Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Holiday Box Office Blues

Hollywood didn't have a great year at the box office. After a series of expensive summer flops, the Christmas season added a few more to the pile. The LA Times wrote up a nice dissection of the dismal performances of "How Do You Know?" "Gulliver's Travels," and "The Tourist" over here. Several possible explanations for the underperformance of some of the most highly budgeted films of the year have been offered, including ineffective advertising, stale ideas, and quality issues. In the case of "Gulliver's Travels," fingers were pointed at 3D fatigue.

I buy some of these arguments more than others, but there was a big one that was left out entirely - the weather. This holiday season was beset by inclement precipitation, including much of the Eastern seaboard getting snowed in and California being drenched. You couldn't turn on a television or radio without hearing mention of the airport chaos on the coasts and retailers getting nervous. The article also didn't examine the performance of two other major studio pictures that have also been taking in only so-so receipts despite massive marketing campaigns: Disney's "TRON Legacy" and FOX's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader." They're the best indication that box office numbers are down across the board, with attendance levels falling. The smaller prestige releases like "The King's Speech" and "The Black Swan" are doing well comparatively because their audiences are older and have been more stable.

All the other arguments that have been brought up are valid, though I think there ought to be some caveats. A picture's originality, quality and the opinions of movie critics have a lot of impact on art house titles, but not so much with big action spectacles, family films, and comedies. If bad reviews and stale ideas sunk "The Tourist," they should have sunk "Little Fockers," which had even worse reviews and yet has been sitting on top of the box office for the past two weeks. And as I've pointed out before, movie distribution these days is designed to be front-loaded, so quality is totally secondary to the amount of hype that can be drummed up for its opening. Many blockbusters make the bulk of their money before word can get around as to whether it's actually any good. Word of mouth can still give prestige pictures and smaller films with soft openings, like "How to Train Your Dragon" the necessary boost to become blockbusters, but this is no longer how most studio hits are made.

Has movie marketing become less effective? Sure, but only because it seems to be getting more lazy and repetitive. I was perfectly aware of all three of the films spotlighted in the LA Times piece. I was even stuck sitting next to a "How Do You Know?" banner in the airport for three hours when my flight was delayed. But though I knew the premises, lists of stars, and even the directors for these movies, it was all presented in such a generic, familiar fashion that I felt no need to rush out and spend my eight dollars on them. I can't remember any impressive visuals from the trailers or commercials. I can't even remember a single quippy one-liner. All three of these films bungled their basic sales pitches. Sure I still want to see "The Tourist" for Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and despite the bad reviews I think I'd enjoy it. But I can certainly wait for rental since the marketing didn't show me anything worth going out of my way for. And excuses about the films' quality aren't going to cut it. If marketers could sell "Vampires Suck," and "The Last Airbender," they can sell anything.

Finally, there are the more basic blunders. How on earth did a romantic comedy directed by James L Brooks end up costing over $100 million? Why did it need all of these expensive stars in the same picture? And James L. Brooks? His last film was the utterly wretched "Spanglish" from 2004. How did he get this budget? And then there's "Gulliver's Travels." The concept itself isn't bad, and I like Jack Black an awful lot, but since when was he the obvious choice to star in an effects-heavy kids' fantasy movie? Did anyone notice the tepid numbers for "Nacho Libre" and "Year One"? Did they think he was carrying "Kung Fu Panda" by himself? Or "Tropic Thunder"? Pairing up Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for "The Tourist" was at least a risk that made sense on paper, considering their combined star wattage, though I have to wonder how long it's been since Depp had such a conventional leading man role. Take it from a veteran Depp fangirl. He's not great at these.

There is an upside to this situation, as this is January, when the pickings for new releases are lean and the holiday titles can linger in theaters for months. It's not uncommon for weaker films to be dumped on screens in late December, where they'll have a better chance to recoup their budgets, especially overseas. The executives interviewed for the LA Times piece kept emphasizing that last bit. "Gulliver's Travels" and "The Tourist" are doing better internationally which should keep the studios in coin - enough to try again.

Best of luck that they do better next year.


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