SECOND GUESSING, CONTINUED - Complications Ensue
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Monday, July 17, 2006

A lot of comments on my earlier post and on Whedonesque claim that Serenity underperformed because of bad marketing.

I have to disagree. $25M box office means the film got out there. There were enough people who saw it for it to have great word of mouth, had they felt like telling their friends. Much as I am a huge fan of Joss, and the Jossverse, and Firefly, the movie did not work that well for the mainstream audience. Or it would have been a sleeper hit.

You can say (and some do), "Anecdotally, non-Browncoats liked the movie." But either they did not like it enough to recommend it to other Firefly non-fans; or when they told you they liked it, they were just being nice.

Great marketing gets you a great opening weekend. It cannot make a flop into a hit. (Film marketers like to point to a great opening weekend, followed by a severe drop-off, as evidence that they successfully sold a piece of crap. Any fool can market a good movie.)

To a certain extent, bad marketing on a good movie means that the theaters will bump the movie, and it can get squeezed out of the marketplace. But exhibitors make a much higher percentage of box office the longer a movie runs. If I remember correctly, the movie theater gives the studio 50% of the opening weekend's take, but eventually the percentage works its way down to as low as 10%. That gives theater owners a huge incentive to support a sleeper. Serenity was out there for at least a month; certainly long enough for word of mouth to reverse any failure to get the cast on Leno, or any weaknesses in the trailer, or what have you.

Everyone likes to blame weak marketing when their film flops. But 20th Century Fox famously "dumped" a little movie called Star Wars, and it was not until the overwhelming audience reaction in a few college towns (like Cambridge, MA) that they mounted a decent ad campaign. (I knew a guy who managed a theater in Harvard Square. Fox had so little faith in the movie they refused to let him hold the movie over after the preview screenings. He mortgaged his house and bought Fox stock. He knew. They didn't.) If a half million people see your film opening weekend, you can't blame marketing for its subsequent failure. How many people saw The Full Monty on opening weekend? Was it even a hundred thousand? It went on to make a hundred million dollars.

Whether Serenity is a good movie or not is a matter of taste; probably it has a lot to do with your tolerance of, or love for, space opera. It's also a matter of perspective. Blade Runner flopped but has become a classic, casting a spell on two decades worth of dystopian futures. If Serenity winds up influencing science fiction movies to come, then we can say that it was a great movie even if it didn't blow the roof off the box office. However, if you believe that it "ought to have been" a popular movie, and failed only because the studio didn't back Joss, then you are misunderstanding the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. Writers (and their fans) are not entitled to say "They ought to have liked it." Or, if they do, it's just not useful. It's like a comedian who says, "Well, I was just over their heads." If they don't laugh, it's not funny.

7 Comments:

My answer is: a weak storyline. We do not understand why one side is running and the other is chasing until the very end of the story, which makes all the action seem irrelevant. And when the answer comes, it is not that meaningful and big.

By Blogger gezgin, at 8:45 AM  

Thing is, I don't believe it *only* failed because of marketing. I agree with many of your points and I think it could have been a stronger, more accessible story.
Only reason I commented on the marketing was because you didn't mention it at all, and I think it played a big part. Not the only part, but it shouldn't be discounted. There's also the time it came out (after the summer blockbusters), the lack of a name star, the lack of a logline non-fan audiences would care about. And, yes, a script that got chunky and exposition-laden at times.
I just don't think the sole reason it didn't gross 100 million was the script, as your columns seemed to imply, so I commented.

By Blogger CABridges, at 10:12 AM  

I think the inherent problem with the movie is that it was made with the fans of the show in mind first and the mass audience second.

And while it's nice to know - as a supporter of the show - that I some semblance of a movie involving characters that I'd grown to care about it was disappointing that Mr. Whedon didn't take the time to make it more inviting to those who'd yet to encounter these people.

Instead what we got was alot of in-jokes and great moments that were only truly understood by those who'd already come with a vested interest in the characters.

*spoiler - tho' do I really need to say it anymore? What IS proper spoiler ettiquette these days anyways?*

When Wash dies to the average viewer it sucks that a funny and affable guy/husband has died but to the fan of the show, it's like losing an integral part of the team.

*end spoiler*

Essentially, the movie flopped because while it had a good idea and alot of heart it held that heart out only for those who'd showed it love in the first place.

And that's a shame.

By Blogger DefiantDragon, at 2:12 PM  

Though I love Joss unconditionally,and was a big fan of "Firefly" and "Serenity," why was the movie ever made in the first place? The TV show, as great as it was, failed, by network standards, so the movie was never going to be anymore than a valentine to its existing fans, no matter how well it was marketed

By Blogger Reel Fanatic, at 5:59 PM  

Just a quick coment on the Serenity movie. I felt that here in New Zealand, the marketing and the actual length of time that the movie was shown both let the movie down. I wasn't until it came out on DVD that I really sat up and took notice of the movie. I went to my coal video store and rented, and was utterly blown away. What a fantastic movie.

By Blogger gnorthcroft, at 6:30 AM  

I moved from my hometown in Canada to the UK at around the same time as Firefly was airing/being cancelled. Things were very busy for me around that time, so as much as I'd wanted to follow Joss's new show, I didn't get to.

Things got very busy in London as well, the way that they do, and since Firefly never aired over here I never did see it before Serenity began marketing, and I actually sort of forgot about it.

Apologies. I know. I'm not worthy.

My point is, as much as I am an absolute fan of Joss Whedon's work (I even met him over here in an entirely serendipitous manner, the tale of which I won't distract you with now), the fact was that, at the time of Serenity's release, I was not a browncoat.

I don't remember much about the marketing of Serenity: a poster that didn't say much; a trailer I never saw.

I never did get around to seeing Serenity in the cinema - and I'm a Whedon fan!

Of course I have since seen the film, and the series which inspired/demanded it, and I feel a deep, meaningful love for that 'verse. I wish I could say I saw Serenity before going brown, but I decided to watch the series first. Obviously I loved Serenity, as would be expected, but so did my flatmate, sat next to me that evening, and he's never seen Firefly and thinks Buffy and Angel are for the sadder than sad. My girlfriend loved it, too, and has since digested the entire series and "can't believe that's all there is - its not fair!"

In fact, everyone I know who has seen it both loved it and only saw it on DVD. That's a lot of love and not a lot of box office.

Using Star Wars as an example of a film overcoming marketing/studio obstacles isn't entirely fair. Star Wars was unlike anything people had ever seen before at the time of its release and as such inspired awe. 30ish years later a space opera can't ever be expected to stand out quite so fiercely. Couple that with the fact that a sci-fi sans stars is something typicaly associated with geeks - powerfully uncool geeks - and you can understand perhaps why even if non-browncoats liked it, they weren't telling everyone they knew to go and see it.

Jonathan Ross said in his review of Serenity on Film 2006 (BBC One) that Serenity managed to succeed where the new Star Wars movies failed, explained himself rather eloquently, then finished his review by naming Serenity Film of the Year.

To claim that Serenity was episodic, and as such a weak film, is far too easy and expected a criticism of a writer who deals mainly in episodes. In my, and many other's, viewing, Serenity was a strong and audience-deserving film which stood out with force from the rest of the flock, though unfortunately only on the screen - not in its marketing, where in terms of initial success, it mattered most.

By Blogger Darcy Fitzpatrick, at 6:22 PM  

I agree. $25M box office means the film got out there. There were enough people who saw it for it to have great word of mouth, had they felt like telling their friends. Much as I am a huge fan of Joss, and the Jossverse, and Firefly, the movie did not work that well for the mainstream audience. Or it would have been a sleeper hit.

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By Blogger silvi silvia, at 8:48 PM  

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