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How Box Office Performance is Affected by Marketing

December 3, 2012

By John C.

Lincoln PosterTwo weeks ago, I used my Monday column to write an article about how success at the box office could lead to Oscars for Silver Linings Playbook.  I’ve been a champion of the film since first I first saw it back in September at TIFF, and on Friday we finally published our full reviews.  The film has been slowly expanding in limited release since November 16th.

I would simply be repeating myself if I kept reiterating the greatness of the film or the already discussed prospects of how a strong financial performance could affect how well it does on Oscar night.  But the box office in general is quite interesting to put under the microscope at the moment, and not just for the fact that Silver Linings Playbook fell just outside of the top ten in the eleventh spot over the weekend.

For the third weekend in a row, the top two films at the box office remained the same, as the newcomers failed to ignite a spark with moviegoers.  The number one spot has been owned by The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 since it opened on November 16th with $141.1 million, with the surprisingly good film closing out the series on a high note.  The excellent Skyfall has held steady at number two since then, after opening on November 9th and easily winning the box office with $88.4 million, setting a new record for James Bond films.  But most interesting to me is that Steven Spielberg’s excellent historical drama Lincoln came in at number four over the weekend, dropping slightly from the number three spot that it’s held since expanding to wide release on the 16th.

Although The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 and Skyfall practically sold themselves as part of a preexisting franchise and were both destined to be hits, the success of Lincoln is something much more intriguing to behold.  It had the added benefit of opening in limited release on November 9th, just a few days after the American election and the triumphant return of Barack Obama for his second Presidential term, and this platform release was strategically advertised with TV spots throughout all of the election coverage.  Some of the box office for Lincoln could also be coming from high school groups who see the film as part of their history classes, and many Americans feel patriotic towards their 16th President.

It also helps that these three films can all be seen as alternatives to each other.  Although Skyfall and Breaking Dawn – Part 2 will have appeal with both audiences, it’s easy to imagine a lot of guys finding themselves at the former while their female friends are at the latter.  Some older audiences might opt for Lincoln instead.  Equally interesting to note is that Ben Affleck’s possible Best Picture frontrunner Argo has been going strong since it first opened on October 12th and just passed the $100 million mark over the weekend, with much of that success coming from more mature moviegoers, who are typically harder to reach than the usual young adult demographic.  But what all of these movies had on their sides was extensive marketing to back them up, creating interest amongst a wide range of moviegoers.

The fact that DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians opened lower than many of their other films likely has to do with the fact that many of the trailers targeted a younger demographic, when the touching story and beautiful visuals of the film deserve to be seen by those of all ages.  But on the flipside, Disney had a genuine all ages hit on their hands with Wreck-It Ralph last month, smartly capitalizing on the crossover appeal and marketing the animated film to both kids and adults.  Even though the visually stunning Life of Pi is more of a spiritually confounding survival drama than a mainstream hit, the choice that 20th Century Fox made to advertise it as a big 3D adventure has already brought in $48.5 million at the box office.

The $10.7 million that Silver Linings Playbook has made since it first opened in ten cities on November 16th and after it expanded to 367 theatres on November 21st could be seen as a success in comparison to the budget and type of film.  But it also seems a little low for one that was originally going to open wide and has been advertised because of the presumed profitability of the two leads.  But the reason why it isn’t reaching a bigger audience right off the bat could also be contributed to the downside of marketing.  The TV spots and trailers can’t quite nail the proper tone of the film, making it seem too mainstream for certain audiences, when it could prove to be a little too offbeat for some regular moviegoers.

The marketers try to pigeonhole every film into a genre, because audiences like to know what they’re getting into before buying a ticket.  People want comparisons to other things they’ve seen and an idea of what sort of tone or style the film might have.  When looking back on some of my favourite movies of 2012 and over the past few years, many of them can’t be defined by a single genre and I generally find myself most drawn towards ones that mix elements of humour and drama, just like Silver Linings Playbook.  Although these sort of films might seem like the hardest to market and the least likely to become big hits, they are the ones that benefit the most from strong word of mouth.

Films like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 and Skyfall will always be the ones to open atop the box office, and it’s great to see something like Lincoln doing so well in their presence.  But if enough audiences see the smaller films and spread the word to the right people, then that’s the sort of marketing that they really need to become big hits.

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