Monkey Business: The Secret of Box Office Success

We’ve made it through one-quarter of 2012 (take that, Mayans!) and the box office is up an encouraging 20% from this time last year. Though big films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are still to come, the year has already been marked by unanticipated hits that have raked in the dough for studios and theaters, as well as some spectacular misses.

Adapted from Susanne Collins’s popular young adult novel, The Hunger Games topped the charts with $155M this past weekend making it the third biggest opening ever (behind the final Harry Potter and The Dark Knight) and the biggest ever for a non-sequel.

Two weeks prior, Disney’s John Carter fell flat and lost the studio a startling $200M. In the first week of 2012, the critically-reviled The Devil Inside shocked with a $34M opening on a $1M budget. Valentine’s Day release The Vow opened to $41M, while the movie that it shoved out of the weekend, This Means War made a mere $17M the following week.  Of course, surprising box office successes and flops are not just characteristic of this year; they are a commonplace of the movie industry. Just look at 2011’s money-maker Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the incredibly disappointing Green Lantern.

The question is: Why? What makes The Hunger Games so special? Where did Disney go wrong with John Carter? What does it take to make a ton of money at the box office?

This is why you go to one movie instead of another:

-Because you read the book.

-Because you want to be with and/or be Denzel Washington.

-Because all your friends are talking about it.

-Because you are sick of sequels.

-Because you’ve been waiting two years for this sequel.

-And, most importantly, because a movie studio wanted you to.

This is what they have to do to get you there:
(AKA how to make a lot of money at the box office)

1. Built-in Follow

Movies are expensive. If you’re going to throw millions of dollars at something, don’t leave anything up to luck. You have to pick a winner before you start making one. Built-in follow is Hollywood’s #1 crutch. It’s the reason so many franchise reboots and book, comic, and television show adaptations are made. These have an audience before a script is even penned. Never underestimate the near box office guarantee that comes along with a preexisting fan base and an already secured place in the pop culture database.

Films like X:Men: First Class and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are self-explanatory, and audiences like that. When people are already familiar with a protagonist or plot, they know what they’re getting. Fancy marketing campaigns aside, these movies advertise themselves, to the exact people who want to see them. Even better, when possible, build off of a movie that built off of something with built-in follow (this is why you’ll all go see The Avengers).

Success Stories: In 2001, the first installment of the book-adapted franchise, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, raked in $317.6M domestically on a $125M budget. Also see 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($176.8M), 2002’s Spider-Man ($403.7M), 2008’s first Twilight flick ($192.8M on just a $37M budget), and this past weekend’s astonishing The Hunger Games ($163.4M and counting).

Beware: Before you greenlight a movie, ask yourself, is this really built-in follow?  Established audience awareness of a character or concept is great, but built-in understanding is not enough. People need to want to follow that character or story onscreen, and they need to believe it will be done well. John Carter ($62.8M) was adapted from the material that inspired Star Wars, but no one actually cared. Last year’s Green Lantern ($116.6M) bombed, despite the it’s super hero. Of course, these flicks did other things wrong too. Just keep reading.

2. Star Power

There are certain people that will pack a theater. Eddie Murphy used to be one of them. So did Ben Stiller.  Nicolas Cage still draws in millions. Denzel Washington’s train doesn’t stop until it hits number one at the box office.  Cast the it-people, and make sure they’re still ‘in’ as well.

Success Story: Denzel’s Safe House opened in February to $40.2M.

Note: Young adult book adaptations (Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) must steer clear of big names.  People didn’t envision Johnny Depp as the wizard in their novel, and they don’t expect him onscreen either.

Beware: Tower Heist ($78M) thought it was a winner with Murphy and Stiller onboard, but flopped at the box office to the realization that the two older actors are past their box office prime. John Carter’s Taylor Kitsch might be good-looking, but not enough to compensate for the fact that he is still, even after his big movie debut, a relative unknown. He couldn’t carry a movie in which he had to be not only the protagonist, but the title.  Now if Johnny Depp was in this role, Disney would’ve had a winner.

3. Title

People are going to talk about a movie. They are going to use its title. Word-of-mouth is the best way to sell a film, so don’t make people sound stupid while they’re marketing the movie for free. The shorter and simpler the title, the better: Bridesmaids, Fast Five, The Vow. If the movie is an adaptation or sequel, use that to your advantage by making it clear in the title (even if that makes it too wordy): Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Lorax.  Make the title obvious; it should reflect the genre and nature of the film: Safe House is about a safe house, The Devil Inside is about devils inside people.

Beware: Do not get clever. Do not get creative. I’m talking to you, Disney, who turned out the biggest flop last year, Mars Needs Moms, and probably the biggest one this year with John Carter—both very bad titles. The former doesn’t immediately reveal anything about the animated flick and also just sounds dumb. Planets in movie titles are usually a misstep; it’s a safe bet to substitute Paris in there instead (a word that instantly boosts a movie’s sales). It was the disastrous Mars Needs Moms that inspired Disney to alter their next movie’s title from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. That didn’t help much, since using a person’s name as the title should be reserved for when audiences know who that person is or at least the actor playing him.

4. Release Date

When a movie opens is one of the biggest deciding factors of its success. Just like it’s no coincidence that Oscar bait films come to theaters shortly before nominating season, it’s no mystery why major blockbusters debut in the summer. With their prime target audience off from middle school and college, studios release their big superhero movies and franchise installments in those warmer months, when no one has anything to do and everyone wants to get out of the heat.  (Television hasn’t fully come around to this idea of summer entertainment, and instead, still bases its scheduling on the ancient fact that children need to help their parents farm in the summer.)  Studios need to keep track of holiday weekends, dead months, and other big theatrical releases.

Success Stories: The Vow, the first strict romance to come out in years, starring two attractive actors, based on a true sob story, made its most important move by coming out Valentine’s Day weekend to the tune of a sappy $41.2M. If a movie doesn’t fit with a holiday or a season, then focus on where other movies aren’t. This is what the Jonah Hill-Channing Tatum flick 21 Jump Street did successfully, opening earlier this month as the only major theatrical release that weekend to $36.3M.

Beware: The Reese-Witherspoon-vehicle This Means War was scheduled to come out Valentine’s Day weekend against The Vow, but after The Vow’s successful pre-release screenings, Fox decided to push back its release to the following weekend.  Big mistake.  It opened to $20M and because it was intended for V-Day (billboards still had the February 14th release date), people wondered where it was on the big day and then forgot about it by the next weekend.  My suspicion is that it would’ve taken away a good deal of ticket sales from The Vow if it had stuck with its original release plan, as a more alternative guy-friendly V-Day flick. Don’t switch up your dates so late in the game. Don’t get scared off by Channing Tatum (never mind, look at his 2012 box office numbers!).

5. The Marketing Campaign

This is the big one.  The best recent example of a successful campaign is what Lionsgate’s chief marketing mastermind Tim Palen pulled off with The Hunger Games. It’s tricky to advertise a movie about children killing other children, but Palen nailed it with a traditional-meets-digital marketing effort. Lionsgate gave away 80,000 free posters and advertised on over 3,000 billboards and bus shelters the old-fashioned way. Their publicity department landed Jennifer Lawrence and her co-stars on 50 different magazine covers.

Perhaps most importantly for its audience of a younger generation, Palen launched a year-long digital attack, giving The Hunger Games its own Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel, Tumblr blog, and multiple iPhone games and apps.  When Jennifer Lawrence landed the role of Katniss, the Facebook community heard about it first. Palen’s team monitored and then started their own “Hunger Games” fan blogs, streamed live premiere footage via Yahoo, held sweepstakes to bring fans to the movie set, created an interactive site called (link), launched a poster scavenger hunt via Twitter, held mock Panem district elections online, and then finally, in November, released the official trailer—a very strong trailer.

This is where Palen did something truly radical. In the same way that he forbid reporters onset, he decided that nowhere in the marketing campaign would they ever show the games themselves. Opting out of revealing the combat, action, and violence that makes up more than half of the movie isn’t something many other studios would allow. Trailers these days are typically three minutes of straight action, but Palen had a different sort of faith in his audience. If you want to see the games, you have to buy a ticket.

The ‘less is more’ philosophy is rarely uttered in Hollywood marketing, but that shouldn’t be the case—because it worked here for The Hunger Games in the same way that it did The Dark Knight.  How much did Palen’s genius cost?  Typically, a big movie like this has hundreds of people working on it and as much as a $100M marketing budget (just look at John Carter). The Hunger Games pulled it off with 21 people and just $45M.  That’s how you market a movie.

6. Know the trends.  Know the audience.  Know thyself.

When raunchy adult comedies came into style with The Hangover, Kristen Wiig got on the train and rode it straight to the bank (a women’s only bank). When vampires got big on TV with shows like True Blood, Summit picked up a young adult book called Twilight.  When people began to tire of the same vampires over and over again, Tim Burton optioned a book called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which will surely be a hit this summer). When Spider-Man succeeded in 2001, Marvel began to churn out every superhero movie they could, and DC Comics followed suit. This is knowing the trends.

Knowing the audience means recognizing New Year’s Eve won’t offer the same thing as Valentine’s Day, and that the novelty of a childhood movie turned 3-D wears off somewhere between Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Knowing thyself, though, is most important of all.  A movie needs to know what genre it is, what audience it’s targeting in order to create a successful title, choose a successful cast, pick a successful weekend, and orchestrate a successful marketing campaign. The Vow’s posters appeal not just to V-Day couples, but to women looking for a sappy romance. This is all The Vow is, and knowing that is its greatest weapon.

A film like John Carter got confused somewhere along the way. It’s a Disney movie, but a live-action sci-fi one on Mars, targeting a male audience that will embrace its Star Wars similarities. John Carter did better abroad because its posters and trailers didn’t focus on a bright bubble-lettered Disneyfied ‘John Carter’ (Kitsch) as much as the American ones did. We are more accustomed to following a singular hero’s journey, whereas in Russia, where the film did best, the overall dark alien tone of the film is portrayed on the posters.  Why wasn’t that the campaign tactic used here?  Because Disney couldn’t decide who they wanted this movie to be for.

The films that do best are those that know what they are in a very straightforward, simple way: superhero movies, Harry Potter movies, Twilight movies, The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers.  They are distinguished by the fact that audiences know what they’re getting, and the people behind them knew what they were doing.

As always, it has been a pleasure to offer advice to all of my readers who are studio executives.  Onward to April!


Jennifer Sperber currently studies Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  When she’s not writing film or television, or writing about it, she is usually watching it.

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