We Lost It at the Movies

Photo: Alan Schein/Zefa/Corbis

You may have heard that recently, the entire audience for movies disappeared. Poof. You can imagine that this was quite a blow to movie-industry types. This mysterious disaster seemed to last an eternity but actually endured nine months. Still, it was the cruelest of all of the binge-and-purge cycles I’ve seen in Hollywood. This one had everyone believing it was really over, that we were technologically obsolete. Many mini-conferences were convened to explain the debacle, scores of meetings at studios tried to unpack the crisis, various reports broke it down to the moguls as hushed conversations with wives and business managers took place throughout the summer and fall. Well-planned lives seemed on the verge of imploding all over town. Young Turks were eyeing video games. Then, astonishingly, the movie audience reappeared. Why?

The crisis began with the unexpected failure of what was, in retrospect, a gamble at best for June: Cinderella Man, from the preternaturally successful team of Brian Grazer; his partner, the gifted Ron Howard; and Oscar-winning Russell Crowe. It seemed destined for greatness; their last entry, A Beautiful Mind, had won an Academy Award for Universal. And this one had perky Renée Zellweger. But no matter what they did—spending irrational amounts of money, even offering a money-back guarantee—no audience would show up. Perhaps the audience was too stupid to want meaningful movies this season, the studio wondered. Surely they should see the virtues of this film. Then panic set in. Was it marketing? The fact that Crowe had thrown a phone in a hotel clerk’s face? It never occurred to them that there might be a problem with the movie, which one young man described to me as “Seabiscuit with Russell Crowe playing the horse.”

Then other surefire entries started to fail, the kind that are supposed to open in summer, no problemo: July brought Stealth, Rob Cohen’s $135 million … what, exactly? Thriller? Action movie? Starring Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel, and Josh Lucas, it opened to a measly $13 million. And October brought Doom literally, which had started off tracking like gangbusters. (The industry watches the “tracking”—the statistical prognostications based on surveys—the way politicians watch polls, with similar results.) Based on one of the most successful video games of all time, it would have to be a blockbuster, wouldn’t it? The tracking continued to build until the week of the movie’s debut, when it collapsed. If the kids didn’t come to Doom, starring The Rock, we could no longer call anything. Everyone had bet on video games—execs had been running off to Comic-Con, the annual comic-book convention in San Diego, like lemmings, buying comic characters, video games, and graphic novels—and now Doom, which ultimately did $28 million in domestic box office. This was beyond horrible. Word of mouth killed Doom before it even opened. This was news; bad news.

And so, come October, I found myself at a lovely if crushingly depressing lunch hosted by the cutting-edge upstart market-research company OTX, at the Peninsula, munching glumly on my mandarin-orange salad. They were here to explain what had gone so terribly wrong. We were seated at small round tables with marketing types from the studios (and many ex-marketers; they are the first to be fired when movies flop—i.e., it’s the marketing, dummy! Not the movie!) and assorted producers like me looking to figure out what was hot and what was not, and why. And the gist of what we heard was this: Young men were too busy to go to the movies anymore. They would rather play video games on Friday nights or be on the Internet playing video games with strangers or hooking up or pretending to be hooking up or playing video games with or without the person they had just hooked up with.

As for the baby-boomers—or the “upper-quadrant audience,” as we know them—the movie experience had so deteriorated (bad food, sound, seats, etc.) that they would rather wait for the DVD. They all now had fabulous home entertainment systems, which their teenagers appropriated when they finally felt like seeing the movie they had missed playing video games. This wisdom was imparted with the help of graphs and charts and statistics, which made my eyes twitch. Afterward, everybody trundled home, cashed in whatever movie stock they had, and repeated these verities to everyone they knew. The New York Times printed them, too, and it became fact: The movie audience was kaput.

There was a moment from September to December when everyone was stumped by what movies to make. We would sit at dinner and say, It can’t just be Saw III, can it? And then we’d weep into our martinis. One casting director said to me, “The studios will only make comedies, and those with only four people, two of whom were in Wedding Crashers!

Then, suddenly, right around the Oscars, semi-obscured by that ceremony’s bravado, the movie audience magically surfaced again. We were afraid to admit it at first, like when your bad boyfriend comes home from a binge and you’re afraid he won’t stay.

It was February 24, and a movie opened to $30 million, seemingly out of nowhere to us (it was nurtured on the southern church circuit): Tyler Perry’s—who?—Madea’s Family Reunion. What could we do to cash in? Become Evangelical? This was distressing to a town full of Jews. But then other films came in, like a small wave. Not a tsunami—that would have to wait for Ice Age: The Meltdown to thaw on March 31, when we saw a $68 million opening and we knew all was truly well again and we could keep the farm in Bel Air.

Looking back on it now, we shouldn’t have been quite so despondent. Ignored amid all the dire predictions had been some wayward optimistic signs. Why did Flightplan—a Jodie Foster movie with a vaguely similar premise and hook to those of Stealth (well, they were both about planes), and which came out in a much less-bucolic September slot—open at $25 million and gross $90 million domestic and $223 million worldwide? A fluke? No. Because it was good. And because it wasn’t killed by bad buzz before it opened. Jodie fans, boomers, and young men went to it because the trailer was terrifying (ergo, the marketing worked). And no one heard it was terrible in the death-defying millisecond it takes for word of mouth to travel on the Net these days. (But we hadn’t figured any of that out yet.)

These guys cannot be fooled by marketing anymore. The harder we hype them, the harder we fall.

March 10 brought Failure to Launch, Matthew McConaughey’s male-driven romantic comedy, which opened at $24 million; then V for Vendetta at $26 million, driven by those elusive young boys, who came out in droves to support its first weekend. Then came Spike Lee’s Inside Man, starring Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen (a baby-boomer cast if ever there was one), which stunned everyone by opening at $29 million. All of these movies held their second weekend, too, and we began to exhale. Others, though, are still not buying it: Kevin Goetz, the terrifically smart head of OTX’s West Coast Media and Entertainment Insights group, foresees a “gradual decline of exhibition as we know it.” But after some debate, he agreed that he was mainly talking about young men.

It’s easy to assume that suddenly we were making movies the audience wanted to see. But we can’t react that quickly. The lesson here is much more about the mistakes we tend to make in the summer with our most expensive movies, when we try the hardest to hit the bull’s-eye with what we consider our key market. Historically, when we want to clean up, we spend zillions and gear the products to teen boys—the most easily distracted audience. Not only are they the ones with the most choices on Friday night, but they also know within a second of our holding a preview anywhere in the world whether a movie stinks or not. These guys cannot be fooled by marketing anymore. The harder we hype them, the harder we fall. By the Net and by BlackBerry transmission, word of mouth rules.

We used to have a weekend to get our money out of a movie like Stealth or Doom. Now we get one night, tops. And that’s not enough to break even, the way it might have been in the good old days before the summer of 2003. That year saw the perplexing, terrifying failures of T3 and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Matrix Whatever. We thought it was about sequels, when it was really about word of mouth.

So we can’t put a bad blockbuster over anymore, as in the golden era of 2002, when The Scorpion King could open at $36 million, or Blade II at $33 million. And we have to kill our singular addiction to teenage boys. We need to diversify the meaning of “our audience.” We have a few audiences. Baby-boomers have a movie habit and an IV hooked up to pop culture (look at Inside Man or The Interpreter). You would have thought that Something’s Gotta Give proved that older women were worth making movies for, but one strike with In Her Shoes and we’re out. Young girls, reliable last year, have been rationalized off the screen (their tastes this year considered to be entirely driven by boys).

And then there’s the need to wean ourselves from other old habits and scapegoats. It’s the movie, stupid. Not the marketing. (Though marketers shouldn’t gloat yet, ’cause they can still kill a good picture.) We all have to go with our gut instincts, give up the fantasy of a formula. It’s harder, but not impossible. Impossible means we have to sell the farm. Hard means we have to work harder. And that’s not a bad thing. I never went to Comic-Con anyway.

Lynda Obst is a producer at Paramount Pictures and the author of Hello, He Lied. You can reach her at LyndaObst.com.

We Lost It at the Movies