Film Fund-amentals: Sidesteps and Missed Connections

What connects Sylvester Stallone, Paranormal Activity 2 and a Swiss brand of condoms? Not much, since the Harry Popper condom brand is the one Hollywood-related item that seems to be actually making money. OK, the Swiss company claims that the name has nothing to do with Harry Potter, and they will keep making this claim until Warner gets them to stop.

The Harry Poppers (with a nice illustration of a boy wizard on the box – could be any boy wizard and lots of boy wizards wear those type of glasses) seem like a half-disreputable way to make a buck (though the concept does produce a lasting smirk). The other two items are mainly a reminder of how many sidesteps, missteps and major missed connections happen in the business.

The Italian Stallion’s production of The Expendables has been enjoying the position of the number one movie in America for two weeks in a row, not because it’s doing that well (basically, it isn’t) but because everything else is completely bombing. It’s sort of doing half-OK, but the dang movie is largely being propped up at this point by its European box office (which is running noticeably ahead of its American box office). So yes, it will kind of make a profit. But the effect is like watching two over-the-hill boxers stagger around the ring until one of them finally drops dead from exertion. At best, it’s a sideways slide to a modest victory.

Meanwhile, the impending release of Paranormal Activity 2 (release date of October 22 – just before Halloween, get it?) provides proof that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This sequel to last year’s surprise indie sensation is designed to be Paramount’s new approach to low-budget filmmaking. Unfortunately, they appear to still be missing a few turns on the learning curve.

OK, if Paramount really had a clue, they wouldn’t have done a sequel in the first place. The original Paranormal Activity was one of those unique event movies (like The Blair Witch Project) that really can’t be duplicated. Likewise, the budget for this movie (a mere $3 million) is already about 3,000 percent higher than the $11,000 budget of the original. Based on the current projected box office estimates (courtesy of, the sequel stands to do less than half the business of the first film (they are currently projecting an accumulated take of $58 million versus the original movie’s US gross of $108 million).

OK, so maybe Paramount is making more than a few bad turns on the learning curve. They may have missed the clue bus altogether.

The cost has gone up and the income has gone down. Way down. As for the radical new approaches to PR brilliantly pioneered by the first film – forget it. The sequel is following the basic worn-out model, and that is that.

I’m already thinking similar thoughts about the potential for the impending US remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Sure, the original Swedish version only made about $100 million in its US release (not bad for a foreign flick in this country), and undoubtedly the American redo will make more. But the original movie actually scored $110 million globally (not counting the US box office). It was a phenomenal hit, and it is highly unlikely that the remake is going to generate this kind of business anywhere outside the US.

Which also reminds me of the weirdly growing “trade gap” in worldwide box office. Basically, the US box office is going down. Almost everywhere else, it is seemingly going up. I say “seemingly” because declining ticket sales are common in many parts of Europe. Nonetheless, the actual box office income has risen (for example, the recent report on Germany), and the European box office has become both better and more important than the US box office. Nearly 50 percent of the income for Iron Man 2 was made overseas. Over 50 percent of the box office for Toy Story 3 is coming from way off shore.

This pattern is true for many other movies. The US box office just isn’t all that important anymore. Sure, most Hollywood movies are still made for teenage boys in Iowa, but they have to make their real profit from people across the rest of the planet. This is called “globalization.”

In theory, this suggests that Hollywood movies have achieved international dominance and have nothing to fear. In reality, it means the Hollywood system is heavily dependent on international tastes and must eventually accommodate the differences. In theory, the process of globalization has led to an Americanized mainstreaming of the world. But in truth, these cultural differences do not simply vanish, no matter how many McDonalds and KFCs there might be in Beijing (and despite the many ways Thomas Friedman tries to spin it).

What the effect of this will be is anyone’s guess. Despite America’s current state of global dominance, many Americans have trouble finding their own country on a map let alone finding anything else. American xenophobia has grown in an ironic parallel to American dominance, and many folks in the US have no knowledge or interest in learning anything about a bunch of durn foreigners. Heck, it’s a minor miracle that Pat Buchanan isn’t president.

Which suggests to me that this “box office imbalance” will eventually have some form of noticeable effect. What effect is anyone’s guess, but there is very little indication that Hollywood is even trying to make this connection. Through fear, ignorance or just plain cluelessness (and I’m betting on all three), they’re sticking to a business-as-usual model in the faint hope that everything will stay the same and nothing will rock their boat.

So despite the nasty legal issues, those Harry Poppers are starting to sound like a much better business proposition than movies. Besides, everybody just laughs when they see the box. Obviously, they make people happy. Once Warner shuts them down, the collectible value will be more than the net total of any of these movies. So you may want to buy a couple truck loads of these babies and then wait for the investment to pay back big time.