The Box Office: Five Lessons of the Fall
Be smart, adult — or cheap
Fall is the Rodney Dangerfield of box-office seasons.
For too long, it has been short on respect from film distributors, who traditionally use it as a dumping ground for lesser movies. But theater operators have pushed for more quality in seasonal slates, and an accelerated Oscar schedule has encouraged studios to launch a fair number of prestige titles, mixing colorful film foliage among the drabber fall fare.
Sony launched pedigreed drama The Social Network on Oct. 1 in hopes that the leggy critical darling would continue to play well into kudos season. But the old fall mentality still prevails — and, like falling leaves, plenty of forgettable titles have been brushed aside.
So what are the lessons to be learned?
1: Don't skimp on the scripts.
The breakout success of smartly written heist actioner The Town, with more than $87.6 million in domestic take, and Network ($79.7 million) demonstrate anew a timeless truth: Story matters. Even the modestly budgeted high school comedy Easy A, which has taken in $56.3 million domestically, owes a debt of gratitude to a witty script that helped broaden appeal to demographics beyond its youthful base.
2: Older people move more slowly.
Films targeting older audiences never will open like more youth-oriented pics. To wit: Disney’s Secretariat never was a nag. After a so-so $12.7 million start, it has demonstrated staying power because more, ahem, mature moviegoers often take awhile to find a new release. That’s why Clint Eastwood’s go-to studio, Warner Bros., won’t panic if Hereafter takes another weekend or two to prove whether it, too, is a long-distance runner. When they work, older-skewing pics run marathons, not sprints.
3: Not all 3D animation is created equal.
The summer’s Toy Story 3 and fall’s Alpha and Omega represent polar opposites commercially and creatively. The Disney/Pixar threequel has rung up $414 million domestically and $1.06 billion worldwide; the latter, revolving around a couple of young wolves, has collected $24 million in U.S. and Canadian coin and only $7.4 million in foreign grosses. At $20 million, Alpha cost maybe a fifth as much to produce, but Toy 3 rang up 34 times as much in global coin. (See Lesson No. 1.)
4: Titles matter.
Executives deny that Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, based on a book series, was meant to be a franchise starter for Warners. But while the studio tried reaching wider audiences with a new moniker, it awkwardly held on to the tongue-twisting “Ga’Hoole.”
Similarly puzzling, Paramount Vantage waited nearly four years to unspool the Renee Zellweger starrer Case 39, supposedly to give co-star Bradley Cooper time to catch hold as a marquee name. If only it had done something with the movie’s all-too-generic name.
5: It doesn't always take money to make money.
Just ask Paramount. Its Jackass 3D and Paranormal Activity 2 have rung up a combined $167.3 million domestically. A loyal fan base for MTV’s Jackass helped the dangerous-pranks series make the leap to the big screen in 2002, and though core support have grown steadily with its sequels, production costs did not. The prequel to last year’s microbudgeted Paranormal Activity also held the line on costs. Saw 3D, even though it’s the most expensive production in the franchise, cost less than $20 million. So with its $24.2 million opening, the sadistic outing is on its way to earning back the cost of its torture tools.