Syriana opened in the movie theaters this week, but it’s too early to know how well it’s doing in sales. The insiders probably knew last night but the numbers haven’t been published on the Internet yet. Never before have I been interested in box office success, but I’m interested in the financial success of Participant Productions films just because I am so identified with the project. It’s the ideal test of my own idea of how to save the world – through intelligent, socially significant movies and television. If the experiment turns out well, I’ll take immense personal satisfaction from it.
But there are obvious obstacles — of which the producers must be far more aware than I. The challenge is to get people to watch these important films. To me, box office results are important only as indicators of how many people are exposing themselves to the message; whether a film is financially successful is, in itself, of no interest. Still, I have to take my hat off to anyone who risks huge amounts of money to promote a story simply because the world needs to hear it. I’ve never had the opportunity to gamble with high stakes, nor do I ever want to do so. Some people like taking risks just for the adrenaline rush, but here we have producers such as Skoll and Clooney taking risks, not for the thrills, but because the cause is worthy. That motivation impresses me. But, regardless of the high-mindedness of their project, I’ll bet they are watching the numbers avidly this week and getting high on adrenaline, dopamine, and cortisol.
This is the season when the best films come out. Most Academy Award winners, appear in late November or December. The summer is more for blockbuster action films and popcorn flicks, which are promoted by huge marketing campaigns. Nowadays, the success or failure of a new film usually can be predicted on the basis of the first weekend’s ticket sales. Unfortunately, the public’s taste for shows with important social messages is limited. Right now, the new Harry Potter film, The Goblet of Fire, is pulling in vast audiences. I shouldn’t knock it without seeing it, but somehow I doubt that it’s going to make the world more conscious of our dangerous dependency on oil, as Syriana will. Anyhow, people have not been going to movies much, so the industry is sagging. I’m glad that there’s at last a film that’s surpassing the $100 million level. I just wish it were a serious film instead of a fantasy.
I’ve pinned a lot of my hopes on astute movie critics, but apparently that’s unrealistic. Movie reviews do not ordinarily determine the fate of a film. Certainly that’s the case when it comes to action films, science fiction, family comedies, and horror shows. People do not care what the newspapers say about such films. They are attracted primarily by the publicity, especially television ads. After the first big weekend, the word-of-mouth factor becomes relevant, according to a survey of 2,000 people last year. Recommendations travel fast and influence about 70 percent of the movie-going population. Professional reviews influence only about 33 percent, and Internet ratings influence even fewer people, Insofar as critics have influence, it is primarily with serious films and small, under-advertised ones that might never be noticed except because of their praise.
Adam Leipzig published an article about the movie business in the Sunday New York Times of November 13. He pointed out that the ultimate financial success of a film nowadays depends on its DVD sales, which in turn depend on its box office success. He says that DVDs are traditionally released on Tuesdays. About a third of them are sold in Wal-Mart, an outlet that keeps exceptionally thorough records of its inventory. Its computers can identify the location of every copy of every DVD in all their stores. By the time an executive of, say, Warner or Sony reaches his office in Hollywood on Tuesday morning, the East Coast stores have already been open four hours. It is already obvious how the new DVD releases are doing. Some copies of the unsuccessful shows, indeed, may already be packed and ready to be returned, while for the successful movies, there will be orders for an increased number of units. Studios can manufacture up to half a million copies per day, shipping them out to retailers so they can replenish their stock immediately.
The competitiveness of the industry is actually increasing. Whereas formerly a film might be released in Blockbusters six months after its runs in the theaters, now it appears in DVD within two months, and that interval is becoming shorter. It is expected that soon films will appear in both the movie houses and the video stores at the same time.
What I care about, however, is not the fun of making money, but the fun of inspiring people to address social problems. I don’t know how that can happen if, as Leipzig wrote, “Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it.”