What Hollywood has learned from the box office this year

What Hollywood has learned from the box office this year

Every year, the box office provides studios with a tremendous amount of data: what works, what doesn’t work, what’s making money, what isn’t.

This year is no different…as we get the returns from the Memorial Day weekend, we can speculate on what the studios have learned this year.

Sequels are good…and multi-series sequels (MSS) are better

The biggest movie of the year (and likely to be the third biggest movie in the USA all time by the end of this week), The Avengers, is a multi-series sequel (MSS). I don’t think there has been a team-up like this since Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.😉 While the movie was mega expensive at about $220m, it’s going to have made a ton of money. This makes a Justice League movie a whole lot more likely…although I don’t know that Batman would be a part of it. They’ve made the character so dark, he clearly doesn’t play well with others. Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Aquaman…there are quite a few possibilities. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island broke $100m dogro (domestic gross), and surpassed its predecessor. American Reunion was a relatively inexpensive investment, revitalized a series, and will make a nifty profit worldwide. Men in Black III knocked The Avengers off the top spot, and has a solid opening. It’s too soon to say where it will really end up, but it certainly has had a respectable opening.

Sequels are bad

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance didn’t exactly burn up the box office, so to speak. It won’t make half what its predecessor did domestically. Of course, they could just blame that on Nic Cage.😉  Wrath of the Titans cost about $150m, and hasn’t dogroed $100m

Baby Boomer nostalgia is bad

It had to happen at some point. Baby Boomers are a population segment born roughly between 1946 and 1964, when there were an unusually high number of births. For years, movies have been made to appeal in part to this group. One of the big media definers for the Boomers was television: it brought them together, before it became more fragmented with the advent of cable television. Dark Shadows was one of those unifying shows, with both boys and girls rushing home to see it. However, the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton version will struggle to dogro half of its budget. Television also brought some older theatrical properties into homes, making new fans for the Universal horror movies…and The Three Stooges. Despite what was generally considered a respectful reboot, the Farrelly brothers’ movie is unlikely to dogro $50m. Battleship may have banked in part on Boomer nostalgia for the boardgame, introduced in 1967. If we figure that you had to be at least seven to play the game, that means you had to have been born by at least 1960…and maybe fifty-two year olds aren’t driving the box office (at least for big budget 3D movies). This doesn’t bode well for Depp’s The Lone Ranger, opening May 31st of 2012. That show had also been on radio, and therefore may appeal to the previous generation, called the “Greatest Generation”…but again, they may not be the ones to fill theatres. That didn’t happen with George Lucas’ World War II movie, Red Tails.

Gen X nostalgia is good

Gen Xers were the group that followed Baby Boomers…say, born in about 1965 to 1981 or 1982 (generation naming is inexact). 21 Jump Street  is currently a top five movie for the year, and around $135m dogro. The source series started in 1987 and ran until 1991. The success of this follows the Tranformers movies and The Karate Kid remake to show the current market power of this age group. Expect more of this, even though it doesn’t always work.

CGI is bad

John Carter is being painted as a legendary flop, along the lines of Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate, but that’s an exaggeration. Those two movies didn’t dogro $20m combined…and John Carter is close to eighty. Yes, John Carter cost a lot more, but with both Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate having budgets near $50m, John Carter was relatively a success. If you Google John Carter and CGI, you’ll see many headlines blaming the movie’s dependence on CGI (Computer Generated Images). The same thing is true if you Google Battleship. In both cases, the perception is that lots of money was spent on CGI special effects and it wasn’t worth it.

CGI is good

The Avengers has about 2,200 special effects shots…very close to John Carter’s 2,295, from the figures I’ve seen. The Avengers is seen as more character driven, but certainly the long climactic battle is just as CGI driven as BattleshipMen in Black III, while having great Rick Baker physical make-up effects, also has significant CGI. This year is not going to stop studios from using the technology.

Bows and arrows are good

What do the two biggest grossing movies (by far) of the year have in common? Twang! Both The Avengers and The Hunger Games feature bow-wielding heroes. It will be interesting to see if that helps the ratings for the archery events in the Olympics (and the CW’s Green Arrow series in the fall). Even if it’s Cupid’s metaphorical arrows did well: love is good. :) The Vow dogroed $125m..on a reported budget of $30m. Think Like a Man dogroed over $85m…on a relatively tiny budget of $13m. Love is cheap…but it pays off. However, the studios will have to be careful that it doesn’t lead to budget inflation in the future. In the 1950s, science fiction movies almost always made  money because they were so cheap and high concept. Now, they can be very expensive…relationship movies will have to avoid that.

Movies based on books are good

The Hunger Games is blowing away records for a non-sequel. There is no question that having a built-in audience from the books helped launch it…and maintain it. What’s the third biggest movie of the year so far, and well over $200m dogro? Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Throw in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island  and Think Like a Man, and you have a bunch of over performers. Compare the $78m budget for The Hunger Games with the $220m for The Avengers, and you’ll see that words can be cheaper than effects.

Movies based on books are bad

John Carter. I could just stop there, but this is really a concern for some geeks. The movie was based on a series of books that have been available and avidly read for about a century. It had a director/screenwriter with a great record, no skimping on the budget, released by a major studio…it seemed like a pretty sure bet. This is going to make studios cautious about making older books into new movies…and there are so many great old geek books that could be done!

In summary…

As you can tell, there are a lot of lessons…but they often contradict each other.🙂 If it was clearcut, studios would get better every year at being profitable, and that’s just not the case. One reason? It’s a lot easier to hire a person than a concept. If Channing Tatum and Josh Hutcherson have a great year, it’s a simple choice to cast them in your movie for a hoped-for boost. There are other lessons this year (a movie that people didn’t like can be marketed into a big profit, for example). One thing we know about next year: the studios will be right…and wrong.😉

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.

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