What's changed year over year, at least to my eye, is that the
studios are compensating for what seems to be a weak slate of
releases by ramping up campaigns to turn each movie release into an
event, something that has to be seen right now. "Alice in
Wonderland," "Clash of the Titans" -- even "Valentine's Day" was
something to be seen on the titular weekend it was released.
The most recent repeat box-office winner is "Shrek Forever
After" (or "Shrek: The Final Chapter" or "Shrek Goes Fourth,"
depending on which marketing assets you crossed paths with), which
has claimed the top spot three weeks in a row despite being seen as
such a weak performer after its first weekend it actually sent
Dreamworks Animation stock down. That movie latched on to an
event-creating hook that few others have been able to lay claim to,
that this is the last chance audiences would have to enjoy the
characters on the big screen (at least until the reboot in
That's a powerful motivator, though it's a card that few are
willing or able to play. If a Hollywood executive were to suggest
that the next "Iron Man" movie be the last one, I'm sure you could
hear that person being fired as far away as Georgia. But Warner
Bros. will likely be in just that position when the second part of
the "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" comes out in 2011.
This reliance on creating an event atmosphere around movies --
something that's been going on for a number of years now but really
has seen some success in 2010 -- is coming at a time when
theatrical windows are shrinking ("Alice in Wonderland" famously
went to DVD less than three months after its initial release) and
DVD revenues are dropping. That's meant more focus on a movie's
opening weekend and a strong opening during that frame.
To some extent every movie-marketing campaign attempts to make
the film it's supporting into an event. But while the campaigns for
"Alice in Wonderland" (see Johnny Depp ham it up -- in 3-D!) and
"Clash of the Titans" (see Liam Neeson release the Kraken -- in
3-D!) motivated audiences to spend their hard-earned dollars on
high-priced 3-D tickets, the marketing for "Sex and the City 2,"
"Robin Hood" and other summer tentpoles didn't deliver, or at least
didn't live up to expectations, an expression heard frequently
during Monday-morning quarterback sessions.
So why fewer movies opening at No. 1? There are two
possibilities that go beyond the usual explanations of the audience
opting for hockey in Chicago, avoiding storms in a particular part
of the country or other outside factors.
First is the notion that people have been so overwhelmed by
other campaigns that anything that doesn't crank the volume to 11
doesn't break through the clutter anymore.
Second would be that despite event-level campaigns, people know
weak material when they see it. So not only did they avoid it on
opening weekend but those who did pony up their dollars then
affirmed their friend's expectations that X movie was one to miss
-- or wait to rent from Redbox.
When the other options look weak -- and it's hard to qualify
this summer as anything else since "Iron Man 2" broke early --
people will seek out the comfortably familiar. That seems to be the
lesson of 2010, beginning with the hold-over of "Avatar" for five
or six weeks into the year. It also bodes well for "Toy Story 3,"
which will be released just as "Shrek 4" likely finally starts to
fade from the top.
If future months bear this trend out, Hollywood may have to
adapt its marketing strategy to account for something it hasn't
really worried about for years: a movie with legs.