Hollywood’s habit of prioritizing franchise reboots, remakes, sequels, and/or big screen adaptations of lucrative IPs from other mediums (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) over original content is something that movie buffs seem to decry on a daily basis. Yet, there’s a reason that big studios keep going back to the same wells, over and over. In 2014, for example, only two of the top twenty-five films at the worldwide box office were non-sequels/remakes not based on any pre-established material (Interstellar and Lucy) – though, depending on how you look at it, The LEGO Movie also counts.
Tomorrowland, like The LEGO Movie, is technically an original feature film, in that it’s a fine example of synergy (being partly inspired by the Disney theme park attraction of the same name); yet because the original IP doesn’t actually have a strictly defined plot, Tomorrowland story writers Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof were free to develop their own premise and mythology for the movie. However, for the time being, it doesn’t look as though the Brad Bird-helmed tentpole is going to be another Pirates of the Caribbean success for the Walt Disney company.
Bird’s $190 million-budgeted Tomorrowland has a softer than expected opening weekend at the U.S. box office over Memorial Day weekend 2015, where it took in just under $42 million. That’s a better turnout than the openings for John Carter and The Lone Ranger – the Mouse House’s infamous financial duds from 2012 and 2013 (respectively); yet already, Tomorrowland has restarted the conversation about Hollywood’s “originality problem,” as Variety calls it. For case in point, read Disney’s distribution chief Dave Hollis’ statement about Tomorrowland and its box office prospects:
“‘Tomorrowland’ is an original movie and that’s more of a challenge in this marketplace. We feel it’s incredibly important for us as a company and as an industry to keep telling original stories.”
Question is, are original Hollywood movies really that much more of a challenge to sell in today’s film market? Or is that something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a result of how major studios approach such projects?
Tomorrowland may be a non-sequel, but it did have its connection to Disney’s theme parks to bring it attention. Similarly, the film’s U.S. marketing leaned heavily on George Clooney’s involvement (even though he shares protagonist duties with Britt Robertson) and Bird being the same guy who directed The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, as selling points. Yet, the film’s trailers and commercials were often criticized for being too low-key when it came to making Tomorrowland look like a must-see blockbuster. So, when the mixed reviews started trickling in almost a week ahead of its release, that certainly didn’t help to win over moviegoers who were on the bubble about whether or not to give Bird’s new feature film a shot.
Compare that to what happened with Mad Max: Fury Road, which arrived a week before Tomorrowland. The Mad Max brand has cult appeal, but there’s a whole generation of younger filmgoers who’d never even heard of George Miller’s previous installments in the series before Fury Road (even a fair number of older moviegoers were only vaguely familiar with the franchise, for that matter). In that context, the promise of a return to the Mad Max film universe might’ve not sounded any more interesting than a Tomorrowland movie directed by Bird, to a lot of people.
Yet, the combination of a strong marketing campaign and fantastic early word of mouth propelled Fury Road to an opening weekend slightly higher than Tomorrowland‘s. Now Miller’s $150 million “gamble” has already made back its budget at the worldwide box office (and then some), while Bird’s movie may struggle a bit to do likewise over the next couple weeks (especially once Jurassic World hits theaters).
Fury Road had a stronger marketing campaign – one that started well before Tomorrowland‘s did (with its 2014 International Comic-Con panel) – and got a better reception, yet it might well have benefited less from brand recognition than Tomorrowland did. Similarly, Fury Road leads Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron aren’t so much the big draws that Clooney is; in Variety‘s report it’s noted that adults made up 61% of the film’s opening weekend crowd, maybe in part because the trailers tended to be heavy on Clooney. However, that might’ve cost the film the teen audience it needed to really thrive.
Ironically, the characters played by Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy in Tomorrowland have received much in the way of praise from critics, so it’s not as though the movie couldn’t have been sold on its merits as a fun adventure featuring two young female heroes – with Clooney’s cantankerous inventor included to sweeten the deal – to help draw in a larger audience. After all, Gravity (an original feature) is easily Clooney’s biggest box office success to date, but the marketing for that Oscar-winning motion picture emphasized Sandra Bullock’s protagonist and the 3D filmmaking over Clooney’s involvement.
Point being, a miscalculated marketing angle to Tomorrowland might’ve affected its box office turnout more than it being a non-sequel/reboot. The Mouse House has also been criticized in recent years for how it went about selling other non-remakes/sequels such as John Carter (itself, a somewhat loose adaptation of the Carter source novels). It’s not just the Walt Disney company, either. Warner Bros., for example, didn’t exactly earn high praises for how it went about generating interest in the Wachowskis’ expensive (and original) space opera Jupiter Ascending, perhaps contributing to the film’s not-so-stellar opening weekend.
It’s worth noting that a number of original studio movies released in 2015 so far (Jupiter Ascending, Tomorrowland) haven’t exactly gotten high marks from critics; the same goes for something like John Carter, which earned a fairly lukewarm reception overall. It’s not as though Hollywood studios haven’t been able to put together great marketing campaigns for so-so films in the past, so the problem isn’t simply that studio heads have been guilty of throwing too much money at mediocre original ideas and concepts (though that is certainly also a concern).
Analyst Paul Dergarabedian notes in Variety’s report that “The industry needs to examine and strategize how they create new franchises out of whole cloth.” It does feel as though a more collective overhaul of strategy is needed, going beyond just watching “budget limits” on these original ventures. That includes, studios finding ways to better work alongside storytellers on creating new properties – not going overboard on restricting their creative freedom, but not spending more money as a means to solve any/all problems that arise, either.
So, are original Hollywood movies really that difficult of a sell? Well, not if the studios marketing them take the time and figure out what the best foot is to put forward. Basically, sometimes a sequel or remake/reboot can overcome lackluster trailers based on the strength of its brand – or, in the case of companies like Pixar Animation Studios and Marvel Studios, their track record. It feels like it should go without saying that you cannot necessarily get away with that so much with an original feature film, but… well, there it is.
Naturally, moviegoers are ultimately going to be the ones responsible for voting with their money, when it comes to encouraging Hollywood to not just produce more original material, but good quality cinematic art at that. Still, if studios don’t do a good job of convincing people that their new films are worth a look, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they under-perform. There aren’t that many people who are willing to pay the full price of admission for an original film on principle, after all.
Tomorrowland is now playing in theaters.