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Mike Reyes, aka Mr. Controversy, has considered himself a writer ever since he was a child. He wrote for various school publications from about 1995 until 2006, and currently runs both The Bookish Kind and Mr. Controversy, which is an offshoot of the regular column he wrote in High School. He's also a film journalist/critic for Cocktails & Movies and CinemaBlend, as well as the author of several short stories such as "The Devil v. George W. Bush". Any inquiries for reprinting, writing services, or general contact, should be forwarded to: mikereyeswrites@gmail.com

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Last Temptation of James Cameron, Part I

I kind of see this as a companion piece of sorts to an earlier column I ran, so if you'd like the full picture, click here. Otherwise, it is with great pleasure that I introduce the trailer for James Cameron's apology for follow up to Titanic Terminator 2. After 14 years, the movie he saw in his head will be plowing through ours come this December.

Here we are, the end of the summer movie season. As predicted, XMen Origins sucked and Night at the Museum 2 score some decent numbers. However, Beth Cooper tanked and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs made a nice little splash at best. Long story short, 20th Century Fox needs a hit more than Amy Winehouse at Woodstock. Avatar looks like the last, best hope for such a hit; and for a film that's supposed to be at best a "blockbuster hit", it's gonna need to start reving up the marketing machine. So far, it has.

Beginning with small screenings of footage at places like ComicCon and theater expositions, James Cameron has been building nice buzz in professional circles, as well as the upper and mid level echelons of geekdom. However, it's the lower tier of geekdom and the general public that are gonna need a little finessing, seeing as this marketing campaign is about as urgent as a presidential campaign. Every vote counts, and if every ticket is a vote, James Cameron's gonna need a LOT of $10 - $14 dollar votes to recoupe the over $200 million he's spent making this film.

Which leads us to Avatar Day, the event anticipated since its announcement at ComicCon. In essence, it's the theatrical equivalent to the free samples you get at Costco. If it were limited to about 100 Costco locations worldwide. And if it were limited to about 400 samples per showing, which would roughly make about 4,000 samples distributed. Now for the sake of argument, since Avatar Day is being held at IMAX 3D locations, let's do some quick maths to see where we stand. If EVERY PERSON out of the theorized 4000 likes what they see in the test drive tomorrow, and decides "I have to see this, I NEED to see this in IMAX", that adds up to about $74,000 at the going rate of $18.50 gained from the Lincoln Square IMAX location. (You'd figure New York would be one of the most expensive.) If these numbers are correct, and if the budget rounds off to about $250 million, you're looking at $249,926,000 still being needed to break even.

Let's be a little more realistic though and up the number to 12,000; which would be all 4,000 people who show up to Avatar day and at least two friends whom they've managed to convert. That brings us to about $222,000 for one day, $666,000 for a three day weekend, and a $249,334,000 shortfall for breaking even. In order for Avatar to break even, solely on IMAX admissions alone, 13,513,513 people would have to buy an IMAX ticket to Avatar. That's roughly 3,378 crowds the size of Avatar Day, and about 9 years of Avatar Days. (I could have screwed up the maths, so if anyone comes up with more accurate figures please let me know.)

Correct numbers or not, this still brings us to the same conclusion: this movie has to hit big and it has to hit fast. Gone are the days of $100 million opening weekends, extended theatrical runs, and at least a year's worth of lead time before home video release. The world of movies is faster, more costly and more brutally competitive than it was back in 1997 when Titanic set the record for highest grossing film ever. Even then, there were several key factors that made Titanic the hit it was.

- It was a historical picture about a well known disaster.
- It had a highly marketable screen couple, who both went on to build impressive careers.
- It was a romance movie, which made it perfect for dates.
- It had a highly marketable pop song from a recognizable pop star.
- It had very positive word of mouth.

In short, Titanic had all the things movies used to be able to rely on, before the Internet became part of the show. It had what we'd now refer to as an old fashioned marketing campaign.

Back in "those days", you'd have a teaser poster. A simple one sheet that was cryptic, with few hints about what your movie was about and an iconic image. A dinosaur skeleton, a meteor impact, or even a blazing number five could make you ask, "What movie's that for?". Your mind set to work, you'd try to find out all you could and read Premiere or Entertainment Weekly (back when those publications still mattered) for anything about the upcoming releases.

Then you'd have a teaser trailer, which is essentially like a teaser poster but with moving pictures and sometimes dialogue. You're interest would be piqued enough that you'd keep the freshly revealed name of the movie in your mind when it came time for release. You'd scour the trade magazines for anything about the development, and sure enough plenty of other eager movie geeks would be doing the same thing. The buzz would build to the point where the studio would be idiots not to notice.

Which would lead to the final theatrical trailer. The big payoff, the moment where the full scope (or at least enough of it) would be revealed, and the story would finally be so clear you'd decide whether it was your cup of tea or not. Oh, and around this time, you'd get a final poster too. Something that if done right would be iconic enough for people to spoof over time.

That's not even counting official production stills, movie company swag, interviews, and all the other materials that'd be released from the teaser phase until opening night. Which all helped, but weren't as prevalent in the pre Internet days. Then, especially in the case of Titanic and others of its ilk, you'd have the music video for your big soundtrack single. More than likely, it'd be a ballad with clips of the singer belting the tune mixed in with equal measure of footage from said film. (Sometimes, if they were cheeky enough, they'd have a video where the musical artist/act would interact with the film.)

If all of this goes well enough, you'll have a huge opening weekend and your film will become a brand name. Even despite changing your release date, an affair on set that ruined your marriage, and a budget that rose faster than you could say "Waterworld". Hell, if you're lucky enough, you might win an Oscar...or 12.

Which brings us to that dreadful question. What do you do when you've become the biggest success story ever? Some fade into legend, others try hard to replicate said success. In James Cameron's case, he disappeared for 12 years, did a couple documentaries, and nursed the idea that eventually produced Avatar in his mind. Unfortunately for him, in those 14 years the movie marketing machine evolved.

Again, let's compare 1997 to now:

1997: Teaser materials (trailers/posters) were only for franchise/event pictures with pre-built names.
2009: Teaser materials are pretty much required at this point.

1997: At most you'd have two posters, two trailers, and a music video for your franchise/event movie.
2009: Two posters are a minimum for every film, with character posters (or varying international locales, if you're doing a disaster movie) as a viable option. Not to mention you now have teaser trailers, redband trailers, internet only (aka yellow band) trailers, final theatrical trailers, and TV spots. Oh, and you might get a music video. No promises.

1997: Strong word of mouth at work, school, etc. was enough to sell a picture.
2009: Thanks to the Internet, everyone can slam your film before it's even shot; or build up the hype to such improbably levels your film won't be able to match it.

Basic point: as our technology for making movies has progressed, so has our technology for making people aware of said movies. This is where it starts to get tricky, and this is where we'll pick this up tomorrow.

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