The Numbers Game is a monthly column breaking down the economics of modern filmmaking to show just how big of an impact they have on the movies that make it to release. Ever wonder why (insert movie here) exists at all? We’ll try to help.
For a very particular kind of film geek, talking the numbers and economics of the industry has its own appeal independent of the act of watching movies. It’s why people who aren’t in the film industry have subscriptions to Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, this writer included. It’s why, before the internet subsumed everything we do on a daily basis, publications like Entertainment Weekly would publish lists of the top-grossing films every week. In America, the idea of a movie as a “hit” or “flop,” accepting that both of those phrases are far more complicated than most people realize, is as intrinsic a part of the dialogue around a movie’s success or failure as the film’s relative quality. It’s become one of the ways through which we understand the film industry, how we talk about the biggest summer movies, how we understand just how many people actually find a certain movie worthwhile.
Whether this is a good idea is a topic for an entirely different essay of similar length. (In short: It’s probably not, and as critical thought goes, the recently growing public obsession with numbers isn’t great, but it’s still a fun diversion all the same.) The Numbers Game isn’t here to talk about the efficacy of gauging one’s moviegoing choices by how successful a film is, but instead why that urge is so strong. Chasing hits makes sense; particularly in a time when “fandom” in all its forms holds sway, people want to boast about how their movie shattered various records. (“Haven’t you heard? Batman v Superman had the highest-ever March opening! Surely that means it isn’t a blazing tire fire!”) But the act of hunting flops suggests something else. In one breath, yeah, it’s the appeal of watching millions of dollars be flushed away on a dud project, allowing the schadenfreude of watching those Hollywood types come down a peg. In another, it’s fascinating to watch a movie flop because of just how damn hard it is for one to truly do so.
In older, less globalized times, a flop was easier to spot. Global grosses were integral, particularly in the case of your average summer tentpole release, but the story was always domestically centered. A film’s opening weekend in the US was the easiest indicator of its relative success or failure. Some films wouldn’t even always be released in all foreign markets, so as such, a film lived or died by whether Hollywood’s ostensible target audience was interested. This was also a time when a $50 million debut weekend would be celebrated with what were imaginably parties akin to those in The Wolf of Wall Street, instead of hand-wringing over whether the film will be able to break even. We’ll circle back to that in a bit. The point is, there were hits and flops, and it was fairly easy to tell the difference.
Now, the script has changed. A hit is still a hit, though what constitutes a “hit” has expanded substantially. Budgets have skyrocketed in every way, particularly as it relates to promotion. The common wisdom for your average mega-budget Hollywood film is that one can effectively double the film’s listed budget; the listed budget is what the film cost to make, and so you can roughly add that same amount again to properly promote the film. The bigger the budget, the bigger the promotional push, in hopes that some kind of profit will exist when the film completes its run. And when you have a $200 million juggernaut like Captain America: Civil War, the expectation isn’t that it makes its money back or turns a tidy profit. Increasingly, Hollywood is becoming a game of billions, one that’s no longer unreasonable when Star Wars: The Force Awakens just cleared $2 billion worldwide last year.
So what exactly is a flop now? It’s increasingly hard to say. Like many films, The Force Awakens was more profitable overseas than it was in the United States. Sharp attendance increases in Asia, Russia, and a number of Latin American countries have left studios scrambling to find audiences everywhere. While the US still gets the most marketing dollars thrown at it (by a pretty substantial margin, at that), a film hitting here doesn’t guarantee it’ll land abroad, and now even a film that bombs in America can find second life elsewhere.
Take Warcraft, for instance. Universal’s long-gestating adaptation of the previously mega-popular and now just fairly popular game franchise was met with a general reaction of “who is this for at this point?” when it was released in mid-June. The film, with a rumored production budget of $160 million, debuted to just $24 million domestically. Since that theatrical release is just about over already, Warcraft will make less than $50 million in its entire US run, marking the kind of disparity between budget and gross that would have made the film a punching bag for pundits the nation over at one time. But here’s the thing. Warcraft has also raked in $376 million overseas, $220 million of which came from China alone. The film may not bring in a massive profit, but it’s likely going to retain something when all is said and done, and it’s managed to break even at the very least.
This trend has become more and more apparent in recent years, as other films considered “flops” by domestic standards make their real money elsewhere. Even if the grosses fail to account for those dramatically inflated marketing budgets, notorious bombs like Jupiter Ascending and John Carter have raked in more money overseas than in the States. Even Waterworld, now widely reputed as one of the all-time big losers, made its entire production budget back in other countries. Increasingly, when it comes to the flop, it’s harder for a movie to truly tank. It can’t just fail in the US anymore; it has to fail on a global scale. And studios are invested in making sure that doesn’t happen.
It would stand to reason, then, that if global grosses are just as lucrative (if not more so) that studios would eventually start appealing to other markets. And indeed they are. To use China as the most obvious case study, a number of major American releases have gone out of their way to not just present an American film to Chinese audiences, but to actively target them at Chinese audiences. Independence Day: Resurgence devotes an entire subplot to an ace pilot played by the popular actress Angelababy. Transformers: Age of Extinction sets its entire final act in Hong Kong and is rife with cameos from domestic stars and Chinese product placements. (It also spends several minutes paying homage to the Chinese government, because Michael Bay’s willingness to shill knows no national borders.) Iron Man 3 even went as far as shooting extra scenes for exclusive inclusion in the Chinese release. Even if some viewers there see it for the pandering it is, it’s indicative of just how important foreign markets have become to Hollywood studios.
It’s a system built to ensure that bloated films are always able to find an audience somewhere, and it’s blurred the lines of what constitutes a true dud. You may have noted by now that quality hasn’t been mentioned once, which is dispiriting, but it still matters; a film isn’t going to make Force Awakens money if it’s not also, you know, a decent movie. If anything, the flop has become a matter of time and perspective, waiting for the mandated, budget-doubling ad campaign to run its course and the reactionary excitement to die down.
The new flop looks more like The Last Airbender, a film that most people forget made $131 million in the US and $317 million total worldwide, but is widely considered so bad that it’s almost completely faded from the public consciousness, save for those corners of the world that seek out that sort of thing. It’s getting harder for a movie to flop, but the stakes keep rising. What’s going to be interesting, and probably scary for the industry, is when the next era of the flop begins: the “too big to fail” flop. The movie that costs so much money that even a major wave of attendance can’t save it. After all, when a film can make over $700 million worldwide and be considered enough of a disappointment to reset a franchise, we’re well on our way.