Sunday, November 22, 2009

What's It Take to be Successful?

Each and every time a new movie comes out that manages to deny expectations and break records at the box office, I often wonder what makes these movies so special?

This past weekend, the latest Twilight film, New Moon, raked in over $140 million, making it the third highest grossing opening weekend of all-time. I was personally astounded by this number. I knew that Twilight was popular, and I knew that this film would be one of the biggest of the year, but never in my wildest dreams would I of imagined it doing this kind of business. That is nearly the total amount that the first film made in and of itself. Whether or not the film will have the legs to push it past $300 million and beyond, has yet to be seen (as a side note, it doesn't bode well for the film that 1/2 of its opening weekend came from Friday, which is never a good sign), but it's safe to say that it is well on its way to being in the top 5 highest grossing films at year's end.

Today, I've decided to try and answer the question that I proposed earlier. What makes these record breaking box office hits so much more special than any other film? In short, what does it take for a film to be successful?

One of the first answers typically would be, the film itself has to be good, but then you look at stuff like Twilight and Transformers, both panned by critics, and are raking in the cash like no other film this year has done. So what is it then? Hype.

The days of word of mouth and people listening to film critics are over, what makes or break a film is hype, the repeated pumping up of a film before its release. You see it all the time with big blockbusters, and to a lesser extent on small independents picked up at stuff like Toronto and Sundance (case-and-point, Slumdog Millionaire).

Studios start rolling out the marketing machine on their big films sometimes two years before the film even hits theaters. They try to milk the audience for all their worth, heighten their anticipation, and get it on everyone's radar so that when it finally comes out, everyone will say, "I wanna see that." This is how the film industry works, and it only helps matters when the film in question is already based upon some other property, whether it be a highly popular book, comic book, video game, or action figure line. This is the main reason as to why stuff like Twilight often is so large. Other times, it's the sequel factor.

We live in a time where the first film in a franchise isn't what matters, it's the sequel. Back in the day when sequels were a no-no, you pulled out all the stops on the first film, cause you didn't know whether or not you'd get another go at it. Nowadays, filmmakers actually hold back on the first film in order to have stuff in the well for a second outing. This mentality has spurred many of the big sequels in this past decade, from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight. The first film gets a following through mediocre box office, solid DVD sales, and excellent viewing on stuff like HBO, then when its inevitable sequel hits theaters, it is a juggernaut at the box office. But then, there are those rare anomalies that are in a league all to their own as to why films are successful.

Often at times a film comes along that is just so special, it can't be missed. These films many times don't have any previous following (i.e. books or comic books) and ultimately fly under people's radar until stuff like trailers and what not start surfacing. These types of rarities are films like the original Star Wars from 1977 and Titanic. These are the films, that on paper, sound like terrific ideas that will make money, but no one truly knew that they'd do what they did. These films are typically the trifecta, loved by audiences, adored by critics, and smash hits at the box office, often so much so that they topple box office records in the process. To put it simple, films like these can only be classified as movie magic, there's no other way to put it. If everyone knew the secret as to how to repeat these anomalies, everyone would be doing it, but alas it's like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

Majority of movies released, even Twilight, are just your average run of the mill blockbusters at the box office. Now, this doesn't mean that they still can't be good, it just means they aren't one of those rare anomalies. Personally, I don't think there has been an anomaly at the box office since Titanic twelve years ago. As we venture forth into another decade, will that change? I don't know. Perhaps I can make the next anomaly. I'm just pleading to anyone with money who will listen.


  1. Nice commentary but you should know a few things about weekend sales and hype.

    Weekend grosses are not the same numbers that were being reported ten or twenty years ago. You have to adjust for inflation (which no one does) and also factor in the fact that a lot of hollywood blockbusters have started doing wednesday at midnight releases so that a full thursday counts towards the weekend numbers as well. They did this with Dark Knight to test it out and it worked phenomenally. More recently Star Trek did it and I wouldn't be surprised if Twilight did too. It's how studios are reporting on par earnings to previous record breaking years in these economic times. Long story short, if you took away the extra day, the midnight release, and factored in inflation--you get a pretty obvious decrease in sales compared to opening weekends ten or twenty years ago for major blockbusters. And yet still, despite it all, MGM is tanking, New Line is under new management and Miramax is about to fall so don't pay attention to numbers reports and blockbusters. A studio still has to run itself for the 362 other days of the year.

  2. Titanic was highly successful, no matter how you cut it.

    Speaking on inflation. Yeah, something like Twilight doesn't really stack up, but Star Wars is number 2 of all-time when accounting for inflation, and Titanic isn't far behind. As well, the studios do seem to be doing alot nowadays to try and get their films to break records. Even though the film studios have always been greedy and more about money than artistry, it does seem like in recent years they've decided to focus more on trying to top one another, anything that will boost the overall box office results at the end of the day.