Why Do Studios Let Great Movies Die?

Published 8 years ago by , Updated February 9th, 2012 at 9:47 pm,

box office Why Do Studios Let Great Movies Die?The 2007 Toronto International Film Festival ended recently and the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is just around the corner, and these have gotten me thinking (uh oh!).

I’ve been thinking about why it is that some movies that are so mediocre go on to earn hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office while other films that are just as good (and quite often far better) end up unseen not talked about. While I enjoy a good popcorn movie as much as the next guy, I do tend to hold even action and sci-fi movies to a higher standard than the average 14 year old.

So I find it extremely frustrating when movies that seem to be mediocre or worse make incredible amounts of money and give some directors credibility and the opportunity to pump out more schlock, while other movies that are better go on to make almost nothing and those directors continue to have to fight to get movies made.

Let’s look at some examples from the last 10 years or so…

Most recently we had the mega-monster hits Spider-man 3 and Transformers. Each of these has grossed over $300 million so far at the box office. Now I’ll grant you that these are well known names – Spider-man 3 having a built in audience from the first two films, but Transformers? Sure, there’s the nostalgia factor there, but I guarantee you that most of the people buying tickets didn’t buy them due to nostalgia from their childhoods. It was due to an insane amount of marketing by Paramount/Dreamworks.

Now I realize that although I didn’t like it much, on average it received ok reviews with the average being around stars (BTW, when I refer to average reviews here I’m not just taking movie critics into account, but also regular folks who vote at IMDB.com). Most people seem to have enjoyed it as just a fun rollercoaster ride of a movie. On the other hand a lot of folks thought that Spidey 3 was very weak, especially compared to the first two, but again, it became a “must see” event due to the studios merciless pummeling of our senses via advertising.

Unfortunately not only pretty good movies get monster marketing campaigns to promote them and therefore end up making some decent coin for the studios. As evidence I present to you: Norbit. This was Eddie Murphy in a fat suit as well as in multiple roles. It went on to make over $95 million despite the fact that the average review for it was stars. Great word of mouth? I don’t think so. Tons of marketing effort? I’d have to say: yeah.

Compare that to say, the action-packed, crazy and fun Shoot ‘em Up, which despite the average rating of only made just over $12 million, or the oh-so-excellent () Serenity which only made it to about $25 million.

Were these films better than Norbit? More entertaining for the average movie viewer? Of course they were.

So why didn’t the studios put as much marketing muscle behind movies that probably would have done better with a bigger push? Better movie = better word of mouth, but you have to get enough people to lay eyeballs on it in the first place in order to talk about it.

Here’s a table listing a cross-section of blockbusters along with smaller films that I think would have a wide appeal if people had actually ever heard of them. Some of them did relatively well despite lousy or not enough marketing just because they were so good. Included is an upcoming movie that I think will suffer due to almost complete lack of marketing: The Signal.

Average Review
Box Office
Weeks in Release
Spider-man 3
The Iron Giant
Dark City
Shoot ‘em Up
Zero Effect
The Signal (not released yet)

Have you even heard of some of these films? And notice how the number of theaters and weeks in release drops despite the fact that all the films lower on the list are considered better than the movies up at the top. The fantastic animated film The Iron Giant went on to make a ton in DVD sales due to word of mouth. Sure Slither was kind of a niche film being a horror comedy, but look at how well the stupid Scary Movie series did. Fido is a zombie comedy starring Carrie-Anne Moss (from The Matrix trilogy) and Billy Connolly. It was ridiculously good but I’m betting that you’ve probably never even heard of it. Of course who can blame you, when it was only released at 67 theaters!!

Other great ones worth checking out are Dark City, a cool film noir sci-fi movie that stars (are you ready?) Keifer Sutherland, William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly and The Zero Effect, an offbeat detective comedy that was great and included Ben Stiller and Bill Pullman in the cast. Oh, and let’s not forget Idiocracy: a bizarre, funny and scathing commentary on the average American’s disinterest in the world in general and how things work. Whose movie is that? Only Mike Judge, the guy who brought us Office Space and the animated series Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill.

The other odd thing is that most of the movies that are in the lower half of the list cost a fraction of what the movies at the top did. You’d think the studios would look at these lower cost films as having far more upside in regards to return on each dollar invested. Ok, sure if a movie cost $100 million and makes $300MM that’s $200MM profit. But they’re spending $1 to earn $3. With the smaller films they don’t have to put as much money at risk and $1 could return $6 or even more, and they could put more of them out.

I don’t know, it just chaps me to see crappy movies do so well while movies that are just as much fun and entertaining fall by the wayside.

Thanks to The Movie Blog, Box Office Prophets, IMDB and Box Office Mojo for reference material and ideas.

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  1. Great article, Vic! I’m hoping that we see some improvements in the movie making dept. But this year, more than any other, it seems, studios relied on the domestic AND the international box office. That really came into dominance this year.

    I hope to see more articles like this in the future!


  2. Dammit,he’s smart! Excellent piece,my friend.

    Just FYI,I have heard of Fido.

  3. The reason is likely because the people who hold the purse strings for such things have little or no experience in making any kind of art.

    A successful artist must be a savvy businessman as well (the best examples of this I can think of are the gurus over at Pixar), but a businessman with no experience in the artistic process/industry or with no eye for art will instead rely on focus groups and meaningless statistics to make decisions. Such is the type that expects art to be made as regularly and predictably as a Milky Way bar. Unfortunately, this is no way to make good artistic decisions. It’s far too organic and iterative a process to make it predictable, so they impose predictability on the process.

    Rhetorical question: Which type of businessman do you think runs most Hollywood studios?

    The difference between them can be best illustrated by Pixar’s “We make money to make more movies” while practically everyone else does the reverse, and it shows.

  4. On the other hand, the reason the studios tend not to finance more of the stuff you listed on the better quality side, is that many of those must have contained an element that was deemed too risky for making its money back.

    They can poll the small subset of people who saw Daddy Day Care and liked it, and roughly predict how many people are likely to see Daddy Day Camp. If that number is enough to cover the meager expense of making it, while making a few extra bucks, it gets made.

    Dark City, Idiocracy, and Zero Effect represent the risk of the unknown, as it’s unclear exactly how much they should expect in return, and like most businesses, risk is the ultimate four letter word. This same problem plagues the funny papers, where Blondie and Dagwood have seen so many generations pass, they should be fossilized by now. They’re there not because of public outcry for keeping them, but because by dropping it they’d have to put something new and untested in it’s place (which is downright silly when you think about it. When was the last time the lack of a certain comic keep you from buying the paper?) In some ways, technology is proving to be the answer in the comic strip world. Many syndicates are starting to pick up comics once only offered directly by their creators through the internet.

    Technology could also save these films as well, with broadband internet continuing to advance to cite just one source of change.

  5. Jersey, I understand what you’re saying about the unknown, but that begs the question: Why did they fork out the money and resources to make them in the first place? If a studio is so unsure about a film, I would think they wouldn’t even bother to produce it at all.

    Spending money getting it made and then essentially burying it seems illogical to me.


  6. I actually thoroughly enjoyed Transformers to the max. I even went back to see it twice more in theaters. It takes alot in a movie to give me chills and i had chills throughout the entire movie.

    I guess for me I was such a little kid watching transformers that it was just so awesome to see it come to life.

    I still dont see why you didnt like it. But i guess we all have different taste.

    As for me, i cant wait for the next one to come out. and hopefully its not a bummer like spidey 3 was.

  7. Well look at it like personal investments. You put a certain amount of money in safe instruments , some in moderate risk instruments, and a little in risky instruments. In any given year you cover all the bases. After so many years of making and distributing films they know a certain percentage suceed or fail despite quality.

  8. I wonder sometimes if the same person that greenlites a project doesn’t have to turn around and sell it to their advertising department. With “Norbit” I bet it was easy… Hey it’s just like “The Nutty Professor II” 44% of those rating it gave it 3 stars we’ve got Mr. Murphy acting and writing. He’s had 13 movies that have grossed 100 Mil. It’ll have recognition because of Mr. Murphy ect. ect.