This summer has the dubious distinction of having two Michael Bay big movie blockbusters. I am well aware how much this site has harangued this Doctor Frankenstein of film. His productions consistently rouse ire and belligerence from fandoms and casual movie watchers alike. Though I would love to take this man to task for the duration of this article, that won’t really accomplish much. The truth is this man will continue to make movies of intellectual properties, these movies will continue to make millions of dollars, movie studios will only care about the dollar return, and hand him more properties to ruin. You can complain all you’d like but the Hollywood machine will keep on grinding. The unfortunate part is that we’re not even a part of these machines.
To see what I’m talking about let’s use the example of the mega blockbuster “Battleship”, a film we can all agree is devoid of any quality. That film cost 209 million dollars to make according to Wikipedia but I’m gonna go ahead and put an astrix on that and come back to that number. Wikipedia also reports that the film made 303 million dollars at the box office. So that means that film was a success right? The studios spent a dollar amount and made money back. But that’s the total dollar amount and doesn’t quite tell the whole story of the affair. “Battleship” made 303 million in total however; domestically the film only earned 65 million dollars. That means in America, this film was a failure. We Americans didn’t even pay for half of the production costs. In comparison, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” opened the same day and in total the film made 84 million at the box office. Big difference, I know, but the film only cost 40 million dollars to make. Do you know how much the film made domestically? About 40 million dollars.
The trouble with this comparison is that one of these films was Hollywood taking an intellectual property with no storyline and forcing it to be a movie while the other was “Battleship”—see what I did there? Yes, one of these films was big budget sci-fi and the other was a comedy drama with a more modest budget, but the point remains. One of these films was a success in North America and the other wasn’t. But see that doesn’t matter anymore because the American film industry has forced open so many markets for its films that it is next to impossible to fail. “Battleship” was able to recover from its fumbled opening weekend with an astounding showing in Asia, specifically Japan and China. And that has become the bastion for terrible films. So it doesn’t matter if everyone in America opts out of seeing a terrible film. It takes an incomprehensible amount of failure, failure on a global and catastrophic level, to truly sink a film. Few movies have fallen into that territory—at least in the big summer blockbuster category. But when they do it is impressive.
Who here remembers a film by the name of “John Carter”? It’s okay if you don’t, that’s one of the reasons it was such a flop. The film was loosely based on the “A Princess of Mars” book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now, for an action movie, it was a pretty standard affair. There’s a ruggedly handsome man as the protagonist and he’s going to save an alien species from a nebulous threat. The problem for this flick is that its budget quickly escalated out of control. Now, Wikipedia lists the production cost as 250 million but this is why I put that astrix earlier. The truth is every film that lists its production costs is only counting the actual, on set costs of actors, sets, and special effects. What they are not taking into account is PR. Yes, every commercial, special appearance, cross promotion with Pepsi? All of that is very much a different number often climbing into the tens of millions. So while the initial amount of 250 million dollars seems astronomical, the true number is unimaginably higher and much more difficult to lock down. But I do have a quote from Paul Dergarabedian, president of Hollywood.com, “’John Carter’s bloated budget would have required it to generate worldwide ticket sales of more than $600 million to break even… a height reached by only 63 films in the history of moviemaking.” So the true story was “John Carter” was doomed from the start. With production costs bloated to the size of Los Angeles’s fiscal budget, it’s hard to come back from that. And really the movie going general public didn’t contribute to the downfall. Yes, if we had gone in bigger numbers we may have tipped the balance but the ship was sinking with or without us. There is one film in recent history that we, as the general public, helped to kill and we killed it for all the right reasons. I’m talking about the atrocity known as “The Lone Ranger”.
There was a lot going for “The Lone Ranger”. It was written by Ted Elliot and Terry Russo who were the minds behind the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. They brought along Gore Verbinski to direst and Jerry Bruckheimer was the producer. These guys know how to make big budget Hollywood Blockbusters so everything seemed copacetic—but then we all got a good look at Johnny Depp and his “Black Face” Tonto. I’m not here to talk about how awful that portrayal was—there could be an entire book written on why it was wrong. What I am here to say is that something contributed to the downfall of that film and Johnny Depp seems the best culprit. On a numbers basis alone, the film budget was around 250 million dollars with marketing costs estimated at around 150 million. The box office? A measly 260 million. As you can see, it was well short of breaking even, which is probably why we don’t have to stomach a “Lone Ranger” sequel. However, what about those movies that don’t have the budget of a small nation or a star in Black Face? Is there any way to keep those films from making money?
As I’ve said earlier, the answer is no. But, don’t despair. There are still ways for you to keep your hard earned cash from these studios. The first way is pretty obvious, just don’t watch it. It’s okay, if you don’t like the trailer for the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” chances are you won’t like the film. So don’t watch it. Let others fork over fifteen bucks for an hour and a half of sub-par filmmaking. Take pride in your ignorance and continue with your life without the burden of knowing how Megan Fox portrayed April O’Neil… Still going to go see it? Damn!
Okay, I can understand a sick fascination. Some people revel in the grotesque. So, if you are still going to go see the film, can I ask that you wait one week? Just one week. Why one week? Think of it like this: Films are gauged by their opening weekend. It’s not a coincidence either. Let me drop some knowledge on how the Studio/Theatre distribution system works. When a movie is sold to a theatre, they work out a ratio for ticket sales. For your average film the ratio is usually something like 70% of every dollar go to the studio and 30% to the theatre. But that’s only for the first few weeks. Then the ratio changes to 60% to the studio and 40% to the theatre. That number gets bigger and bigger for the theatre the longer the film is out. But for Big Budget Blockbusters it’s a different story all together. For Blockbusters, the ratio is more like 90% to 10%. But after that it drops very quickly. Why? Because of all you sheep that absolutely have to see the movie the first week. The studios plan for a big opening weekend and an immediate drop off whereas a regular movie usually has a consistent level of ticket sales. So the longer you can wait to see a movie the better because more and more of your dollar will be going to your favorite theatre instead of the movie studios.
You still want to see it opening weekend? Come on! Okay, if you absolutely need to be able to trash talk “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” the weekend it comes out there is one more thing you can do. Buy a ticket for a different movie. This isn’t a veiled joke. Pick a movie that you want to show support for and buy that ticket instead then go see the terrible Batman movie in its place. Yes, there are times they will check tickets at the door but if you go to a daytime showing you can usually get away with this. The advantage of this one is you get to trash talk whatever movie you want without contributing to its profit. Plus, you get to show support for some deserving title instead. It’s really the best of both worlds.
Is there any way to stop the current studio system? Not really. Is there a way to fight back? Certainly. And if studios are going to rig the system so even their flops are hits, we need all the help we can get. So although your acts of rebellion aren’t going to put greedy studio executives into a life of destitution, you at least get to claim a victory for yourself and your standards and morals. Hopefully this way we can all help spread our money to more deserving places like good independent films or our favorite movie theatres.