The myth of the blockbuster: How marketing impacts the films we see — and the ones we don’t

url19The Rotten Tomatoes movie review site gave it only a 20 percent rating, classifying it as “rotten.” Critics weren’t kind in their assessment of it and made comments such as, “It’s confusing and excessive and it just missed the mark completely”; “a painful blend of overproduced action”; and “(a) violent, crude, pointless sequel.”

While this may sound like the recipe for a flop, the film went on to make an impressive $402 million at the box office, earning even more than its higher-rated predecessor. That movie is “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” part of a franchise that continues to be one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, despite frequent criticism from reviewers.

Although the “Transformers” movies aren’t my personal favorites, I have nothing against those who enjoy them, and the special effects are genuinely impressive. I just find it interesting how much money the franchise has made over time, even though it has received quite a bit of flak for neglecting character development. In 2009, the year “Revenge of the Fallen” was released, it even beat out fellow sci-fi title “Star Trek” at the box office, even though the Trek film boasted a much higher rating from Rotten Tomatoes (95 percent).

Negative reviews don’t always sink a movie at the box office, and positive reviews don’t always guarantee there will be smooth sailing (for example, last year’s “Killing Them Softly” had a 76 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating but flopped with only $15 million at the box office). I think studios’ marketing activities (ad campaigns, trailers, building “buzz” online, etc.) are having an increasingly important impact on what films become hits, and — right or wrong — ensuring a movie’s target audience finds the film is perhaps even more vital than achieving critical acclaim.

Marketing can be a tricky profession, because most people don’t like ads. They take up extra space in the magazines we read, interrupt the programs we’re trying to watch on TV, and cut into the airtime that radio stations have to play music. However, whether we like them or not, ads do work. Every time I drive by Subway, I think of the tagline “Eat fresh.” When I hear the name GEICO, I think of a little green gecko. The best ads are the ones that work their way into the public consciousness so thoroughly (and so sneakily) they just become a part of the culture.

Movie studios spend a lot of time working on one of their most effective ads — trailers. They only have a minute or two to grab our attention and make a big enough impression that we’ll remember to go see that movie when it’s released a few months later. The goal is to build enough buzz about the film that seemingly everyone is talking about it, and it becomes more than just a movie — it’s an event. If a studio can create a high level of excitement, negative reviews from critics may not even matter.

A good example of a successful Hollywood ad campaign — and frankly, perhaps one of the best ad campaigns in movie history — is Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Marvel literally spent years building up to this film, patiently releasing individual superhero movies with teasers about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Avengers program. By the time “The Avengers” finally arrived in 2012, it was the most buzzed about movie of the summer blockbuster season, generating even more excitement than Christopher Nolan’s final “Batman” film.

Although “The Avengers” is a fun, exhilarating film, and I believe its success was very much deserved, it probably would not have earned $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office if Marvel had released it before any of its other superhero films and hadn’t spent so much time carefully promoting it.

jack_the_giant_slayer_a_lConversely, a badly marketed film can perform poorly at the box office, perhaps even more poorly than it deserves. A recent example of this is Disney’s $250 million sci-fi epic “John Carter.” It received middle-of-the-road ratings from critics, (51 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning about half gave it a positive review). However, Disney’s poorly-executed marketing campaign led to a weak opening weekend (only $30 million) and the film became a rather expensive flop. Another, more recent example, is “Jack the Giant Slayer,” which struggled to find its voice. It received similar ratings but the advertising for the film gave off mixed messages: was this a dark, gritty fairy tale à la “Snow White and the Huntsman,” or was it meant to be a light-hearted, humorous children’s film? I don’t think audiences knew, and the film also flopped on its opening weekend.

We live in an increasingly media-saturated world, and studios have to work harder to get their movies noticed than they used to. The films generating the loudest buzz and the best marketing campaigns more often top the box office. Films that can’t keep up may get buried amongst the entertainment clutter, and this sadly means that good films may slip under the radar. It can be tough for smaller films to compete with multi-million advertising budgets. I think this is why we’ve been seeing more sequels, prequels and remakes lately — it’s a lot safer to make a film that already has an audience and name recognition. Half of the job of marketing is already done.

Another consequence of this shift is that it’s tougher now for film critics from traditional media outlets, such as newspapers and magazines. They too are forced to compete to get their opinions heard. People share their opinions more and more through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and “word of mouth” has become a powerful marketing force, perhaps more powerful than a “thumb’s up” or a “thumb’s down” from a major movie critic. Is this a good shift or not? It’s an interesting question.

So, what do you think? Is marketing a major force in determining what movies become blockbusters? If so, is this a positive or a negative change?


14 thoughts on “The myth of the blockbuster: How marketing impacts the films we see — and the ones we don’t

  1. Great article, I think it’s a negative thing – at least to those not well versed in what quality films are out there. They might miss out on a beautiful littlr film like Amour to see a well marketed Dwayne Johnson film.

    • Thanks for reading! I am also concerned about how much control marketing and advertising can wield. Sometimes smaller films do slip through the cracks, just because they don’t have as big a promotion budget.

  2. Nice analysis. Speaking for myself, I make the decision to see a movie based on my familiarity and liking for the past work of the director and/or the cast involved.

    To take the example as given by the commenter above – no amount of marketing is going to make me see a Dwayne Johnson movie. I do enjoy his work as the “The Rock”, but am yet to take to his charms as a movie actor!


    • Thanks! Director/cast are also probably the factors that most influence the films I see. If a director’s film makes a good impression, I’ll try to seek out their work in the future. 🙂

  3. There are a lot of good big and small movies out there (some require a lot of searching). I do consider the time I use to go see a movie on the big screen valuable, so I will often use Rotten Tomatoes as a guide in determining whether I’ll actually go see a certain film. I don’t let RT have the final say, but it has been very useful in helping me avoid seeing numerous crappy movies in the past (and continues to do so).

    • I like to check Rotten Tomatoes before going to see a film also. I have gone to see lower rated Rotten Tomato films before, but if a film hits the 30 percent or lower range, chances are good I’ll probably pass or wait to rent it when it’s released on DVD.

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