Film Fund-amentals: They’re Out of Their League

A few weeks ago, asked me what makes a film a “sleeper.” I think I gave them a decent enough answer. In truth, how the heck would I know? If I had that sort of psychic power, I would right now be in Vegas cleaning up at the tables.

By its very nature, a “sleeper” is always unpredictable. These surprise movie hits achieve their success by something closely related to the Jungian concept of synchronicity. Somehow, some way, they tap into the audience’s subconscious. At their best, they hitch a glorious ride on the Zeitgeist and become an emotional marker for their point in time. You can’t predict them. They simply happen.

I once knew a guy who used to work in movies in New York back in the 1960s. He was approached by a young actor who wanted him to invest in a film. The actor was notorious for his “personal” spending habits (mostly women, a little gambling, etc.), and this guy wasn’t convinced that the whole thing was legit. Besides, who wanted to see a movie about a couple of Depression-era bank robbers, so he told Warren Beatty to kiss off. Besides, Bonnie and Clyde was a dorky title.

So much for predicting “sleepers.”

The best that a filmmaker can do is to simply make a movie that can operate within a budget structure that can withstand failure. Case in point is the recent movie She’s Out of My League, which was the film was interviewing me about. Some advance word for the film was positive (or at least seemed positive), and there was a faint hint that something might just click with the audience.

Then again, maybe not. It opened this past weekend a minor number three on the gross list — a very weak number three. For a small film that wouldn’t be all that bad, but I can tell right now that the picture is just going to get worse. It has been largely panned by the critics, which isn’t exactly a major problem. But the general audience response has been tepid (like, maybe it’s OK to see if you couldn’t get tickets to Alice in Wonderland or something). So it’s not going to have much word of mouth to work from, and a “sleeper” needs word of mouth.

But more importantly, it’s too expensive for its own good. At the time I was interviewed by Boxoffice, I did a quick and dirty crunching of the numbers. At the time, I didn’t have the budget figure, so I did a bracket. The base income projection for the movie was around $20 to $30 million. If the movie was made for a modest $10 million, then it should do OK. “Sleeper” or not, it would actually make some money. On the other hand, if they did something really stupid, like spend $20 million on the film, then forget about it.

Guess which way the budget went? Granted, $20 million isn’t exactly a lot in today’s weird movie market, but every other element of the production indicted that $10 million was the optimal figure ($15 million tops). Forget the publicity. Screw all of the advance screenings. The first crucial issue is always the budget, and $10 million was the ideal target. As I played with the numbers, it became obvious that increasing the budget wasn’t about to increase the revenue. Sometimes, spending more means making less.

As far as She’s Out of My League is concerned, it will probably break even by the time it gets released on DVD (which will be sooner rather than later). No great loss, one way or the other. There will be two dozen similar films coming out, and at least one of them will do well enough to result in another couple dozen getting made.

But what may be most interesting about the lackluster release of She’s Out of My League is the overt failure of the particular mix-and-match advance publicity campaign used for the movie. Paramount and DreamWorks spent an exorbitant amount of money attempting to emulate the extremely successful off-beat campaign that Paramount engineered last year for Paranormal Activity. They did the Facebook Web page bit (though Facebook these days has more commercial pages than a NASCAR driver has logos). They did an assortment of advance screenings in selected markets. They tried, really really tried, to stir up a word of mouth campaign.

Too bad word of mouth campaigns depend on getting the audience excited. Basically, no one was getting particularly excited about this movie. Granted, many people thought the preview trailer was kind of funny (and many of these folks still feel the trailer is funnier than the film). But “kind of” isn’t exactly the same as “excitement.”

Which gets us to the real concern behind this failure. Paramount has just announced the formation of Insurge Pictures, their new set-up for making low-budget indie films. A lot of the idea behind Insurge is to follow up on the strong success of Paranormal Activity. Hopefully, this will work. But Paramount (with great assistance from DreamWorks) has just made every mistake in the book. Unfortunately, this is the consistent history of major Hollywood studios when they get involved with indie productions. They always end up making the movies for too much, releasing them too fast and too wide with bogus word of mouth campaigns and absolutely no sense of the audience.

So the possible success or failure of She’s Out of My League is trivial. The real question is Paramount. Are they out of their league? The first test will be how much real leeway they give Insurge in developing alternative structures for indie movies. To be honest, this is the moment when the executives at Paramount should just butt out and let some people who know what they’re doing get to work.