Saturday, March 1, 2014
The Fuzzy Math of Family Films
The recent gangbusters success of "Frozen" and "The Lego Movie" has given rise to a popular argument that goes something like this:
The average G- and PG-Rated movie makes more money than the average PG-13 and R-Rated movie, but every year more R and PG-13 movies are released than G and PG-Rated movies. Therefore, Hollywood should listen to the audience and make more family friendly films.
It's a perennial talking point every time a family flick breaks 9 figures at the box office. It's also completely bogus.
Now, I'm not arguing with their numbers. The average G and PG-rated movie does in fact take in a decent haul at the box office. But averages can be tricky things and as they say, there's three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.
Supply vs Demand
Imagine you're a grocer and one of your venders offers you a deal on Stroopwafels, a product that you don't regularly carry. It's a good deal and the things are freaking delicious, so you buy 100 units.
You stock the Stroopwafels on your shelves and they sell out within a couple of days. Intrigued, you order 1,000 units on your next product cycle but are dismayed when only 100 units sell and the remaining 9,900 units have to be hawked at a loss at checkout.
The mistake you made was assuming that with increased supply would come increased demand, when in fact your store just happened to have 100 regular shoppers that enjoy Stroopwafels.
It's a simplistic, and somewhat hyperbolic, metaphor, but it illustrates the root flaw of the Make More Cartoons argument.
It's no coincidence that The Lego Movie was released a month and a half after Frozen. Studios learned a long time ago that they could maximize profits by having a single family friendly film in theaters at any given time.
If you suddenly flooded the market with G- and PG-rated films, there would not suddenly be more movie-going families in America. Instead, you would only force those films to compete with each other for the same audience rather than serving as counter-programming to the mass audience Marquee titles that carry a more adult rating.
A deluge of family friendly films would bifurcate the audience in a manner much similar to what we're currently seeing on TV. Ten years ago, Friends drew an average of 22.8 million weekly viewers in its ninth season. Today, with original programming on the broadcast networks, cable, and streaming outlets like Amazon and Netflix, the ninth season of How I Met Your Mother draws an average 9 million viewers, which is the envy of literally everything on NBC (except The Voice).
Box Office Does Not Equal Profit
In June of 2013, The Purge debuted with an opening weekend box office of $34 million before going on to a domestic gross of $64 million. It was heralded as a runaway success and the greenlight was immediately given for a sequel, which will be released later this year.
One month later, Pacific Rim launched to an opening weekend of $37 million on its way to a domestic tally of just over $100 million. It was lambasted as an embarrassing failure before decent worldwide sales ($411 million all told) changed the conversation to one of muted indifference.
The difference is obvious, but under the context it bears repeating. The Purge cost a measly $3 million dollars to make and paid for itself twenty-fold. I repeat twenty-fold.
Pacific Rim cost $190 million and, were it not for the growing Asian movie market, would have forced a write-down on its distributor.
Film fans know this. It's Box Office 101. But what people sometimes forget is that family friendly movies don't come cheap. The production budget on The Lego Movie was reportedly $60 million. Frozen was even higher, with a reported budget of $150 million.
Also, as a general rule of them, the cost of marketing a film is roughly half of its production budget, meaning that just to turn a profit Frozen would have to break $200 million at the box office. It's done that, with room to spare, but it illustrates why basing your argument on average box office receipts never tells the whole story.
Simply put, the most profitable genre in Hollywood is not family friendly films. It's horror films. That's why there's 7 Saw films and 5 (so far) Paranormal Activities. You can make them for a song and they turn a profit within hours of their release.
So to anyone who argues that Hollywood should "listen to the audience," be careful what you wish for. It ain't gonna be Toy Story 4 that gets the green light.
Box Office Does Not Equal Quality
This third part of my rebuttal is more emotion-based than logic-based, but it's also why I get so irritated. I understad that parents want to take their kids to the movies (heaven knows why, but that's their prerogative) and I understand they may feel there's not a lot of options. But the implicit nature of their "Make more family friendly movies" rhetoric is one that suggests a value judgement based on a film's rating.
That line of reasoning completely disregards the artistic nature of film as a medium that educates, challenges and inspires. I love an explosion-heavy popcorn flick as much as the next late-20s bachelor, but what keeps me coming back to the movies are the stories that show me the world in a way I've never seen it before. Movies like 12 Years A Slave, or Gravity.
Do we really want a world with less Lincoln and more Croods? Fewer Before Midnights at the expense of Cars 3? No Schindler's List but another Oogieloves movie? (It should be noted, the G-rated Oogieloves movie had one of the worst opening weekends in box office history).
I suppose there are some that want to live in that world. A Tarantino- and Scorcese-less landscape peppered with Shrek derivatives. That world is my nightmare.
It's also no coincidence that all 9 of this year's Best Picture nominees are rated PG-13 and R, or that the glowing critical reception for The Lego Movie is the exception and not the rule. For the most part, family friendly content comes at the expense of story, and at the expense of quality.
I'm not a parent. I have no idea if I ever will be or what the movie-viewing rules will be in my household. But when I think about sitting down in front of the television with my son, I'd rather it be Slumdog Millionaire on the screen and not Megamind.
Oh, and if I see one more cover of "Let it Go" on my Facebook feed I'm going to start hurting people.