For the last five years or so, the dominant studio strategy for combatting lower attendance and movies’ declining entertainment market share has been a focus on bigger movies – the “tentpoles”, in industry parlance, “four-quadrant” movies that appeal to every stereotypical member of the stereotypical family, targeting the largest possible audience. (Does any industry have dumber buzzwords than film? Social media, maybe.).
But now that this strategy has led to more high-profile megaflops than ever, notably The Lone Ranger, on which Disney told investors that they expect to lose between $160 million and $190 million when all is said and done (all American critics’ fault, according to the cast and producer), will the studios’ plans change at all? Well, at least according to Disney chief Bob Iger, the answer is: NOPE! MOAR TENTPOLEZ! A TENTPOLE IN EVERY TENT! LET THEM EAT CGI!
“There has been a lot of discussion of the risk of high-cost tenptole films; we certainly can attest to that given ‘The Lone Ranger,’” Iger said. “We still believe in a tentpole strategy. A tentpole strategy is a good strategy,” adding that the “way to rise above the din and the competition is a big film — a big film, a big cast and big marketing behind it.”
“The only way to stop a bad guy tentpole is with an even bigger good guy tentpole,” Iger said. Later, Obama gave a speech about how he could’ve been Johnny Depp’s bird hat 30 years ago.
“The last number of summers have been quite competitive and crowded,” Iger said during the call with analysts. “I don’t think it’s been more crowded or competitive (than previous years) although a lot of attention has been paid to it.”
Iger cited “Iron Man 3″ as an example of a film that not only succeeded at the box office this summer but also outperformed the first two installments. With $1.2 billion under its belt, it’s the second highest grossing Marvel film behind “The Avengers,” which earned $1.5 billion.
First of all, Iron Man 3 had a charismatic star and was made more like an action cop movie than a superhero movie, but let’s not get bogged down in arguing over the content. Instead I might simply ask Iger: Does it bother you that you’re only making money on existing franchises and that you fail miserably every time you try to create a new one? How long do you expect this to be a tenable strategy?
I’ve made this point in longer, more articulate ways in the past, but with every other medium getting more and more specialized to serve a more targeted audience (valuing depth of fandom as well as breadth, if you will), the big movie studios keep going the opposite direction. They’re spending lots of money to try to appeal to everyone, and in the process often not appealing to anyone. If the medium is going to last, you have to make movies that people love, not just ones they tolerate. At the very least, try a “one for us, one for them” kind of strategy where you try to advance the art form in between trying to squeeze the most money out of the lowest common denominator. If they were actually doing that, do you think Zach Braff and Spike Lee would be making any money on Kickstarter?
But of course, guys like Bob Iger have no reason to think about the long-term health of the medium at the possible expense of short-term profit when there’s no way he’s even going to have this job two years from now anyway. Hopefully we get more Megan Ellisons in the business who want to create things, as well as make money. Because if not, we might as well all just strap on our birdhats and watch it burn.