Film Fund-amentals: Where the Box Office Goes

There is no real way of determining a movie’s box office. At least not in some kind of 100 percent, absolute manner. At best, the market is fickle and the audience has a constitutional right not to buy tickets to your movie. And it is a right that the public is exercising with increasing vigor.

However, there are ways of making reasonable estimates. Or at least there used to be ways. The film market is changing and no one has a clue about what these changes portend. That’s one of the reasons why Hollywood has gone turtle, sticking its head deep into a thick shell of reboots, redos, sequels, and comic book flicks. It isn’t doing them much good, but they’re scared out of their skivvies to try anything different.

One example of these changes is the horror genre. Horror has always been a low-brow but solid market. All you had to do was to keep the budget low and the body count high, get yourself a few weeks of quick play at the theaters and then hit the DVD market. By the end of the day, you had a tidy profit — not great, but tidy. If you were really lucky, you might even hit a goldmine.

That is what happened to Wes Craven back in 1996 when he directed the first Scream. Made for a modest $15 million, the original scored a solid $103 million in its US run. The inevitable Scream 2 dropped slightly to $101.3 million domestic, which is still pretty darn good. By the time Craven rolled around to Scream 3, the budget had floated to $40 million and the return had dropped to $89.1 million (domestic). However, the foreign returns were matching the US box office. So business was still pretty good.

But last weekend’s opening of Scream 4 had the lowest return ever seen by the series ($18.7 million) and will likely stumble its way to oblivion faster than a horny teenager in a slasher flick. Ironically, the internet horror genre maestro Drew Daywalt did an interview just last week with Salon that summed up many of the reasons why this would happen. Since Craven has always been the intellectual of the horror genre, I suspect he is studying this interview very carefully.

But it also reminds me of something else. At the CyberCollege Internet Campus web site, there’s a page entitled Appealing to the Box Office. In the section marked “Being Just Ahead of the Curve,” they have a graphic illustration outlining the direction of change in box office preference within the movie-going population. Though they don’t do a very good job of supplying the necessary backup material in support of this graph (for example, how were some of the figures derived?), I know from some of the research we’ve done that this graph is reasonably accurate. What it strongly suggests is that a major component of box office success is being able to achieve a certain degree of freshness in the material (something just radically different enough to be…well, different, but not so radical as to be too abstract). This becomes the Target Area for Content (the big green box on the graph).

The original Scream was a perfect example of a movie finding its way into this zone. Two years earlier, Craven had directed Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a film that turned Freddy Krueger into a Godardian experiment. The audience was largely left baffled and confused, and it barely raked in $18 million during its brief run. In many respects, Scream was the same idea but done with more humor, irony and youthful hipness. It didn’t lecture the audience, it played games with them.

But the idea is now old. Both the audience and the surrounding pop culture have thoroughly digested the concept. Or as Daywalt notes in the Salon interview: “Nothing new, and that’s always a bad sign.” The Green Zone in the Direction of Change graph demands a freshness in concept that the number 4 in the title denies.

Now, let’s look at the other end of the graph. As you move from the Leading Edge audience toward the Ultra-Conservative audience, you’re actually moving through the peak in the graph’s curve. This represents what is largely an older, more traditionalist audience. It’s an audience that is not necessarily looking for “edgy.” God help us, it’s an audience that is actually looking for “uplift” rather than “irony.”

This is the audience that made The Blind Side a huge hit. A few years earlier, they did the same for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The graph presents this part of the audience as covering a range from Ultra- Conservative to Moderate Conservative (though I wouldn’t take the political divisions too seriously, especially without a more detailed breakdown of the sociological basis). From a movie perspective, they could be best described as an audience more accustomed to David Lean than David Lynch.

It is within this part of the graph that you have the recent rise of the “faith-based” movie. For decades, the so-called Christian film industry was a minor (and largely unknown) sidebar to American educational films (though during the 1960s, it was actually a sidebar to the soft-core porn industry — an odd fact discovered by Paul Schrader when he was in the seminary). But during the past decade, things began to radically change. Aside from the recent adaptations of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and the major success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, an increasing number of other productions are emerging from various levels of social/religious engagement.

Soul Surfer is the latest entry in the faith-based competition, and during its initial run has produced a slow but steady box office. What does this mean for the future? Who knows. After all, Hangover Part II will undoubtedly do better than all of the current faith-based movies combined.

But this is a indicator of something changing at some level. So it’s an important FYI to keep in mind.