Should Hollywood Save Its Summer-Blockbuster Budgets?

Rethinking the Big Push Behind Tent-Pole Movies

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Could Hollywood have saved itself billions in marketing bucks this summer? And I'm not asking just because of Michael Bay and his "Transformers" sequel.

'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen'
'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' Credit: Paramount Pictures
I wonder how often studio execs must ask themselves that question, particularly during the summer, a movie season marked by sequels, remakes and often Will Smith. Do you really need to spend $50 million to tell the audience your tent pole is going to be bigger than the next guy's? Then again, I ask myself a similar question about laundry detergent as I fast-forward through all those spots about bleach and stain fighters.

At the sort of unofficial midpoint of the summer movie season, New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes, in analyzing the booming box office -- particularly after this past holiday weekend, which saw "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" rake in more than $40 million apiece -- listed some lessons Hollywood might have learned, and will most likely try to replicate, from this so-far-winning year.

But despite what we've written about the efforts studios have taken to sell their films so far this year -- from "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" to "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" -- I started to think that any success Hollywood has had so far this year has had less to do with careful marketing strategies (and, hence, all those billions spent) and more to do with certain variables (such as, say, a recession and foul weather) that continue to frustrate studio chiefs and prognosticators alike -- and are, of course, impossible to replicate from year to year.

So what got me thinking all that marketing had nothing to do with the boffo box office? I'm the sort of consumer who's going to see a handful of summer movies (the bigger the explosion or shootout, the better), and so far this season, Hollywood appears to have weaned itself off the teen boy: that elusive figure who, according to conventional wisdom, is the target of movie marketers from the beginning of May to Labor Day weekend. This summer's slate of films -- even the blockbusters -- so far has seemed more adult- and family-oriented. And adults aren't elusive: With the unexpected crappy weather across large swaths of the country essentially putting traditional summer activities on hold, all studios had to do was craft tight, targeted campaigns to reach busy, cash-strapped adults and save themselves a boatload of marketing bucks.

What with all the "earned" media movies get anyway, thanks to prominent cast members' publicity tours and appearances on numerous magazine covers, one would think concentrating on an amazing PR campaign could carry a lot of the load.

Case in point: "Year One" and "Land of the Lost," despite inescapable, wall-to-wall marketing strategies, were trounced by movies no one admits to have seen coming: "Up," The Hangover" and "The Proposal." But as the Los Angeles Times' insightful "Company Town" blog has pointed out, smart media buys and strong word-of-mouth helped "The Proposal" and "The Hangover" ring cash registers at multiplexes this summer.

So, has Hollywood changed its ways, perhaps, by thinking more about adults come summertime? And will that save it more on marketing down the line?


"Business as usual" is how Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray put it to me recently. Gray, who founded the online publication and box-office reporting site, said it's still a summer largely of franchise films ("Harry Potter"), remakes ("Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3") and sequels ("Transformers"). But what if those movies seemed to transcend the stereotypical fanboy base?

'The Proposal'
'The Proposal' Credit: Touchstone Pictures
"Part of the studio MO is to have movies that everyone wants to see -- that's how you get a blockbuster going. If you just hit one demographic, you might not hit those heights," he said.

We talked at length about one of my favorite movies this summer, "Star Trek," and how that film compared with the seemingly similar "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Gray said "Wolverine," which kicked off the summer season, should have benefited more by being first out of the gate, but despite its rather broad marketing strategy, it still felt "niche," while "'Star Trek' was a movie for everyone."

"It bust out of [being] a genre movie, like 'Iron Man,'" he said, referring to last year's surprise blockbuster (with a sequel slated for next summer, natch). He added: "People were rooting for ['Star Trek'] ahead of time, and the marketing captured that" by giving people what the movie promised to deliver: "a grand adventure with characters that they can root for."

So is Gray surprised by this year's box-office success? Not really. He readily admitted that the slate of films so far this year is stronger than it has been in previous years, and it appeals to a broader audience. And don't think the extra gross being generated at the box office has to do with the recession. His tracking numbers show that, as in most other categories this recession, some months have been up and others down, like March, which was "dreadful."

"What that shows you is what we've always known: It's the movies," Gray said. And here's his lesson for studios, from a marketing perspective: All those billboards, TV spots, trailers and websites need to "live up to the movie's promise." A lot of marketing "misses the point of why people want to see the movie."

So just as marketers shouldn't over-promise how white my shirts can be, maybe next time Fox wants to roll out an "X-Men" property, it should sell it as less of an epic and more of a good old-fashioned comic-book yarn (that will still, of course, appeal to everyone).

Next test: Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" opens in about two weeks.

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