Peak screens

September 13, 2011 at 6:52 am 5 comments

| Gabriel |

Apparently Creature , a god-awful exploitation monster film, opened on 1,500 screens with no marketing and made no money whatsoever (h/t Jonathan Last). My initial reaction was (and I apologize if you can’t follow the abstruse technical jargon) what the fuck?

1,500 screens is no Spiderman 2, but it’s still a reasonably wide opening. When Jaws (which as coincidence would have it was also produced by Sid Sheinberg) opened on 409 screens in 1975 that was considered “opening wide” on an unprecedented scale for a highly anticipated major studio film which was based on a novel that had been on the NYT bestseller list for almost a year. And yet here we are with an obscure turd of a film opening on over three times the scale of one of the biggest films in Hollywood history.

This seems like the kind of thing that simply can not happen, but I checked Variety, and yup:

Monster movie “Creature” also bellyflopped. The film, self-distributed by Sid and Jon Sheinberg’s Bubble Releasing, had an unusually aggressive rollout for an indie title but a paltry per-screen average of just $220 from 1,507 locations. Total was an estimated $331,000.

At least I can take some comfort in the collective sanity of Hollywood in knowing that neither the majors nor LionsGate were involved in this fiasco but there’s still the puzzle of what the exhibitors were thinking.

Most likely they were thinking in terms of vacancy chain / opportunity cost issue. September is something of a dumping release date. For instance, Fox notoriously buried the brilliant satire Idiocracy in September of 2006. We can see this more formally in Figure 1 from Sorenson and Waguespack ASQ 2006 (emphasis added).

Big movies tend to open on big weekends. This wasn’t a big weekend and so it’s not surprising that weren’t a lot of big movies opening this weekend. To a first approximation, we can say that exhibitors probably played Creature because it was that or keep dark. (Though at $220 per screen they probably would have been better off staying dark).

Another interesting thing is that opening wide isn’t cheap (which is why until the blockbuster era studios preferred to make just a few prints). It costs about $2,000 to make a print of a film, which (if we assume prints rather than digital) implies about $3 million for prints for Creature , which is about the same amount as the production budget. The rule of thumb is that prints and promotion cost about half again the production budget, but Creature seems to have economized on this through the simple expedient of not having any marketing. This doesn’t really make sense though since marketing and prints are complements, which is why they are usually budgeted together. If I had a crappy movie and only $3 million to self-distribute it, I’d probably spend less than a million on prints and the rest on promotion. So we’ve got to figure out what was going on with the (self) distributor. Here are a few non-mutually exclusive speculations as to what was going on with the distributors:

  1. They’re idiots (more specifically, they drank the “social media” Kool-Aid)
  2. They planned on marketing the film but ran out of money
  3. They relied on digital projection
  4. They offered exhibitors better points on box office than the industry standard

Note that any of these stories are bad news for exhibitors. #1 implies that exhibitors didn’t think to check if the distributor understood the film industry. #2 implies that the distributor booked the exhibitors with an explicit or implicit expectation of a certain level of marketing then didn’t follow through and the exhibitors didn’t notice this. #3 is one of many issues in the film industry where distributors have a conflict of interests against exhibitors. Digital projection implies large fixed costs for theaters but allows distributors to radically lower their marginal costs, which (Coase theorem notwithstanding) is not a good recipe for a happy outcome. The conflict is especially acute when you realize that digital projection makes it easier to open wide which means most of the box is in opening weekend when the theaters get very little of the ticket sales and basically only make money on popcorn. (On the other hand, digital does open up some pretty cool possibilities for using theaters for things other than movies.) That leads us to possibility #4, which is that the distributors might have gotten creative and offered the exhibitors an unusually good deal, like an 80/20 split on opening weekend box or something like that, so as to treat the theatrical release as a publicity-generating loss leader for ancillary revenue streams (DVD, tv, streaming, etc.). If we also assume digital distribution this largesse wouldn’t have even cost the distributor much up-front. This would have been a good precedent for the exhibitors if it worked, but it didn’t and so they’re stuck with back-loaded revenue sharing models that were worked out back when there were fewer screens and movies stayed in theaters for more than two weekends.

Long story short, I’m putting this in my “theatrical exhibitors are fucked” file, along with 3D fatigue and the Comcast/Universal merger.

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Project Gutenberg and the early internet We’ve Got it All on VHF


  • […] Galley Friend G.R. has a pretty good educated guess in answer to our question from yesterday. Cancel reply […]

  • 2. Curtis  |  September 14, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Even if #1 is the case (which from some comments from Sheinberg on Huffington Post I think may be the case) this movie was completely off of my radar screen and I think of myself as a having a well above average awareness of what films are about to be released. I have an at least passing interest in silly old fashioned B horror flicks. I simply hadn’t heard of this film at all. I read several film blogs, and listen to several film and pop culture related podcasts. None of them mentioned this film in advance of the opening which makes me think that Bubble Films didnt even reach out to them with press releases, let alone offers to get their director or some cast member (Mechad Brooks has an actual relevant fan base from his work on True Blood and to a lesser degree the summer TV hit Necessary Roughness) in for interviews to digital outlets that would likely be interested. Hell I think many podcasters would be thrilled at a chance to interview Sheinberg given his history in the business.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  September 14, 2011 at 9:37 am

      Agreed that it was a failed viral marketing effort. However I think that’s because they failed to appreciate that viral marketing and traditional marketing are often complements. They seemed to think that the fans would just handle everything without the kind of encouragement you described.

  • 4. Steve Sailer  |  September 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    They might have blown, say, $100,000 merely on _shipping_ 1500 prints.

  • 5. Sympathy for the IP Industry « Code and Culture  |  February 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    […] a long-term trend since the mid-1970s and also has to do with supply side issues of promotion and a screen glut. However piracy is a part of opening wide, particularly in terms of major releases opening […]

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