example of this). All in all, I am agreeing with your claim that there are no certainties, and thus contributing nothing to this discussion. Also, I’m reviving dead threads. Wooooo!

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