Jun 1, 2012

The pre-sold is for pre-suckers

Hollywood is scared, and we should be grateful. Over the weekend, “Men in Black III” grossed $55 million ($70 million if you include Monday’s holiday). That may sound like a lot of money, but “MIB 3” cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $375 million to produce and market. Which probably makes it one of the three most expensive movies in Hollywood history. And it’s not just “Men in Black.” Disney spent $275 million on “John Carter” (not counting marketing, which likely added another $100 million). The movie grossed a scandalous $72 million domestically. Warner Bros. spent $150 million on “Dark Shadows” and Universal spent $209 million on “Battleship.” Those movies have grossed $63 million and $44 million, respectively. Paramount’s low-tech Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, “The Dictator,” saw its budget balloon to a reported $100 million, and will be lucky if it breaks $50 million at the box office. (James Cameron couldn’t have spent $100 million on that movie if you made a “Brewster’s Millions”- style bet with him.) One bomb during a summer is routine. Three epic bombs would make for a very bad season. But five of them before Memorial Day? 
This kind of box office reporting is myopic in the extreme. America accounts for only 30% of the market these days. It's like basing your understanding of the box office entirely on what happens in just India. John Carter made $282 million worldwide, Dark Shadows made $173 million, Battleship $283 million, The Dictator $96 million and Men in Black III  $216, after just two weeks. Which mean that of these, only John Carter looks like it will lose money, and only by a hair. Only one of the so-called 'bombs' is anything near. 
"Now it looks like on top of all that, there’s a change in audiences: If this summer is indicative of anything, it may be that people are rebelling against transparent blockbuster economics. Make a quality movie about a property people care about — “The Avengers,” “The Hunger Games” — and audiences respond. But simply throw $200 million at the screen for explosions and robots and a warmed-over half-idea because hey, it’s summer? Tumbleweeds." — Jonathan Last, The Daily  
No, no, no, no — a thousand times no. The Avengers and The Hunger Games are examples of the blockbuster formula at its most teflon-plated and audience-proof. The teflon being the 'pre-sold' — that pernicious. mixture of marketing savvy and audience awareness that allows a studio to guarantee a certain number of bums on seats, regardless of quality. In this case: an adaptation of a publishing publishing blockbuster (The Hunger Games) and a combination of no less than four pre-existing separate franchises in one (The Avengers). Quality be damned — or if not damned, then pushed to number 2 or 3 in the queue of considerations. The Hunger Games was savaged by critics and yet stormed the box office, just like Twilight before it (they don't want to see the book adapted, so much as enacted). The Avengers outdid even it's most supine supporters expectations even though no-one would say it came close to the first Iron Man, say, in terms of quality. Why? Because audiences had decided they liked it before they saw it. The whoops started in the foyer. They were presold.