Blockbuster Fatigue

by Sonny Bunch on May 21, 2012

We’re about halfway through the calendar year and a month or so into the “summer” movie season, and the thing that strikes me is not the massive successes—Hunger Games might squeak by $400M; Avengers is on pace to blow by $550M—but the massive failures. John Carter, famously, was a $200M writeoff for Disney. Battleship fared equally poorly this weekend, grossing an anemic $25M on a reported $209M budget (plus God only knows how much on marketing, which might have been more than $100M).*

These are the most infamous bombs of the summer season, but they are far from the only ones: Dark Shadows, which somehow cost $150M, has grossed only $50M; What to Expect When You’re Expecting grossed only $10M on a $40M budget; and The Dictator has grossed only $24M thus far and cost $65M (plus, again, marketing costs).

The Avengers, meanwhile, has held strong (dropping less than 50% this weekend and almost exactly 50% the weekend before), just as Hunger Games held strong before it. Were I a studio head—even of a studio that struck gold with one of the big hits of the summer—I’d be scared out of mind. If the new normal is a world in which a studio is releasing a $150-$250M movie every single weekend and three of those movies are failing for every one that strikes it rich, the studios are going to run out of money really quickly.

On the plus side, this might lead to a reallocation of resources in Hollywood studios; instead of banking on a couple of big tentpoles, maybe we’ll get one tentpole and then four smaller pictures. I’d rather have four The Greys than one Battleship, wouldn’t you? (Of course, we’ll have to clone Liam Neeson, but we’re almost there, technologically.)

*As a side note, it’s pretty clear that Taylor Kitsch has had the worst year, box office wise, ever, right? Between Battleship and John Carter, $400M of production costs and $200M (at least) of advertising costs has yielded just $98M domestically (thus far). He’s like the anti-Harrison Ford, ca. 1980 to 2000.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark May 21, 2012 at 11:55 am

I’d like to think that Hollywood would recognize these failures for what they are, or that perhaps recognizable IP isn’t always gold, but they’ll probably blame it all on Taylor Kitsch. Totally his fault.

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peter May 21, 2012 at 8:47 pm

probably worth pointing out that if the $250M number is still correct, John Carter is no longer a write-off. At this point it has made a ‘profit’. Not huge, but covered the bills… the international ticket sales were quite good… and it has cleared $270M worldwide.

If Disney does it right, they might still do the sequels for the foreign market… which I would enjoy, John Carter was actually a pretty good movie.

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Sonny Bunch May 21, 2012 at 8:53 pm

I’d assume the $250M number is very low; Hollywood Reporter put the production budget at $275M and the advertising budget at $100M. You also have to remember that the studio doesn’t keep every dollar the comes into the box office (figure half goes to the theater, half goes to the studio). Disney announced a write-off of $200M before the movie was even done with its theatrical run. Trust me: the movie’s not going to make its money back at the box office.

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Kevin May 21, 2012 at 9:46 pm

It was widely reported that The Avengers had a $100 million marketing campaign. Does anyone really believe Disney spent the same amount on John Carter?

If they did, where did all the money go? There were no promotional tie-ins, kid’s toys, or even the bare minimum you’d you’d expect to see for a modern tentpole. (Let alone a Disney film that cost the studio $250 million.)

Even the handful of products they actually released were apparently done in very limited supply. A quick check of Amazon just now reveals that the fancy “Art of Disney: John Carter” book is already out of print, while the official soundtrack is down to the last 10 copies.

Compare this to one of last summer’s biggest underperformers, Green Lantern. Its $100 million promotional budget yielded multiple tie-ins (ie. Subway; Doritos; Brisk) and you can still find the merchandise littering store shelves at Walmart.

Not that I don’t agree with your overall premise, I just find the whole John Carter situation fascinating. I mean, the studio came out and declared its own movie the biggest flop of all time…just ten days into the domestic theatrical run. When’s the last time that happened? (Has it ever?) Normally, a studio will do anything to try and salvage those first few weekends and overseas grosses.

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Sonny Bunch May 21, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Hey, I report you decide. I have no special insight into it, certainly no more than THR. I will say that they absolutely saturated the TV networks with ads. I imagine they spent at least $60 to $70M on TV advertisements alone. But I dunno.

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Kevin May 22, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I’d say that’s probably a more plausible range. Boxoffice.com actually puts the marketing costs at $50 million, which sounds even more realistic:

http://www.boxoffice.com/statistics/movies/john-carter-of-mars-2012

I agree the tv ads were about the only visible promotion done for the film. Unfortunately, Disney appeared to use the misguided strategy of going after the UFC crowd while ignoring all other demographics. Anyone spending $250 million on a film had better promote it as a four-quadrant film. (I think this may have been the first time in 100 years a company didn’t include the titular heroine to promote “A Princess of Mars”.)

Matthew Heintz May 21, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Poor analysis. The US market isn’t that important of a market anymore. On average, it’s only 1/3 of a film’s total gross, so its intellectual dishonest to make an analysis where you only factor in US sales. Battleship is doing great over seas and will have a profit. Movie Studios are making bank.

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Sonny Bunch May 22, 2012 at 8:09 am

Again, simply looking at the gross and saying “Well, this is obviously profitable!” is a fool’s game. The studios typically only keep around 40% of foreign grosses and it can take a year or two to recoup that money. (They also might not get any of the grosses for certain markets, depending on whether or not they sold off the distribution rights to foreign markets.) Additionally, making foreign films ready for international distribution isn’t free—you have to commission subtitles for dozens of languages, prints with those subtitles on them, and then edit the pictures to a.) ensure they make sense for foreign audiences (e.g., eliminate humor only Americans will get), and b.) ensure that they’ll pass the censor boards in foreign countries. Not everyone is as permissive with their entertainment as the good ole US of A.

Politifact rates your comment: Mostly false.

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Dave May 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

It is amazing that Hollywood continues to spend so much money on lousy movies. The Avengers was a great movie, well written, acted and the special effects were good. Most importantly, the villain, who, imho, is the key to any good action adventure/comic book movie was great. I just watched Green Lantern and Fantastic Four Rise of Silver Surfer on cable recently. Both of these were bad movies, mainly because the villains/monsters sucked. I could give plenty of other examples of how good bad guys make good blockbusters and bad bad guys make bad movies that few people want to see. Doesn’t someone who has to write the $200 million worth of checks get to at least read the script first and know a little movie history?

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