2019’s Box Office Is Bad. Is Marketing To Blame?

Sequels keep falling victim to audience apathy. Franchise fatigue may or may not be a thing, but it’s happening at the same time smaller, non-franchise films are failing to reach people.

Whatever the actual reason might be, it adds up to 2019’s first half revenue being down over nine percent and ticket sales being down over seven percent.

That’s bad.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what is happening and why. The list of the year’s top movies is filled with sequels, remakes and other franchise entries, with only two titles on the list not being in that category, or at least based on existing IP: Us and The Upside.

So many sequels and potential franchise starters are at the top of the list while at the same time so many have been pegged as underperforming shows how skewed the theatrical distribution game has become in favor of such releases. They succeed and beat their smaller rivals even when they flop with audiences.

If franchises are most of what’s being offered at multiplexes but they aren’t catching on, there are a couple possibilities to consider.

Bad Marketing

This is the simplest explanation, that the marketing for movies like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Pet Semetary, Dark Phoenix and others that should have been huge was simply too bad to spark any interest.

That’s over-simplistic, though, and likely not applicable to each and every case of a movie performing below expectations. It might explain a handful of instances, but not all of them. And it doesn’t account for how many of these campaigns have been relatively good, employing a number of tactics that should have effectively reached and appealed to the intended audience.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the Alita: Battle Angel campaign, it just didn’t connect with people. Dark Phoenix suffered not from a bad marketing push but because it paled in comparison to what Marvel Studios was saturating the airwaves with. You can see how Uglydolls didn’t get an effective campaign along with a few others, but this isn’t the whole story.

Lack of Awareness

One of the most interesting aspects of the modern movie marketing landscape is that those massive movies, even the ones that wind up falling short at the box-office, dominate the press. They get Entertainment Weekly cover stories, week-long cast appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” massive ad campaigns and more in both paid and earned categories.

That full-court push is part of why even the flops have made tens of millions of dollars more than other movies. It’s why Long Shot disappointed with $30 million and Late Night was such a misfire it’s lead to an executive departure and the studio rethinking its whole acquisition and distribution strategy. Those movies get press and paid ads, but all of the oxygen is being sucked from the room

Even those perfectly good campaigns – of which many were – simply couldn’t get in front of enough eyeballs to make a difference.

It’s part of what makes AMC Theaters’ recent announcement of Artisan Films so interesting. The program is being launched to bring smaller, more character-driven films to theaters and keep them there longer to take advantage of whatever word of mouth might build up. It’s what theaters used to do before they started crowding out just this kind of movie in favor of adding more IMAX and 3D screens to add screenings of a few special effects-driven blockbusters.

Not Worth It

The other option is that people simply looked at the available theatrical options, shrugged their shoulders and said “Nah.” There was nothing worth heading out and spending an increasingly large percentage of their stagnant wages on, so they would keep watching Season Three of “iZombie” on Netflix because it’s easier. Or there were video game quests to go on. The money would be better saved for when Toy Story 4 or whatever came out because it was a safer bet more likely to entertain.

In reality it’s no one reason but a mix of all three, plus external factors like weather, family schedules and more. There’s a lot going on in everyone’s lives and it seems we’re all only getting busier, so asking people to take three or four hours out of their schedules to go to the theater is an increasingly big favor.

Marketing is to blame in some cases. Sometimes it reinforces lack of interest, sometimes it’s not hefty enough to cut through the other clutter and sometimes it simply doesn’t do its job.

Whatever the cause, the back half of 2019 will have a lot of ground to make up if it wants to catch up with 2018’s box office totals. But will Hobbs & Shaw be the next movie to perform well below tracking estimates? Will IT: Chapter 2 have a hard time recreating the suspense and surprise of the first chapter? Will Terminator: Dark Fate result in headline editors having a field day creating twists on the movie’s title?

All that remains to be seen, but if there’s one thing this year has shown us, it’s that none of those can be taken for granted.


Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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