Film Fund-amentals: More Lessons From Failure

Sometime back, I suggested that one can learn more from a movie that has failed than from any ten flicks that were hits. At the time, I used the disastrous British opening of Motherhood as the prime example. But to be honest, that movie was kind of thrown out there in a haphazard experiment that was doomed to fail.

The movie Creature has achieved failure the old-fashioned way. Last weekend this movie had the single worse national release in box office history. It took in a mere $327,000 despite playing on 1,507 screens, averaging approximately $221 per screen, which roughly breaks down to about 28 viewers per screen during the whole weekend. By the end of its run (which may be this coming weekend), Creature will be lucky to hit the $500,000 mark. In fact, it may barely be able to reach the $400,000 mark.

This failure is most notable because Creature is a horror film, and normally horror movies will have an opening weekend of around $12 million to $30 million. Of course, after that opening weekend the bottom drops out of the market (normally), and it becomes a quick run to the DVD stand. But the first weekend is usually pretty OK within a certain predictable range. With this in mind, the failure of Creature is truly fascinating. It’s as if they worked extra hard at blowing it.

Since we like to pretend that we are indie movie financial hotshots (we even have a database), I thought it might be an interesting experiment to crunch the numbers through our system. Who knows, maybe something would pop up as a critical factor. At the very least, I could use the mental exercise with a software program that hasn’t been getting any major workouts lately.

So I did an initial crunching of the data on Creature and discovered that our own prediction for the US box office was $2,172,549. Not very good, but a heck of a lot better than what is happening. But the US box office figure isn’t the important one in our system. The real results are contained in the predicted revenue range, which for this flick is $50,011 to $4,440,819. The predicted box office is simply a basic average, but the revenue range is what will be most likely achieved by the film with the variations representing the different effects caused by certain other variables.

In the case of Creature, one of the important variables is the distributor. The movie was both produced and distributed by The Bubble Factory. Though the company has been around for 14 years, it has yet to produce a movie that has significantly scored at the box office. Until Creature, it had never previously tried distributing a movie on its own. Personally, I don’t think a struggling production company is in any position to move into distribution.

If Creature had been distributed through a larger and more established company, it most likely would have done slightly better. But only slightly. The database figures indicate an improvement of only a few percentage points. Besides, The Bubble Factory had managed to get this sucker into a lot of theaters, so they were getting a fair amount of the job done. Most likely the biggest problem was lack of publicity rather than distribution itself.

The relative inexperience of the movie’s director and certain key technical personnel didn’t matter. This part didn’t surprise me, since horror movies are traditionally a good starting point for many people, and inexperience isn’t necessarily a drawback. People have to start somewhere, and the horror genre is that somewhere. Likewise, the basic lack of any known names in the cast makes little difference. A better-known cast only resulted in an increase of a few percentage points. Besides, a better-known cast would have forced the producers to spend more than the $3 million that they used for producing the movie.

The issue of casting is one of the most illusory concepts in film production. People who invest in movies like to invest in stars. People who go to movies largely don’t care. Few of the so-called marketable stars have any real box office clout. Mostly, they sell magazine covers. The unimportance of the star is especially true in the case of horror movies. As long as the cast members can run and scream, they will do fine regardless of name recognition (or lack thereof).

The leading actor in Creature brings up another issue. Mehcad Brooks has some name recognition from his TV career. The filmmakers were especially banking on his role for one season on the cable series True Blood. Unfortunately, few people who do well on TV ever successfully make the leap into movies. George Clooney is a rarity. Most will never make it as far as Tom Selleck (and he’s back working on TV). This has little to do with the person’s merit as a performer. Heck, I like Tom Selleck on TV, but he comes off too flat on the big screen. It has to do with the strange nature of the movies.

Ironically, the $3 million budget was the one factor that made a noticeable difference in the database analysis. If Creature had been produced for $15 million, the projected revenue moved to a range of $269,899 to $24,413,736. Again, this is not a fantastic improvement, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what they got. Oddly enough, horror movies tend to play best when they have a production budget somewhere between $12 million and $15 million. Any significant amount either below or above this range is a problem. The minute a horror movie goes past the $18 million mark, forget it. Some might point out that Paranormal Activity did phenomena business and it was made for $15,000. But that movie wasn’t exactly a horror flick. It was an indie event and had a very different audience from the average horror film.

I hate to say it, but they didn’t spend enough on this sucker. By the way, don’t ask why that would make a difference. Even with a database, there are many areas in the film business that defy rational explanation.