Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What Should we Learn From The 2014 Box Office?

This post is an essay in transition.

When we review a year's worth of films, what criteria should we use as a basis of analysis?   Should we care, as the news media does, for how much money these projects ostensibly made?  Should we discuss the content of the films, their artistic merit? Should we take a practical stance and ask what we can learn from the last year in order to propose our own films successfully?

For those who laugh at the idea of someone who reads this blog making / producing their own film, don't laugh so hard.  It is perfectly feasible for one of our readers, or a group of them, to make a film of one sort or another.  Obviously they do make films, short films that is, already.  In fact, they make longer commercial films all the time, just in a specific role, such as VFX supervisor or art director.

It is perfectly plausible to make a full length film and even possible to get that film seen, although it is much more difficult to actually make money at it.  If we ignore the point about making money for just a moment, which generally requires a distribution deal, and just focus on the process of making a film, many people reading this blog could make a film.

All they would have to do is want it more than just about anything else in their lives, and work as hard as they can with as much cleverness and practical problem solving as they can, for the next 10 or so years, maybe more, probably not much less.   And spend every dollar they make or will make on that activity.  And call in every favor.   And work as hard as they can for years and years.

Then once the film is made, assuming you do not have a distribution deal, you then must work for years showing the film at film festivals and somehow getting the money to attend and for submission to those festivals.

All this time you will have had to make a living somehow unless you inherited enough money that you do not need to work.

And when you are done, the most likely result is that you are broke, have some people who like your work, a lot of people who do not like or are indifferent to your work,  and have to figure out something to do with what is left of your life and probably how to make a living.   Although it is possible you could make a second film, it may even be easier than the first, but it will still be a lot of work and unless you are very clever, or lucky, or talented, it will be hard to make money on it.

Its not supposed to be about the money, now is it?  Its supposed to be about the art.

But in the world of the "real" or mainstream film industry, it is mostly about the money.  And to play in that game is also possible, but it is all the more difficult because of the even greater competition.

And that so-called mainstream industry, "show business" we might say, has a series of ever changing rules and conventions that are renewed from time to time.  They do not go in cycles exactly, although there do seem to be patterns that repeat.   (2)  But one of the things that the industry has always done is to review what has happened this year and use that to predict what the audience liked.  What stories, what stars, and so forth.   But its not quite so clean as saying "this is what worked in 2014, lets do that in 2015" because movies these days take years to create.   Even if you had a portfolio of scripts ready to be shot and with attached stars and directors, you still need over a year in most cases to create film, and very often much more than a year.

So what is the point?   Two things, first.  What happened in any one year will have a diminishing effect over several years in the future.  Second, in a similar way, the lessons of one year will inform what will work as a "pitch" to a studio or producer, in a diminishing way over the next few years.

So now, we get to the heart of the matter.   What films did well in 2014 and what can we learn from those films and their performance.

As you read on, you will see sarcastic comments regarding the content of these films.  That theme is actually the topic of a later post as the films this year, the ones successful in a gross sense at the box office, had no content.  It is one of the most pathetic years I can think of, although I am sure there are others.

So ... back to our post, what happened and what can we learn.

I want to bring to your attention a graphic by Reuters that reveals the total 2014 box office of the top grossing films.  This graphic also shows the production costs and the portion of the box office that was generated in N. America vs the portion generated overseas.

There will be a trace of sarcasm in what follows.

1. Almost all the films on this list made more money overseas than they did in N. America. That means when you pitch a film to a studio or write a spec script that it should have significant locations and protagonists in Asia, particularly China.

2. The revenues shown here are just the box office numbers in first release, and do not reflect the real numbers coming to the studio (which will be significantly less) nor does it include revenues from licensing or such future revenues as video sell-through. The films on this list that have major licensing opportunities are therefore more profitable than they might at first appear and it is not an accident that the studios make so many films with licensing potential.  That means when you pitch a film you want to explain or make obvious how there are lucrative toy tie-ins and indicate what the studio cut will be on such matters.

3. A few of the films on this list may be only barely profitable, or just now becoming profitable. To determine this, apply the 2.5 times the production cost for the rough break even point.  There may be and probably are films that did not gross as much but actually had a better rate of return for their investors because their production costs were so much less.  (1)    Therefore, add more scenes with nearly naked women, bankable stars that do not charge too much up front, and otherwise keep your production costs down.

4. Three of these 20 films are animated films (with computer generated animation). There are no 2D animated films on this list.   Therefore do not pitch a 2D animated film.

5. Fifteen of these 20 films, including the top nine, are either fantasy or SF films with major visual effects.   Thats the way to go.

6. Seven of these 20 films are sequels of previous films and two more are not exactly sequels but had a predecessor film of some sort (Godzilla and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

So clearly, any film you want to pitch should be based in America and China, be based on an SF or fantasy property, have great toy potential, have relatively low production costs, and would make use of 3D animation. Nothing really new here.


1. This is why it is said that Roger Corman never lost money on a single movie. He knew that if he made a film with certain elements for a certain cost, that he could sell that film, usually in overseas distribution, and make a profit. An “element” here might be a bankable star, or a film about certain topics, or based on a book by a certain author, or a sequel to a film that did well in a certain country, or a film with many young women in bikinis. That sort of thing.

2. The joke about Hollywood is that everyone wants to be first to be second.  They wait for a successful film about a giant monster, and all of a sudden everyone is making a film about a giant monster.  There are other patterns or cycles as well.  Every year or so there is a genuine labor of love, an independent or studio film with heart that does some business as well, particularly as judged by its production costs.  And every year there is one or two of them.  But some years there are more than just a few, or some of these films do very well indeed, and then we hear about how the studio system is dead and it is now "the decade of the independents" or some such silliness.  Well maybe it is or maybe it isnt, but I suspect it isn't.   But for a year or two, an entity like Miramax may indeed be able to bring a handful of independent films to the world.  It seems to come and go.

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