Announcement: Sorry. No updates until our new fansite launches!
Bookmark and Share
“ Because of increased competition and a shorter cultural attention span, studios focus almost exclusively on promoting a movie's first weekend ”

Disposable movies

Tue 16 Nov 2004 | 19h15 GMT+1

Siman Houpt, editor at The Globe and Mail, talked to the authors of a new book that looks at how the current obsession with Hollywood's box-office numbers can turn this weekend's blockbuster into yesterday's news.

Over the years, America's dream factory has sent thousands of different stories out into the world, but every weekend Hollywood itself endures exactly the same tale: One movie is crowned the box-office champ, another is tagged a big loser, and some of the city's biggest actors and producers, watching years of work end in crashing commercial disappointment, reach for the Maalox.

Last year, a couple of editors at the Hollywood trade paper Variety set out to chronicle the journeys of three big movies from their initial development to opening day on the July 4, 2003, holiday weekend. In their breezily entertaining new book, Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession, Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing give that story deeper roots by simultaneously tracing the devolution of the film business to today's current state of affairs, whereby the fates of films that take years of planning, production and marketing are determined in one single day.

To do so, Hayes and Bing compared the campaigns of Terminator 3, Legally Blonde 2, and the animated Brad Pitt feature Sinbad: All told, more than $450-million (U.S.) in combined production and marketing costs fighting it out for a slice of the box-office pie.

Warner Bros. and MGM co-operated with the journalists, allowing them to sit in on meetings and marketing events for T3 and LB2, but DreamWorks was too skittish about Sinbad's prospects to open itself up to their scrutiny. The fear at DreamWorks was understandable: The old-fashioned cartoon opened in the No. 6 position at the weekend box office and quickly dropped out of sight. Costing more than $100-million to make and market, Sinbad finished its theatrical run with just over $26-million. Even T3, which won the weekend, quickly fell out of the top 10.

"They're so ephemeral," says Bing, Variety's deputy managing editor, sitting in a boardroom of the paper's New York offices. "The film lives for only a few days before it's consigned to oblivion in the public consciousness."

In decades past, films regularly ran for months, leisurely tip-toeing their way from a few first-run theatres in the big cities to the B- and C-theatre circuits in smaller towns. Accepted lore in Hollywood is that the business underwent a tectonic shift in the mid-1970s, when Jaws and Star Wars grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and snagged the attention of conglomerates, which bought up the studios and tried to run them like any other efficient business.

But Hayes and Bing trace at least some of the changes further back, to a showman of the 1950s named Joseph Levine. In 1959, Levine bought up an Italian version of the mythical Hercules story, spent lavishly on advertising and wild promotional events -- including a luncheon in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria featuring a 40-foot-tall cut-out of the body-building star Steve Reeves that reached the ceiling -- and saturated the country's theatres, opening on 126 screens in the Boston area alone.

This brain-freezing approach to promotion and distribution merged with the new age of research in Hollywood. Armed with reams of data showing what audiences said they wanted to see, analysts in studio marketing departments rather than the creatives in the production departments began driving the development of films. Alas, research shows that audiences want mild variations of what they've already seen before.

"There's a lot of pressure to standardize and homogenize the product," says Hayes, Variety's deputy managing editor of special reports.

That approach leads directly to creations like Legally Blonde 2, which was fast-tracked into production fewer than nine months before its release, and before a finished script existed, because MGM liked the idea of releasing a film about a female protagonist shaking up Washington on the patriotic Independence Day holiday.

In this environment, it should be no surprise that advertising often carries more weight than the quality of the movies. LB2 director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld says that the meetings over the script for a 30-second teaser trailer, which would hit theatres more than seven months before the film, were more fraught with drama than his meetings over the movie. "But here's something to keep in mind about Legally Blonde 2," Bing says. "It's a case of a movie that cost more to market [roughly $45-million] than it cost to produce." It ended up finishing second on opening weekend, and left theatres after taking in less than $90-million.

Because of increased competition and a shorter cultural attention span, studios focus almost exclusively on promoting a movie's first weekend. By late Friday night, executives turn to statistical modelling to predict a final box-office figure in order to know whether they should continue to support a new film with ads and calls to the press.

"We talked to several people at the studios who said, with very little regret, 'We've conditioned the audience to be there that opening day and to be conscious of what they are experiencing and to know that feeling in their gut of an event movie,' " Hayes says. "That was a word we kept hearing -- event."

In a culture obsessed with best-sellers, success breeds success. Hayes and Bing track the evolution of box-office data from the 1970s, when studio chiefs kept the information closely guarded, to today, when people can log on to some websites on Saturday afternoon to read real-time returns from Friday.

"It was important to us to document the media environment in which box-office data flourishes," Bing says. "We trace it back to the rise of MTV and USA Today and CNN and the rise of other media outlets in the early 1980s, a proliferation of charts and trivial information in the news that become these habit-forming and trivial spectacles for people... .

"There was a vacuum in the media that box-office data rushed into, and that's how it kind of developed a life of its own and brought us to an era in which every 15-year-old in America knows what the No. 1 movie that weekend is."

One aspect of the story is beyond the purview of Hayes and Bing: What is it about North American culture that creates a mindset in which the popular is necessarily considered to be good? (Canadians can't claim any superiority, since the top-10 films north of the 49th parallel frequently mirror the list south of the border.) "Why do 50 million people watch The Apprentice? Because they all think it's an amazing show?" Hayes asks rhetorically. "You don't want to be the one clueless person who didn't see Spider-Man."

Within that environment, the studios recognize the value of trumpeting a winner. Experts estimate that having a film place No. 1 at the box office is worth about $2-million of publicity. And there's an argument to be made that Hollywood is better at promoting its movies than actually making them.

"You do have to kind of sit back and marvel," Hayes says. "Joseph Levine said, 'If the budget is big enough and the advertising is right, you can fool everybody.' And that's really what they've always been trying to do."

comments powered by Disqus
Expertly hosted by
Page last modified: April 15, 2014 | 13:32:15