Freditorial: How to Stop Sinking Battleships

What's Hollywood to do when 'sure things' like Battleship and John Carter tank with American audiences? Fred Topel has the answers.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I've long been predicting that a big shift is coming to movies, the same shift that happened in television when cable started producing good shows and broadcast networks weren’t the only game in town anymore. A network hit used to command 30 million viewers or more per week. A cable hit may only get 10 million (some of the prestige shows claim only 2 million) but there are enough of them that few network series get even double-digit numbers anymore.

I knew Hollywood blockbusters wouldn’t be the only game in town forever. The option of indie movies were never that big a threat, but now with VOD, download services, let alone other forms of entertainment, there may be enough to chip away at the blockbuster model.

The domestic failure of Battleship (it is a hit internationally), following Dark Shadows and John Carter made me think that this shift may finally be happening. Audiences may finally be saying they won’t just go see anything, a board game movie, a remake of a TV show, a book they’d never heard of. You can speculate all you want about the marketing problems of one or the star power of another (my colleagues have given a thoughtful analysis to the star power issue), but these are three major blockbusters underperforming significantly in the first half of the year.

I know people who liked each of the three sample movies I’m discussing. That’s great. There should always be people who appreciate a work of art. We’re talking about business here though. Most audiences weren’t even interested in giving them a chance. (The fact that nobody said “You sunk my battleship” really hurt the board game movie. People actually wanted to hear that line.)

Perhaps the price of tickets is finally playing a factor too. The rising cost of tickets is a pyramid scheme that is in danger of pricing Hollywood out of business. We’ve been complaining about rising prices for decades, but when seeing a movie cost $6 or even $10 dollars, a silly board game movie might be worth a chance. When tickets get into the teens, or up to $18.50 with some Imax/3D ticket prices, it’s not worth the cost.

The audience of avid moviegoers is already limited. I accepted a long time ago that the movie buff who wanted to see just about every movie was a rare breed. The MPAA reports that 10% of the U.S. population buys half of all movie tickets. The rest of the population seems to go once a year.  Most people don’t love movies so it’s easy for them to pass. That 10% audience will be further whittled down as the price exceeds their passion for movies.

That’s for the average movie though. Your standard summer blockbuster can be a take it or leave it issue. If there’s a movie people really want to see, they will still pay 20 bucks, several times over to see it again and again. That is The Avengers.

The Avengers is a success not just because it’s great. That helps, but it was initially a success because people wanted to see it. People wanted to see a movie with all the superheroes combined in it. That is a good idea (admittedly, test marketed for decades before in comic books). It’s good that an idea has to be that strong to get people to spend money. Bad movies don’t have a failsafe of marketing blitz and saturation on thousands of screens anymore.

In my television example, the broadcast networks are still trying to figure out how to stay in business with shows garnering 5-6 million viewers. They know they have to compete with cable though. They’re not still trying to do “The Cosby Show.” “American Idol” might be the only network equivalent of The Avengers in terms of audience share.

The biggest threat to Hollywood is pure apathy. If people don’t care about the movies they’ll just go do something else. Now is the time for someone to reach out to that audience that’s no longer satisfied with the event movies, before they’re gone for good. There are some wonderful weird specific films premiering on VOD or direct to DVD/Blu-ray. The Wrap reports some solid figures in the millions for big VOD titles.

On the big screen, Tyler Perry found an audience that was not going to the movies. He made movies for them. You can argue about the quality of his films but he found an audience and he services them. The faith based film market sort of started to do that, but they haven’t had another Passion of the Christ yet. There are far more people out there than those two groups though.

Hollywood has been selling to the same audience, and when it dwindles, they try to sell them more (3-D, digital, D-box, online ticket fees, etc.). Any business has to expand its market share to survive.

We can do better than 10%. I know we’ll never get 100% of people to the movies regularly, or even 50% but we can certainly hit 15-20%. Make movies other people want to see too. Just try one a year. Each studio make one movie for an audience you’ve never thought of before. But you have to do it more than once, because you might not get it right the first time. Just try to get new people into the movies. It’ll be a snowball effect of new trends when they start driving the box office too.

There will always be room for more The Avengers. I’m sure some movies far worse than Battleship will do gangbusters business this summer and that’ll reassure the marketing people. It’s not a perfect science. I am ultimately irrelevant. I am a movie lover. I’m going to see almost everything just to study the art and the industry. I’m encouraged to see the rest of the country vote with their dollars, and I hope they’re given new art on which to vote.