Studios used to be print money with sequels and comedies, but four lessons show how they’re no longer the guaranteed success they were a decade or more ago.
As you may have read, it’s been a rough year for sequels at the box office. In fact, it’s been a rough year for any non-Marvel Studios attempt at franchise launches or extensions. And for remakes and reboots.
The latest casualties are both of this past week’s high-profile releases. Men In Black: International and Shaft (2019) both severely underperformed in theaters, failing to catch on with audiences. That comes after Dark Phoenix logged the worst opening weekend for an X-Men series release and at the same time that disappointing debut dropped a staggering 76 percent, sunk by word of mouth as well as audiences that were saving their movie money for Toy Story 4.
There are a number of narratives floating around the entertainment media world that are taking on the look of conventional wisdom to industry watchers and prognosticators, each seeking to make sense of the chaos resulting from these high-profile missteps. In fact, “disappointment” is the primary theme in the press, whether talking about sequels that didn’t work, reboots and remakes that offered nothing interesting or original films that were crowded out by blockbusters.
Much of the conversation has revolved around how the theatrical marketplace has changed so drastically in the last decade. Super hero franchises and connected universes have become the default in theaters because they offer the most opportunities for exhibition in premium formats that bring theater owners more revenue. No one is going to watch Booksmart in Real 3D, so it doesn’t get the prominent placement Aladdin does. And of course there’s constant discussion about what role Netflix and other streaming companies may have on changing consumer behavior.
Often overlooked in these conversations is how important the marketing is to the current theatrical reality and how analyzing some of these campaigns offers insights into what succeeds and what doesn’t. In fact, looking at the campaigns for some of this year’s biggest hits shows how a number of lessons have been put into practice.
Rule 1: Never Challenge the Audience
Modern blockbusters are often compared to fast food. While both will sustain you, they lack any semblance of nutritional value. The bag of apple slices thrown in the box (when filmmakers talk about how a key sequence was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard) is fine, but it doesn’t counter the salt and fat that makes up the rest of the meal.
The campaigns for most of this year’s top movies have taken just that kind of approach. Save the esoteric references for an interview with the director no one but industry insiders will read because the trailers and posters just want to sell you a single iconic image. These movies are brands in the very literal sense, with their success or failure determined in large part by the connection the audience has to that brand.
Look at the posters for movies like Aladdin and Dumbo. In each case the audience was shown a single image that immediately evoked that character and title. The same goes for Captain Marvel and Shazam, which heavily used the icons and logos associated with the characters to create instant audience recognition. None of these campaigns promised anything other than a familiar experience for the audience.
Rule 2: Never Show the Story
Another familiar trait in the most successful marketing campaigns of 2019 is how little of the movie’s story winds up being shown. The Avengers: Endgame campaign was almost laughable in how it kept every little detail hidden, from trailers that primarily recycled footage from previous movies to the complete unwillingness of the stars to discuss the plot during interviews and right through Marvel Studios’ announcing an “official” end to a restriction on discussing story points.
Those movies that haven’t succeeded at the box office have, by and large, been the ones that have offered the most information about the journey the story will take the characters on.
Compare the campaigns for two movies focusing on female comic book characters:
- Captain Marvel may have offered a glimpse at different stages of the character’s life, but what transpired between and around those moments is left out. It was more about using those beats to create an emotional reaction in the audience, not previewing the arc Carol will go on.
- Dark Phoenix presented a much more complete outline of the story’s beginning, middle and end, showing how Jean Grey goes from amiable member of the X-Men team to growing threat to someone with the power to destroy the world.
It used to be that trailers were criticized for showing too much of the story, giving away some key moments. Studios seem to have taken that to heart and while there are still big sequences included in the marketing campaigns, they’re presented largely out of context, blending into the general rush of information.
Rule 3: Never Let Too Much Time Pass
The last several years have seen a number of “legacy sequels” produced for theaters, many of which have been dead on arrival at theaters. Zoolander 2, Independence Day: Resurgence and others have been rejected by audiences, sometimes because they adhere too closely to the originals and sometimes because they deviate in too many ways.
In almost all cases, though, the amount of time that has elapsed since the original is a major factor. Trying to revive something after 15 or 20 years is a difficult proposition, even if the same creative team is involved. Audience tastes change drastically in that amount of time, so what worked then may not work now when it’s a whole new generation being asked to take the plunge.
Even Men In Black: International fell victim to this. Seven years since the third movie may not seem like that long, but there have been 16 MCU movies in that time. The MiB franchise didn’t have enough nostalgia built up to make that kind of emotional appeal, nor did it have a steady string of releases that have kept it top of mind for kids who were five years old in 2012 and followed the series over the years.
It’s a problem that has even plagued the DC movies, which have arrived at irregular intervals and with a constantly shifting series of explanations as to whether they are or aren’t connected. Some of these have been huge hits, but each one feels like it’s starting things from scratch and arrives as an unknown quantity.
Rule 4: Never Try To Be Funny
Comedies have been hit particularly hard by how much the theatrical industry has changed in the last 10 years. The genre was once a sure-fire success, particularly with big names attached. Things are very different now. Adam Sandler, once the biggest comedy star in the world, signed a deal years ago with Netflix to produce the kinds of movies Sony Pictures would no longer greenlight. That same studio tried to offload last year’s Holmes and Watson with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, only to find Netflix was uninterested.
There’s not a single clearly defined comedy on the list of this year’s top 10 releases. Movies like Long Shot, Late Night, The Hustle and others have all come in well below where they would once be expected to, especially given the talent involved.
The easy availability of long- and short-form comedies on streaming services is partly responsible, but so too is that super hero movies and other franchise installments are all funny in addition to be action-packed. Audiences can get their theatrical laugh quotient in Thor: Ragnarok and check off “stay up to date on the MCU” at the same time. It’s a big reason why Shazam was sold as much as a comedy as a super hero movie.
In fact, comedies are penalized particularly harshly because their marketing inherently violates all four of these rules.
- They challenge the audience because humor is subjective and hard to sell
- They show a lot of the story because otherwise jokes don’t make sense
- They usually aren’t part of a series and so arrive as one-offs without any brand recognition
- They try to be funny because they’re…you know…comedies
Of course these rules aren’t hard and fast. Us, from writer/director Jordan Peele, is the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year, benefitting from his appeal and reputation as well as the fact that horror films tend to be free from many obstacles others face. And Godzilla: King of the Monsters stuck to most of these rules, but couldn’t make it work in part because it kept its connections to previous – and upcoming – movies hidden from audiences. Glass took off despite being a legacy sequel of sorts thanks to the buzz that had been built up from Split‘s success in 2016.
Still, if you look a marketing campaign that tries to sell a long-gestating sequel by explaining a lot of the movie’s story in a funny way while also making the audience think about what’s going on, you’d be on pretty safe ground betting against it.