Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summer Does Not Belong to You

So, did anyone else notice American audiences became irrelevant this summer?

Let me show you what I mean. Here are the top ten opening weekend US totals for 2014 so far. These are pulled from Box Office Mojo, by the way.

Transformers: Age of Extinction $100,038,390
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $95,023,721
Guardians of the Galaxy $94,320,883
Godzilla $93,188,384
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $91,608,337
X-Men: Days of Future Past $90,823,660
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes $72,611,427
Maleficent $69,431,298
The LEGO Movie $69,050,279
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles $65,575,105

Six movies opened between 90 and 100 million (well, rounding Transformers to the nearest 100K), and nothing got more than that. While ten million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, it's not really a significant difference, particularly with something like movie receipts. A 10% difference could have more to do with the weather than actual audience preference.

There's obviously a second tier in the 65 to 75 million range, and if we kept going, we see more tiers. I should probably add that there's almost certainly also a top tier missing from 2014 due to the lack of any major event movies (at least so far - it'll be interesting to see how Mockingjay does this fall).

What we can take away from this is that big-budget movies are now more or less now guaranteed to make a certain amount of money in the US, and that amount is mainly determined by the tier they fall into.

Obviously, getting a movie into the highest tier possible is important, but I don't think studios have all that much control over that, at least not after they've greenlit a project. Sure, several of the movies in the 90-100 range were well received, but a 90% Freshness rating wasn't enough to push Dawn of the Planet of the Apes into the top tier, and Transformers's 18% didn't stop it from having the highest opening weekend of the summer.

The main factor that separates the top six from the bottom four (and pretty much everything else) seems to be brand. Four of the six are Marvel Comics properties, another is the most famous monster in the world, and the last is Transformers. These are hot brands with built in fan bases and widespread interest. Like it or not, that seems to trump quality.

But it doesn't actually equal success. The highest movie with the highest US opening of the year is, based on domestic returns alone, a monumental failure. Transformers 4 has made a little less than $250 million in this country (it's on track to fall behind Guardians soon). While that sounds like a lot, keep in mind its budget (according to imdb) was 210 million, plus whatever they spent on marketing. The studio's half of that $250 million suddenly sounds like a lot less.

In fact, it starts sounding like a net loss. Until we add in the $811 million it's made internationally. And, of course, the largest international market is China. Here are the top 4 highest grossing US films in China this year, along with their current totals:

Transformers: Age of Extinction $301,000,000
X-Men: Days of Future Past $116,490,000
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $115,620,000
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $94,430,000

Keep in mind several top US movies haven't opened there yet. Also, several of these movies are still open (and obviously haven't all been open for the same amount of time).

However, Transformers has still made more money in China than in the US. Also, it's made significantly more than X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man (all of which opened in China before Transformers).

While the differences between these movie's grosses in the US have been relatively minor (with the exception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which just opened, the ten movies listed earlier have all made between $200 and $260 million domestically), the differences in China are momentous - there's more than $200 million separating Transformers from Spider-Man.

The fact that appealing to Chinese audiences is important certainly isn't news. What we've learned this year is that you really don't need to worry about the US audience. If your goal is to make money, the evidence suggests you're far better off investing time and effort into making your film more palatable to a Chinese audience than worrying about Americans. Our behavior controlling whether or not we see a movie is driven largely by the franchise; China's is driven by content (specifically content featuring their country).

In short, it no longer matters what your age, race, or gender is: if you are American, you are no longer the target demographic for film producers. Unless you move to China.

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