The Hollywood Economist

The End of Originality

Or, why Michael Bay’s The Island failed at the box office.

Poster for The Island

In Hollywood, originality is anything but a virtue. Paramount rejected a recent project that had attached stars, an approved script, and a bankable director by telling the producer, “It’s a terrific idea; too bad it has not been made into a movie already or we could have done the remake.” This response, alas, is not untypical. Studios today, as a former executive explained, tend to greenlight four types of movies for wide openings: remakes (such as King Kong), sequels (such as Star Wars: Episode III), television spinoffs (such as Mission: Impossible), or video-game extensions (such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider).

Hollywood, of course, still turns out original movies, but the number is constantly shrinking. Studio executives don’t lack imagination, nor do they find particular joy in mindlessly imitating bygone successes, but they must take into account the underlying reality of today’s entertainment economy. Unlike in the old days when the studios could rely on a vast habitual herd of moviegoers to fill theaters, audiences must now be created from scratch for each and every film. For the studios, “audience creation,” for which they spent on average over $30 million a film in America alone in 2005, has become just as important a creative product as the film itself.

The key to a movie’s success is the level of awareness that exists for the project well in advance of the advertising blitz that takes place in the week or so preceding the actual release date. The studios carefully track this prior awareness via the telephone polls supplied weekly by the National Research Group, a part of Nielsen Media Research. From this data, a studio can tell the extent to which different segments of the moviegoing population—divided by age and sex into four “quadrants”—are aware of a particular upcoming movie. The most important audiences are those in the under-25 males quadrant, since they are the easiest to turn out for opening weekend. With franchises and remakes, the awareness in the under-25 male group approaches 100 percent; with video-game- and TV-based movies, it is often over 90 percent. But with original stories the awareness level, even buoyed by well-planted gossip items in the entertainment media, is usually not much more than 60 percent. Such an awareness gap means that a large proportion of teen eyeballs, even if glued to their TV sets, might not recognize the fleeting ads as a go-message for a movie opening that weekend. If so, the studio’s multimillion-dollar ad campaign may miss its mark.

Consider, for example, DreamWorks’$2 2005 science-fiction film The Island, an original story about clones who don’t know they are intended to be used for organ transplants for rich “sponsors,” including movie stars, athletes, and presidents. As the summer release date approached, the NRG awareness polls showed that a substantial part of the target audience had not yet heard of the movie. Nevertheless, having already spent $122.5 million on the production, DreamWorks decided to open it wide on over 3,200 screens and spent $35 million on buying action-laden ads (which had little relation to the clone plot or the ethical issues). From these ads, the prospective audience had no way of knowing what the movie was about—other than Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor being chased by bad guys—or even that there was no actual island in The Island. The “teaser” trailers were equally elusive. When D-Day came in July, there was no teen stampede to the 3,000 multiplexes—indeed, fewer than 3 million people turned out for the opening weekend. The multiplex chains, which depend on popcorn sales to survive, began pulling The Island off their screens as fast as they could.

What really failed here was not the directing, acting, or story (which were all acceptable for a summer movie) but the marketing campaign. Whatever other factors might have worked against audience creation—the midsummer release date, the clutter of competitive action films, the misleading title, etc.—The Island had to overcome the competitive disadvantage of not having the built-in awareness that comes from being a sequel, a remake, a video game, a TV series spinoff, or a comic-book adaptation. Of course, there are many original movies that overcome the awareness handicap—and, in rare cases, such as Universal’s Cinderella Man, a box-office flop will be rereleased at a later date—but the lesson for studios from such fiascos is that original movies are a far more perilous enterprise than retreads of past successes.