Back to Basics

It’s always the same set of questions. Is there any way to tell if a movie is going to be good? How can we tell if a film will be successful at the box office? How can we tell if a movie is worth investing in? By the way, are my pants even on right?

To be honest, the answers to these questions are all quite simple. We can’t. Don’t know. Who knows. And by the way, what kind of pants do you have that could some how go on wrong?

No one knows what it takes to make a good film, especially in the pre-production stage. Heck, much of what made Citizen Kane an important classic is its unique combination of time, place, and visual sensibility. The same is true of virtually every significant film in the history of cinema. These are all pretty elusive factors.

Box office success is a mysterious thing as well. Currently a modest action-comedy called Ride Along has made close to $100 million and has shot way past its break even mark. Meanwhile, a major franchise flick like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has made just over $100 million and is still short of its break even point. Jack Ryan is performing as well as could be expected. Ride Along is beyond any form of expectation. It is all a reminder that the box office is made by audience desire.

What films should potential investors put their money into? Based upon the current logic of the system, I would be tempted to tell potential investors to simply flush their cash down the toilet. Then they will have the giddy fun of watching the greenbacks swirl around for a few seconds. This process can be more emotionally moving than many films.

Does it have to be this way? Of course not. But you have to stop asking all of the wrong questions.

You may not be able to guess what will make a movie good, and especially not the things that will make it great. But what you need to focus on are all of the elements that can make a film really bad. Greatness is often hard to define, but bad is often quite painfully obvious.

No one can tell if a film will be a box office success. But more often than not, we can predict if it will financially function at a core level that has reasonable possibilities. Yes, that can be predicted. The usual mistake made by people when they think about the use of metric measurement in predicting a film’s box office is the fallacy that such systems would be used to predict the film’s actual box office. This is not the point. The method is designed to allow you to chart the core- and most fundamentally low ranges of the movie’s possibilities.

In many regards, the use of data-driven performance measurement systems is a guide to how little it will make: the base figures, not the high figures. You cannot measure the unknowable. But you sure as hell can measure and chart the core figures and data involved in film financial management. It is a means for discovering a series of benchmarks that will tell you what you need to know, not what you wish to hear.

The real question is not in the measurement. It is in the analysis. Well, that, and also the parameters used for the measurement. Of course, to identify the right parameters, you have to determine what elements of the process are quantifiable; and to do that, you need to sort the tangibles from the intangibles; and so on. There are still a few folks who feel the entire film-making process is an intangible. Privately, I view such thinking with the same wistfulness that I have when reading the current proceedings of the Flat Earth Society.

Since various people have begun working on various versions of this measurement process, there is actually a mounting body of hard core evidence to support the theory.  An increasing number of filmmakers and companies are adapting to different but similar approaches along these lines. Some approaches are better than others. A few may really be mostly a mix of smoke and mirrors. Some are actually quite useful.

Over the next several weeks, I will be seeking out ideas and impressions from a selected group of other professionals and see what they think about various aspects of such processes in relation to the current issues in indie film financing. Maybe it will start a dialogue. Maybe not. But what the heck. It might be an eye-opener.

Either way, it might finally put to rest the often quoted (and largely misunderstood) remark by William Goldman that “Nobody knows anything.”