HOW TO AVOID MAKING A FLOP FILM
POOR Josh Trank. POOR Twentieth Century Fox (actually; scrap that: they are many things; ‘poor’ aint one!). But nobody likes to be branded a ‘flop’. Sadly, and somewhat predictably it seems, FANTASTIC FOUR has been deemed just that: a ‘flop’. Notice what I did there? I said ‘predictably’.
Now, by my initial estimations, a ‘flop’ that is seen coming is not a true flop as part of the connotation surely is shock and surprise? The film ‘under-performed’. As in: we had expectations and those were not met. We did not go in and TRY to deliberately make a failing film (cf Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS).
In today’s world, especially c/o the Internet, a movie potentially has faced its judge, jury and box office / critic axis of executioners before even nearing the movie theater. That’s what happened with FANTASTIC FOUR. Sure, the movie is quite flawed. But even if it were BRILLIANT and its fortunes redeemable via word of mouth, one gets the feeling that it was DEFINED as a failure BEFORE its release.
That SHOULD be a bad thing: something to worry about. You invest time, money and talent in a film, only to have it damaged without a fair hearing. Alternatively, it is a positive progression. Because we can now PREDICT when a movie will flop. In the wrong hands of course, that simply means that ones’ rivals can sabotage a product pre-release. Equally though, it enables studios and film-makers to identify and thereby avoid specific pitfalls that define the ‘flop’.
So, where the box office disaster used to be a shock / surprise, film history is now so developed to the extent of almost exact science that one can actively build in defence mechanisms against future humiliation. I give you: THE closest thing to a failsafe system / formula for how to avoid making a Box Office disappointment.
- DON’T REBOOT TOO QUICKLY
Don’t get me wrong. The 2005 -7 FANTASTIC FOUR films were no masterpieces. But neither were they total disasters. One could argue that if anything, what was required, was simply a FASTER delivery of a BETTER third film in THAT same franchise. Yes, Chris Evans would need a re-cast as Human Torch (something about his being busy playing another super-hero?). And tone would have been tweaked. But visually and in terms of basically capturing the comic book source? They did not NEED a radical overhaul. It made Josh Trank’s reboot redundant in some senses. There was little if any call for such a venture.
See also: Marc Webb’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: we neither wanted nor needed yet ANOTHER origin story barely a decade after the Sam Raimi take on the character, thereby rendering its 2014 sequel a muddled mess. Note that the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe version is unlikely to bother with an origin story, save a possible re-cap / flashback.
- WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Quite a lot, as it happens. NEVER EVER title your movie after the eponymous hero unless it is an established brand and even then, try and avoid if possible.
HUDSON HAWK? JACK RYAN? JOHN CARTER? They failed in part because the titles were obscure and lacked punch. Now, had it been the initial JOHN CARTER OF MARS? Well it might even have been a hit and we’d now be talking sequels, rather than having the title exist as a synonym for film failures.
Equally, don’t be afraid of using a tag-line AS your title. Tom Cruise’s 2014 movie EDGE OF TOMORROW was re-invented on DVD/Blu-Ray/Download as LIVE.DIE.REPEAT. One could argue that its initial title (ALL YOU NEED IS KILL) was even more catchy and radical and just might have enabled a stronger box office performance from what was a perfectly enjoyable and inventive film.
- TIMING IS EVERYTHING
If you leave it TOO long to make a sequel then you lose the momentum that made said sequel desired by the fans of the originals. You also lose the creative verve and urgent drive that made your initial efforts so good. Of course, the movie WILL still make money, but ‘flop’ remember is NOT just about numbers: it’s also about your critical legacy and respect.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, THE PHANTOM MENACE, GODFATHER PART THREE, TRON LEGACY, PROMETHEUS and a few other offenders will always be perceived as ‘failures’ in part because the sheer weight of expectation attached to the efforts from fans could never have been matched by whatever the creative team had left in them to offer. If you wait beyond a decade to deliver that sequel, then perhaps have a think about whether to go there at all. Or just make it VERY good and thereby WORTH said wait!
Equally, if you RACE a sequel out of the production house whilst tills are still ringing for its predecessor, yet you DON’T have ready-made scripts / stories on which to base the material..expect trouble. BATMAN FOREVER is NOT half as bad as people make out. It was a MASSIVE hit, in fact and scored a record breaking $50 million opening weekend. But that catalysed Warner Bros’ disastrous decision to fast-track another sequel. We got: BATMAN AND ROBIN. And it was a mess, failing both critically and commercially. Chris Nolan was right to wait a minimum 3-4 years between his DARK KNIGHT episodes.
But even if you get the year count between pictures just right: be VERY careful about WHEN you release! STAR TREK: NEMESIS is simply a bad film (Tom Hardy appearance aside: rips off WRATH OF KHAN; neglects the little thing called ‘charm’) but could arguably have done better business had it not been released opposite LORD OF THE RINGS, HARRY POTTER and JAMES BOND. TRY and secure a release that gives you a clear 2-3 week shot at dominance in the market.
Notice that MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION was pushed FORWARDS to this summer, thereby sensibly exploiting the relative slump in competition this season, whilst avoiding the inevitable box office bloodbath that would ensue had it faced STAR WARS, SPECTRE and HUNGER GAMES this Fall /Christmas. Result: one big hit for Mr. Tom Cruise. nb: he has fast-tracked MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE-6 (see above..he might be making a mistake..give it another year, Tom?).
- SET TRENDS, DON’T FOLLOW THEM
Of course, you must give the people what they want. If there is a clear market for vampire revenge thrillers or gangsters vs aliens, it makes sense to look for something similar. But the key word there is ‘similar’. NOT identical! There is a BIG difference between echoing a trend / capturing a general feeling and the more slavish COPYING a hit movie, beat for beat. And as for copies of copies? Don’t go there!
So: 2000’s GLADIATOR naturally reactivates the ‘sword and sandals’ genre in Hollywood. Great! We all love a good epic. But that does NOT mean every Greek myth / Roman legend / classical figure is ripe for the same treatment. 2004’s TROY makes for uncomfortable watching. It’s slow, meandering, plodding and Brad Pitt inexplicably does some sullen almost English, sub Russell Crowe as Maximus accent, whilst Peter O’Toole is brought in as support (presumably because Richard Harris was too dead by then).
HARRY POTTER = great Box Office success. What a shame (sorry..not a fan..you are I know..each to their own). Cue MULTIPLE ‘kids with mystical magic mcguffin’ wannabe franchises. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and THE GOLDEN COMPASS simply failed to fly because the powers that be assumed they were the ‘next Harry Potter’. They weren’t.
Obviously, it’s tempting to ‘cash in’. That’s especially true when it comes to some ‘next big thing’ in the movie star market. But notice that Ms JENNIFER LAWRENCE (we adore her btw) has never been ‘tagged on’ to the franchise fare in which she appears. BOTH X-MEN and HUNGER GAMES snapped her up fortuitously BEFORE she became a truly big star, although both movie series helped solidify her status.
Indeed, if your DIRECTOR is the TRUE star and the franchise /film is itself good enough, then big star power becomes an irrelevance. STEVEN SPIELBERG generally shies away from throwing in every big name under the sun. Yes, he has used Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise et al. But some of his biggest hits (JURASSIC PARK) deliberately shun the big ‘name’ actors and when he DID cast a galaxy of stars..we got..HOOK. Go figure.
Indeed: the bigger your cast, the harder the fall. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES cast EVERYONE who was cool at the time (Tom Hanks! Bruce Willis! Melanie Griffith! Morgan Freeman!). It was a massive bomb. Last year’s EXPENDABLES 3 should by rights have been one of the biggest hits of all time, based on the caliber of its action hero ensemble (SCHWARZENEGGER! STALLONE! FORD! GIBSON! DAVI! SNIPES! STAHTAM! er..GRAMMER!). But there were so MANY people IN that get-together and onscreen together so infrequently that the event became an irrelevance and thereby under-performed (although the pirating of the product online hurt numbers, too).
- COHESION AND CONSISTENCY
If you have a tone: STICK to it! DON’T try welding together conflicting story telling styles. Nine times out of ten, you will be onto a loser. If you promise audiences a movie adaptation of a tv show, then GIVE them just that. DON’T tag some gritty heist thriller to elongate what was a clear and simple origin story (2010’s A TEAM). If you have a cool, high concept, fun title and dream cast then DON’T make a slow, dark, muddled mishmash (COWBOYS AND ALIENS).
And yes: note our now established flop du jour, FANTASTIC FOUR, which attempts to fuse a ‘gritty’ kitchen sink backstory and genuine ‘pseudo-science’ to the usual staples of comic book fun at the very last minute. Give us one or the other or not at all. A generally upbeat, even comedic tale can STILL have darker undertones or hints. Indeed, it’s a staple of good fairy tales: darkness. But a playful darkness, a mood, an atmospheric hint. You don’t throw in an adult domestic trauma in such a manner that you neglect to give the people what they paid to see.
But it’s not just WITHIN the movie that you must maintain definition. A clearly mapped MARKETING campaign is essential. IF there ARE any glitches behind the scenes or tensions / budget concerns etc: KEEP THEM VERY QUIET! Somehow. You MUST spin it. And close ranks. It IS possible! Careless talk costs Box Office! BIG UP your PRODUCT.
DO NOT talk it down or withdraw critics’ screenings etc. You must also keep the fan-base happy (but not TOO happy, because you cannot please everyone; so don’t be afraid of the odd casting announcement that initially drives them all mad, provided you turn things around with a kick-ass Comic-Con trailer and the like).
Oh and if you MUST dabble in our own beloved VIRAL marketing: get it RIGHT. Make it big, wild, guerilla, surprising and yet somehow accessible and available. Think DARK KNIGHT! DON’T announce a few viral videos/ ideas /contests and expect those to miraculously propel your movie into big numbers if the rest of the hype suddenly dies out a week or two before the movie’s final reveal. TOMORROWLAND: your marketing lost momentum; it was NOT George Clooney’s fault that the movie did poor business. In fact, he is one of THE best ambassadors a movie could hope for. He just needs a new franchise. Or another Oceans 11 sequel.
There are, of course exceptions to rules. But hopefully our flop-fighting formula can be of some help. Above all: just make the very best movie you can. A little bit of luck helps, too. And remember: sometimes, today’s ‘flop’ can be tomorrow’s revisionist cult hit.