When Warner Bros. put The Hangover into production, they gave Todd Phillips $35M and a ton of creative freedom (they only seemed to intervene when the director wanted to use real Tasers on his actors). The idea was that if he stayed under that budget, he could cast who he wanted (those guys?) and make the comedy he envisioned with limited studio interference. It was an admirable move that became even easier to praise when the movie destroyed box office records and launched a franchise with three new stars.
The Conjuring is a different beast, but its connection to The Hangover (not simply that they have the same distributor) is an interesting one for the sole reason of timing. Released months apart from each other, the final Hangover installment scored another $112M domestic from a budget of $103M (from humble beginnings…), and in less time, James Wan‘s haunted house movie will overtake that domestic amount for $15M less than the cost of the original Hangover.
There’s a big lesson here, and hopefully Hollywood is paying attention (but they probably aren’t).
First of all, let’s get rid of the notion that what Warners did with The Hangover and what New Line did with The Conjuring were especially risky gambles. That’s a silly idea that requires us 1) to pretend that all other movies of any kind aren’t inherently gambles and 2) to mythologize that name recognition alone is any kind of guarantee for success and 3) to believe that creative freedom and constructive studio guidance are somehow more dangerous to filmmaking than a process fraught with committee horse-building.
Second of all, let’s appreciate the secret weapon that both movies had going for them: quality.
Say what you will through your backlash goggles (I don’t know why Google makes them in the first place), but try to remember how pretty much everyone felt about The Hangover when it came out. High praise from critics and fans, positive word of mouth from audiences leaving theaters. That’s what The Conjuring has in spades, and it’s what opened the door for Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman to release it into the wild during a month where superheroes are patrolling the streets trying to kill anything without a cape.
If anything was a gamble in this process, it was trusting that audiences would want to be scared while the sun was shining. Although, it’s not like major studios care all that much about releasing horror in October or anything.
But their secret weapon helped immensely in building success. The dirty secret in a world where marketing has overtaken some of the darker corners of development is that the one thing that ensures a hit is out of reach no matter how much the ad department spends. Enthusiastically good word of mouth — that oasis pooling up from positive audience response — is not for sale. If you want to secure it, you have to have a movie that connects. You have to make something so good that people not only like it, they also want to tell their friends how much.
And there’s the ultimate lesson that will probably fall on deaf ears. Granted, it’s difficult to hear over the sound of adding The Inception BWAAAAAMMMMM to your latest trailer, but if studio mathematicians are looking at the raw basics, a lower-range middle-budget movie without A-list celebrities (but not without stellar acting talent) and devoid of studio meddling just beat a fictional set of odds to score large.
So why is that considered more of a gamble than spending $200M on a flashy tentpole and another $200M on worldwide marketing on the hopes that a second-tier comic book character will become Billy, Mohammed, Biyu, and Maria’s new favorite toy? Probably because the stakes are lower. The Conjuring has yet to see the bulk of international theaters, but it’s also nowhere near the top of general box office lists. Earning $136M worldwide in a few weeks is amazing, but it seems small when compared to, say, another Warner Bros. release like Man of Steel. For now, superheroes still win. (Except when they lose in painfully bad, bottom-line-eating ways.)
Not to be flippant about what it takes to become a phenomenon-level success, though. Making great movies is very, very difficult. However, trusting a creative team to do the best possible work (as opposed to believing that your non-creative team can make art better) should be a less endangered species in the filmmaking process than it is. Hopefully with this success, the Big Six will all stop seeing lower budget dramas and genre fare as gambles, and start viewing them as what they truly are: opportunities to create great work that will be appreciated by audiences and accountants.
Good on you, New Line and Warners.