Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Box Office Mojo

The old switcheroo

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Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What makes a great trailer?”

A few years ago, in a post about The Cabin in the Woods, which is one of a small handful of recent films I still think about on a regular basis, I wrote:

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about American movie audiences over the past decade or so, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. They may say that they do, and they certainly respond positively to twist endings, properly delivered, within the conventions of the genre they were hoping to see. What they don’t like is going to a movie expecting one thing and being given something else. And while this is sometimes a justifiable response to misleading ads and trailers, it can also be a form of resentment at having one’s expectations upended.

I went on to quote a thoughtful analysis from Box Office Mojo, which put its finger on why the movie scored so badly with audiences:

By delivering something much different, the movie delighted a small group of audience members while generally frustrating those whose expectations were subverted. Moviegoers like to know what they are in for when they go to see a movie, and when it turns out to be something different the movie tends to get punished in exit polling.

And the funny thing is that you can’t really blame the audience for this. If you think of a movie primarily as a commercial product that you’ve paid ten dollars or more to see—which doesn’t even cover the ancillary costs of finding a babysitter and driving to and from the theater—you’re likely to be frustrated if it turns out to be something different from what you were expecting. This is especially the case if you only see a few movies a year, and doubly so if you avoid the reviews and base your decisions solely on trailers, social media, or the presence of a reliable star. In practice, this means that certain surprises are acceptable, while others aren’t. It’s fine if the genre you’re watching all but requires there to be a twist, even if it strains all logic or openly cheats. (A lot of people apparently liked Now You See Me.) But if the twist takes you out of the genre that you thought you were paying to see, viewers tend to get angry. Genre, in many ways, is the most useful metric for deciding where to put your money: if you pay to see an action movie or a romantic comedy or a slasher film, you have a pretty good sense of the story beats you’re going to experience. A movie that poses as one genre and turns out to be another feels like flagrant false advertising, and it leaves many viewers feeling ripped off.

Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky

As a result, it’s probably no longer possible for a mainstream movie to radically change in tone halfway through, at least not in a way that hasn’t been spoiled by trailers. Few viewers, I suspect, went into From Dusk Till Dawn without knowing that a bunch of vampires were coming, and a film like Psycho couldn’t be made today at all. (Any attempt to preserve the movie’s secrets in the ads would be seen, after the fact, as a tragic miscalculation in marketing, as many industry insiders thought it was for The Cabin in the Woods.) There’s an interesting exception to this rule, though, and it applies to trailers themselves. Unless it’s for something like The Force Awakens, a trailer, by definition, isn’t something you’ve paid to see: you don’t have any particular investment in what they’re showing you, and it’s only going to claim your attention for a couple of minutes. As a result, trailers can indulge in all kinds of formal experiments that movies can’t, and probably shouldn’t, attempt at feature length. For the most part, trailers aren’t edited according to the same rules as movies, and they’re often cut together by a separate team of editors who are looking at the footage using a very different set of criteria. And as it turns out, one of the most reliable conventions of movie trailers is the old switcheroo: you start off in one genre, then shift abruptly to another, often accompanied by a needle scratch or ominous music cue.

In other words, the trailers frequently try to appeal to audiences using exactly the kind of surprise that the movies themselves can no longer provide. Sometimes it starts off realistically, only to introduce monsters or aliens, as Cloverfield and District 9 did so memorably, and trailers never tire of the gimmick of giving us what looks like a romantic comedy before switching into thriller mode. The ultimate example, to my mind, remains Vanilla Sky, which is still one of my favorite trailers. When I saw it for the first time, the genre switcheroo wasn’t as overused as it later became, and the result knocked me sidways. By now, most of its tricks have become clichés in themselves, down to its use of “Solsbury Hill,” so maybe you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that it was unbelievably effective. (In some ways, I wish the movie, which I also love, had followed the trailer’s template more closely, instead of tipping its hand early on about the weirdness to come.) And I suspect that such trailers, with their ability to cross genre boundaries, represent a kind of longing by directors about the sorts of films that they’d really like to make. The logic of the marketplace has made it impossible for such surprises to survive in the finished product, but a trailer can serve a sort of miniature version of what it might have been under different circumstances. This isn’t always true: in most cases, the studio just cuts together a trailer for the movie that they wish the director had made, rather than the one that he actually delivered. But every now and then, a great trailer can feel like a glimpse of a movie’s inner, secret life, even if it turns out that it was all a dream.

Written by nevalalee

September 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

American box office

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Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

My online reading habits have shifted immeasurably over the past two decades, along with the nature of the web itself, but there are two sites that I’ve visited on a regular basis for at least fifteen years. The first is the New York Times. The other is Box Office Guru. This isn’t the slickest or most useful box office site around; Box Office Mojo is considerably more polished, with greater access to raw and adjusted numbers, and its commentary is a little more nuanced. The former site’s basic design hasn’t changed much since the days of Geocities, and its predictions are no more or less accurate than those of its peers. But I’m oddly fond of its voice, which tends to strike a balanced note between the killjoys at Box Office Mojo and the less critical coverage at other entertainment sites. Its founder, Gitesh Pandya, forecasts and analyzes returns with the air of an enthusiastic hobbyist who has absorbed just enough industry jargon—”laugher,” “kidpic,” “funnyman”—to be endearing without being grating, and I’ll sometimes go back to read his old columns just to relive memorable box office stories from the past. (“The upcoming holiday weekend activity, strong word of mouth, and award consideration should all contribute to a prolonged domestic run that could see Titanic reach $150 million.”)

You could argue, of course, that treating the weekly box office returns as a kind of horse race has had a damaging effect on the types of movies Hollywood is willing to make, which emphasize brands and franchises that generate gargantuan opening weekends rather than playing to steady audiences over time. Still, the media’s coverage of the results is more a symptom than a cause, and the structural reasons for placing so much weight on a movie’s initial performance—the studio’s cut of profits is greatest early on, with a larger percentage going to theaters as the run continues—would be there either way. What’s more amusing is how personally you can start to take numbers in which you have no stake whatsoever. Last summer, I kept checking to see if Edge of Tomorrow would creep past $100 million, and I was unreasonably cheered when it did, as well as chagrined whenever subsequent stories would casually refer to it as a flop. (When you factor in the international numbers, it did fine.) And whenever a movie exceeds or falls short of expectations to a dramatic degree, I read the ensuing think pieces as closely as if they were talking about my own finances. I probably have a better sense of the box office at any given moment than I do of my own checking account.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

This past weekend brought two stories on opposite ends of the spectrum: the incredible performance of American Sniper and the resounding failure of Blackhat, both of which are movies I want to see. Blackhat’s failure to launch isn’t particularly surprising; Michael Mann is probably the weirdest director around who still qualifies, almost on a technicality, as a mainstream filmmaker, and the film’s release in the dumping ground of January was hardly a good sign. But it’s no exaggeration to say that American Sniper’s astonishing $100 million opening is the most unexpected story of its kind in more than ten years, or since The Passion of the Christ similarly blew past all predictions. Inevitably, we’ve seen a flood of analysis as to what happened: it’s because the movie had a great trailer, or got an awards bump, or saw widespread support from the heartland, or featured the right star, or came from a director whom audiences like and respect, or was brilliantly marketed, or appealed to patriotism, or was just an excellent movie with a good story. Yet one or more of these factors are true of multiple films each year, and few see this level of success. It’s a case, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, of all the delta-qs lining up just right. And the fact is that nobody really knows, at least not to the extent that it can be replicated—which isn’t to say that Hollywood can’t be expected to try.

The result is that American Sniper went from being the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee to the highest in just two days—and we’re already living in a bizarro universe when the most commercially successful film in the bunch was briefly a movie by Wes Anderson. And maybe the only real takeaway is how far such numbers can be abstracted from any real meaning. A single movie won’t make or break a studio; they can certainly destroy individual careers, but any development executive is likely to get fired sooner or later, and when you stand back, the details start to blur. Hollywood accounting is so obscure that a blockbuster may never break even on paper, while a flop might actually make money, once you factor in the fees that the studio essentially pays to itself. Box office returns are fascinating because they feel like the place in which the risks involved in artistic production are exposed in their starkest form: the outcome of years of work on the part of hundreds of creative professionals is decided in the course of a day. Or so it seems. But if the judgments passed there feel permanent, time is the great leveler, here as everywhere else. A movie of enduring interest will survive for those to whom it really matters, and nobody cares if, say, The Godfather Part II was seen as a “disappointment.” And no one remembers the numbers. Except, maybe, for me.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2015 at 10:27 am

We need to talk about Cabin

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned about American movie audiences over the past decade or so, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. They may say that they do, and they certainly respond positively to twist endings, properly delivered, within the conventions of the genre they were hoping to see. What they don’t like is going to a movie expecting one thing and being given something else. And while this is sometimes a justifiable response to misleading ads and trailers, it can also be a form of resentment at having one’s expectations upended. Audiences, it seems, would rather see a bad movie that meets their expectations than a great one that subverts them. And whenever there’s a sharp discrepancy between critical acclaim and audience reaction, as measured by CinemaScore, it’s often for a challenging film—think Drive or The American—that has been cut together in its commercials to look like safe, brainless genre fare, or one like Vanilla Sky or Solaris that, whatever its flaws, is trying valiantly to break out of the box. (Or The Box.)

I found myself mulling over this yesterday after seeing The Cabin in the Woods, an uneven but often terrific movie, in both senses of the word, that seems designed to frustrate the kinds of audience members that CinemaScore so diligently tracks. All the danger signs were there: this is ostensibly a horror movie, after all, a genre that tends to get positive responses from audience members only if it gives them precisely what they want. It’s also comedy-horror, a notoriously tricky genre. And most of all, writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take a seemingly conventional story—five familiar slasher-movie types menaced in, well, a cabin in the woods—and deconstruct it so savagely that no one, not even the filmmakers or the audience, can escape. Despite all this, The Cabin in the Woods escaped with a C rating on CinemaScore, which is more than I would have expected, but still implies that a lot of people aren’t happy—anything less than a B+ or so is seen as a sign of trouble ahead. As a commenter on the A.V. Club says of the early reaction: “There was quite a lot of love and stunnedness, sure, but there was also a healthy amount of ‘waste of money’ and ‘dumbest movie ever.'”

And in a sense, The Cabin in the Woods is a stupid movie, if you define stupidity as an obstinate refusal to meet your expectations. Clearly, it’s more than capable of delivering the kind of horror that the audience wants: it cheerfully provides plenty of jump scares, shadowy basements, and bucketfuls of gore. The fact that it then turns into something much different can strike a lot of people as simple incompetence. The logic goes something like this: if they could give us a straightforward horror film, but didn’t, they must have no clue as to what we really want. The idea that a movie may know what we want and refuse to provide it, in the classic Joss Whedon style, doesn’t entirely compute—and rightly so, since most of the movies we see have trouble just delivering on their most basic promises. The Cabin in the Woods has it both ways as much as a movie possibly can—it never stops being scary, funny, and entertaining even as it changes the rules of its own game—but it still seems to have left a lot of people feeling cheated. Box Office Mojo sums up the situation nicely:

By delivering something much different, the movie delighted a small group of audience members while generally frustrating those whose expectations were subverted. Moviegoers like to know what they are in for when they go to see a movie, and when it turns out to be something different the movie tends to get punished in exit polling.

So what’s a director, or a movie studio, to do? The easiest response, obviously, is either to give away every twist in the trailer, as the director Robert Zemeckis has famously advocated, or to only make movies that deliver blandly on an audience’s expectations while flattering them otherwise. In the latter case, this results in movies and marketing campaigns like those for Super 8 and Cloverfield (also written, interestingly, by Drew Goddard), which are essentially elaborate simulations of movies with a twist or secret premise, when in fact the film itself is utterly conventional. The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, has a real secret, not a winking simulacrum of one: the trailer hints at it, but the movie goes much further than most moviegoers would expect. Not surprisingly, it’s getting punished for it. Because unlike movies that appeal squarely to the art house or the solid mainstream, Cabin occupies that risky space where the expectations of a mass audience collide with something rich and strange. And that’s the scariest place for any movie to be.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

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