[LOS ANGELES – 2019: Marketing finally finds a sure-fire way for this movie to find it’s audience… a bigger billboard!]
Welcome back for our third Mailbag! After a week break (due to illness), the Powerwolf returns to answer your most vital questions. What makes a cult classic after box office failure? What should we expect from future trips to Pandora? And Batman plays so aloof: is he even actually in the Justice League?
Hello primordial homie,
Long time writer first time listener… I have a question regarding the phenomenon of box office flops that become cult classics. Many films flop at the box office obviously, but what makes the equation that allows for some movies to find a new life on our dusty DVD shelves?
- Blade Runner
- The Shawshank Redemption
These fantastic films are defended notoriously and watched constantly anytime they find their way to AMC afteroon flics or your peachtree tv lineups, but were considered flops at the box office. Can you find similariites in these films that would lead to a box office flop yet drives them into glory as cult classics.
Looking forward to your answer.
I love you,
Greetings, ‘O One Clad in the Shirt of Dragons,
This is a fascinating question that pokes right to the core of how the movie making machine functions. Let’s dive in!
The most important factor in a movie’s success is Audience. Who is this movie for? How wide a net are we casting? Is this a demographic that tends to hit the movie theaters in swarms on the all-important Opening Weekend? To site an example from TV: Murder She Wrote’s audience was as large as Friends’ when they were both on the air, but advertising went for a third of the price of the latter. This is because of the Murder She Wrote’s audience demographic (old people who don’t buy stuff). The ad-based economy of television is obviously different from film, but the principle remains the same.
All of the movies you mention are similarly limited by ‘R’ ratings. Compare Blade Runner to another Science Fiction film also released in 1982 for less than half the price, and you can see why the family friendly E.T. was a much better investment. Additionally, consider Sci-Fi aficionados waiting for the release of Return of the Jedi and seeing Harrison Ford hot off the heels of Raiders. Suddenly he’s starring in a film a million miles removed from the fun loving adventure pieces that made him famous. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana has a unique voice when compared to his role in The Godfather but it’s a comparison that is going to weaken Scarface‘s place from the get go. Consider further, the confusion of an audience about what they were getting from a Steven King adaptation that wasn’t scary. Audience expectations are a bitch and mixed signals have been the death knell of many a feature.
This leads us to the next and maybe even more important factor of Marketing. A movie lives or dies in the theater based on its ability to find its audience, which is why a film’s production budget is usually doubled by the need to get the word that it exists out to the people who would care and to send them the right message. If a marketing team doesn’t understand what is special about the film, it’s likely the movie will sink, regardless of quality. Scarface is not The Godfather, despite their star and story similarities. Blade Runner is not Star Wars. It’s an existential thesis, wrapped in a film noir, draped in a never before seen neo-nihilistic set dressing. And as for The Shawshank Redemption, how do you sell somebody on the idea that watching a lifetime of a man in prison isn’t going to just be severely depressing, much less end with a feeling of hope and triumph for the power of the human spirit?
The value of these movies is that they carefully play against the strengths of their genres. They surprise the audience in unexpected ways. This isn’t something an uninformed marketing team can always pick out from an incomplete film, much less boil down in a 2-3 minute trailer. Compare this to the “risky proposition” Deadpool. The film languished in development for years and had its budget set to less than half of similarly risky (but PG-13) newcomer Iron Man (2008). Starting last Friday, Deadpool obliterated opening weekend records for ‘R’ rated films and the for the February box office. Its creative team was clearly deeply involved in the marketing of the film. Every trailer and Ryan Reynolds-hosted PSA drips of the film’s unique sense of humor. It doesn’t hurt that meta one-liners work great in trailer format, but it gets that the film is an Irreverent Comedy first, and a Super-Action-Revenge-Drama in distant second.
So let’s say your movie has the right audience for its budget, and the marketing team understands and is catering to that audience. I believe there’s a final “it factor” that will determine whether the target audience shows up on opening weekend, and that is a Feeling of Newness. Is this movie an event that demands to be seen opening weekend? This isn’t to say that a movie should be unique. The Feeling of Newness comes from wrapping up things that feel familiar in a bigger and shinier box than they were previously. Avatar, Titanic, The Force Awakens, The Avengers: These movies were events! Events that used elements that you knew you already liked and made them bigger and shinier than they were previously. They don’t just demand to be seen on a big screen, they demand to be seen so you can join the water cooler talk before everybody else spoils their predictable plots.
Compare that to the movies you listed. Blade Runner was a cutting edge science fiction but told through the re-purposed lens of the noir period from the 40’s. Its nihilistic tone put it more in line with films from the 70’s than the more happy-go-lucky 80’s. The Shawshank Redemption takes place in a prison in 1947. Period pieces are historically saved from the curse of feeling old fashioned on arrival by depicting war, Victorian high society, or some new smiling dude playing Jesus. Shawshank was never going to feel like something you needed to see before it hit TV, regardless of its quality. After Godfather and its sequel both won best picture Oscars, Scarface was always going to feel like the poor man’s gangster film by comparison,
Old-fashionedness is lovely in hindsight. Like you say, it works great on DVD, but it kills movies in the theater. Some examples:
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- The Iron Giant (1999)
Of course, you could also veer towards humor or concepts that are too original, creating a movie that will absolutely be found and treasured, but not understood for the genius it is until long after opening weekend.
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- Fight Club (1999)
- Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
Veer too far either way and you’re screwed.
I think the common “problem” with initial marketability of the three movies you listed is that they simultaneously seemed like they could be yesterday’s news, or too complicated to appreciate for what they brought to the table in the time they came to theaters. They challenged audience expectations. It’s a good thing for the movies to do, but it’s damn hard to get away with.
James Cameron. Avatar. Sequels being filmed back to back. No one has any idea what they’re going to be like. What do you think we can expect from them? Cameron is always pushing technology – is there anything new he has up his sleeve? What is there left to do on the world of Pandora? What do these films need to do so that we remember the initial magic the first one gave us?
Hope this makes the mailbag!
It’s funny that you should ask this Alexis,
Powerwolf.ink is not a website where we report Exclusives or Scoops, but I just happen to have Insider Information on the plot of the Avatar sequel Trilogy!
Here it goes (in chronological order):
- 12 Years a Na’vi: Immediately following the events of Avatar, a large force of human marines returns, enslaves Jake Sully, and brings him back to Earth as a casualty of the growing alien slave trade. In the end, we learn that slavery is wrong.
- Guess Who’s Shooping Our Daughter: In this relatively low budget sequel, Jake has dinner with his new human girlfriend’s mom and dad. They begrudgingly agree that that inter-species love isn’t all bad when she explains that “Once you go blue, that’s all that you’ll do.”
- The Great Comeuppance: In Cameron’s final prestige piece, the Na’vi finally get equal representation in the Academy Awards.
Avatar 2 (or whatever they’ll call it) has been said to have a return of both good and bad humans and Na’vi to Pandora, which gives hope that the story won’t be reduced to another “Natives Good/Colonialists Bad” message. Maybe it will be something more interesting, like the Na’vi having to learn to adapt from their preferred lifestyle to function in an increasingly “westernized” world, and having bitter disagreements about what that should look like. It could mimic more of Japan’s fascinating and rocky 19th century transformation into a First World Nation.
Cameron’s love of the deep will also make an appearance, as an exploration of Pandora’s underwater world will apparently be featuring heavily. Underwater motion capture is something that they are researching in order to realize these scenes, so that could be pretty cool. I personally want to see Na’vis in space, awkwardly floating about with their tails flapping, because that would be hilarious. Sounds like my wish may be granted, because they’ve also discussed the possibility of traveling to Pandora’s moons.
You’re absolutely correct that Avatar was a marvel of technology. And despite his often on-the-nose plot contrivances, James Cameron never fails to direct crowd pleasing mega-blockbusters. He certainly seems confident about his back-to-back sequels, telling Empire “They’re gonna be bitchin’. You will shit yourself with your mouth wide open.”*
The man certainly has a way with evocative imagery.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Avatar‘s characters and story weren’t what drove the film’s popularity, but the spectacle of it all, and that now that films approaching that level of spectacle are commonplace, the sequels may not be as successful. There’s certainly some merit to the concern.
While Avatar wasn’t the first film to return theaters to stereoscopic 3D, it certainly popularized the technology with stunning environments that proved the value of the surcharge. Cameron is apparently filming the new trilogy in 48 fps, but it’ll take more than the addition of unnatural blur-free-movement to make these follow-up Pandora travelogues feel technologically fresh.
Honestly, I think the only thing that could best the technical “newness” of the original would be if the three features were filmed for VR. But considering this would completely circumvent the theater market for an untested one with a high cost of buy in, I doubt any studio would allow such a risk, even on such a proven entity. But who knows? Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is secretly financing the films as part of his $2 billion Oculus Rift gamble. What’s another (rumored) $1 billion for exclusive sequel trilogy rights to the best selling film of all time (actually 15th if adjusted for inflation).
It’d likely turn out better than trying to reintroduce Smell-o-Vision.
In Justice League Unlimited: episode 76 “Panic in the Sky” Batman refers to himself as a “part timer” after chewing out the Justice League.
Is, has, or was Batman ever apart of the Justice League officially? Should Batman be one of the leagues top heroes? I mean come on he’s Green Arrow dressed like a bat!
– Moose Outlaw
The thing that you need to understand about Batman is that he likes to play hard-to-get. His Lone Wolf image is crucial for establishing him as the Bad Boy of the band. It almost makes everyone forget that not only did he co-found the Justice League in nearly every iteration of the series, but in the current example of JLU he built and financed their Space Station Headquarters. Not to mention his next movie appearance with Supes is awkwardly subtitled Dawn of Justice, a not so subtle promise that they’ll kiss and make up by the end to form their own long overdue “Avengers-like” franchise.
Batman clearly sees the need for comrades. He has tons, and knows that having them around is strategically advantageous. In Justice League; Doom, he admits that he formed the JL so he could keep them in line if they went bad, and to keep him in line if he went bad. But he’s fickle, paranoid, and has a narcissistic tendency that kicks in from time to time that tells him he’s the only one who can solve a problem. Without going into spoiler territory, see how he treats pretty much every Robin in the Batman: Arkham Knight video game, (itself a pretty definitive take on the character).
Batman is moody and tends to change his mind a lot. He doesn’t go on every JL mission, but he’s clearly a crucial member of their team. Despite his physical weakness, he has a mind for strategy and detective skills that no other member of the team can match. I think what Batman means to say when he calls himself a “Part Timer” is that, despite his role in the club, he’ll do whatever the hell he pleases.
He is, after all, the goddamn Batman.
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