What this year’s box office hits - and flops - can teach us about movie marketing
In any given year, you’ll see theaters teeming with formulaic movies that Hollywood wisdom has decreed will undoubtedly drive huge profits at the box office. From star-powered tentpoles to franchises and reboots, there are tried-and-true formulas conventional wisdom says are ‘guaranteed’ successes.
Just halfway through 2017, all top five domestic grosses fit into one or more of those categories: Beauty and the Beast (reboot), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (sequel), Wonder Woman (reboot), Logan (franchise) and The Fate of the Furious (franchise).
But what ultimately determines how successful a movie will be? Why does a movie like Baywatch, featuring the traditionally perfect mix of eye candy, action and star-powered-chemistry between Zac Efron and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, struggle, while a movie like Universal’s Split, a unique concept thriller directed by the hit-or-miss M. Night Shyamalan, see enough traction to overcome sequel films like XXX and Resident Evil?
What made Wonder Woman, a film with a female-centric story and female director, set the box office on fire, while Rough Night, with a solid female comedic cast following in the style of Bridesmaids, falter? Both aimed to attract a female audience, promoted “girls night out” screenings and created big prime-time TV integrations to drive ticket sales.
If any of us could guarantee what would be the next box office hit, we would be neither writing nor reading this article. Many a Hollywood studio exec has wished desperately for a crystal ball to inform the many critical decisions that ultimately determine a movie’s success or failure.
Each of those critical decisions -- from release dates to key audiences -- is informed by data, with a heavy emphasis on historical performance. How have similar movies in this genre performed on this date? Should it open on a key summer date or moved to the September wasteland? Will this gain more pickup with females or males? The female-led approach to Wonder Woman’s marketing was in-part led by data and insights gleaned from Warner Brothers’ female-centric TV series, Supergirl.
This traditional approach of looking at precedent means true originality has historically been met with caution. This has left the door wide open for content alternatives to the big movie studios – players like HBO, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon that have taken risks and embraced high-quality, original programming. Which means that studios now must compete against the living room screen as well as other films in the theater. Rising movie ticket and concession prices mean consumers weigh the effort of paying to sit in the theater vs. staying home and watching tremendously good programming like House of Cards or The Handmaid’s Tale.
Hollywood has also historically deprioritized the impact of audiences outside of the coasts. Sometimes referred to as “The Flyover States” – or for those who live there, the heartland. From the types of films being produced to the marketing efforts, there’s a coastal bias running rampant in the entertainment industry. While overall box office performance is driven largely by key metro areas, we saw in last year’s election that the collective heartland audience holds remarkable power, once activated.
This passion is something that films like Sully, American Sniper, and faith-based films like Heaven is For Real benefitted from, with remarkably strong performances in the Midwest and the South. The mindset and demography of the areas between the coasts is something that Hollywood can no longer afford to ignore.
This vast geographic area is undergoing dramatic demographic shifts, due to both immigration, particularly from Hispanics, and an aging white population. Women are also increasingly attracted to working in the heartland, where pay disparity between men and women in the same jobs is greatly diminished compared to the coasts and relatively low female unemployment. That economic empowerment feeds a demand that should be reflected on the screen.
Hollywood isn’t making more movies aimed at women and minorities just out of social conscience. It’s also out of economic necessity. Money talks. A 2017 UCLA study showed that the median global box office in 2015 for movies with casts that were 21 to 30 percent minority was $105 million, compared to $42 million for movies that had minority casts of 10 percent or less.
To say that original stories are the key to success is just plain silly. This is belied by the formulaic nature of the current highest-grossing movies. Developing a deeper understanding of key audiences and their changing tastes is key to the continued growth and success of the movie business. Enhancing the movie-going experience in the face of ever-increasing competition matters, but connecting with audiences between the coasts has the potential to make a big difference to the box office bottom line.
Erica Lee is head of media at Bailey Lauerman