Know Your Audience: How Studios Failed at the First Rule of Storytelling in 2015

By  · Published on November 18th, 2015

As we get closer to the end of the year and movie sites ready their round-up articles looking back on the year that was 2015 in cinema, there’s one trend that can’t be overlooked, and that’s the string of star-powered or big budget films that flopped.

Upon a first skim through the list, there doesn’t appear to be a pattern or particular shared quality among the films that flopped. Big budget blockbusters like Fantastic Four and Pan didn’t connect with audiences. Neither did smaller, critically acclaimed films like the highly-anticipated Steve Jobs and Our Brand is Crisis, both of which originally seemed poised to enter the Oscar conversation at one point.

Not even star power could save certain films this year. A bankable star like Vin Diesel couldn’t save The Last Witch Hunter from flopping, nor could fan favorite Tom Hiddleston stop audiences giving a lukewarm reception to Crimson Peak. Channing Tatum couldn’t save the mess that was Jupiter Ascending, and George Clooney wasn’t enough of a pull for audiences to embrace Tomorrowland.

Granted, some of the movies that failed this year failed because they were simply not very good movies (looking at you, Mortdecai), or for other clear-cut reasons. It could be argued, for example, that Fantastic Four’s chances were torpedoed before the movie even hit theaters by the bad buzz created on social media from the moment it started the casting process. But for the most part, the failure of so many films this year is perplexing, mystifying, even.

Yet a dip beneath the surface reveals that there is one trend that ties all of these box office disappointments together: At at least one crucial juncture, the fundamental tenet of storytelling – “know your audience” – was completely overlooked. In some cases, it was overlooked every step of the way. Too often this year, studios found themselves scrambling to account for a considerable box office loss that could have been avoided had they simply once ever asked themselves, “Just because we can make this movie, does it mean that we should?”

Just because we can make this movie, does it mean that we should?

Michael Fassbender vehicle, Steve Jobs, is a perfect example of this. With Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs biopic so close in the audience’s rearview mirror, the timing was simply off. But more than that, it’s the simple truth that, well, no one cares that much about Steve Jobs outside of Steve Jobs fans, a group that still reveres the late Apple co-founder as a revolutionary god. To target an already limited audience with a film that undermines that reverence and paints their hero in an unflattering light, whether or not true? Not really the story Apple fans want to see.

The audience needs to remain squarely in a studio’s sights the entire way through the process, from pre- to post-production, not just at the moment a project gets greenlit. Casting is the second area in which so many films dropped the ball in 2015. This was the year that showed studios they can’t continue to keep churning out whitewashed versions of ethnic and cultural stories when people of color account for almost half the domestic moviegoing population. Pan received backlash for casting the very Caucasian Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American character. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings received even more for its completely white cast playing ancient Egyptian characters. And judging from the bonkers Gods of Egypt trailer released yesterday, it’s a lesson that Hollywood hasn’t learned yet, which is why I suspect we’ll soon be adding that film to the list of upcoming flops (though it may be buffered a bit by a release date in the traditionally weak February market).

The casting process also fails, however, when the studio overestimates the bankability of its star or stars. We need look no further than Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as an example. It failed the audience test on two levels: First, that the brand was not one that was familiar to the vast majority of moviegoers – at least a full 75% of the domestic moviegoing demographic wasn’t even born by the time the original TV series ended. There was no familiarity, no nostalgia, and no connection to the title. The second failure was in the casting. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are both fine actors, and when Ritchie’s film was released this summer, many critics praised it for being smart and entertaining. But Armie Hammer has shown he can’t carry a film as a lead or co-lead (case in point, last year’s The Lone Ranger). And to those that would argue that Henry Cavill is a huge star now, thanks to being Superman, I’d counter that fans only respond to him as Superman. They embrace Cavill as the character, not the actor himself. Both men were great in the film, but in 2015, it doesn’t particularly matter what critics think of an actor or actress’ performance, particularly for blockbusters – it matters what the audience thinks.

All of this makes it seem as if a studio is in the clear as long as they a.) greenlight a story that audiences want to watch, b.) nail the casting, and c.) ensure that it doesn’t all go to hell during filming. Check those three boxes and a movie’s golden, right?

Well…not so fast.

The soaring cost of marketing must be also taken into account. With the success of a movie living and dying almost entirely in the opening weekend, the marketing of a movie is now as important as the movie itself. Marketing and promotion budgets for films have soared to hundreds of thousands of dollars in our one-shot climate, and sometimes even outstrip the budget for the actual production.

Much like a studio that doesn’t have a clear vision of the story it’s trying to tell and the audience to which it’s telling it, a movie marketing firm that doesn’t have a clear vision of the story it’s trying to sell will tank a film as soundly as anything the studio does. Take the aforementioned Crimson Peak. It had a fan-favorite director in Guillermo del Toro. Horror and the supernatural are hotter than ever at the box office. It had a strong, strong cast in Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Charlie Hunnam. Visually, it looked stunning. And critics really enjoyed it.

But the marketing was completely muddled. Was it a horror story? Was it a del Toro creature feature?

Actually, it was neither of those things, with del Toro himself speaking out during the publicity campaign and saying that it wasn’t the horror film the marketing was touting it to be, but a “gothic romance.” Likewise, the trailers and promo clips didn’t exactly clear up the confusion. Audiences had no idea what the movie was supposed to be about, or what the characters were doing: Was Tom Hiddleston’s character a good guy? Was he bad? What was the story even about?

And maybe that’s the lesson for studios and marketing teams to learn here. As the cost of production and marketing budgets has skyrocketed, so has the cost of movie tickets. In a recovering, but still nervous economy, people are tight with their money. It used to be that a moviegoer didn’t mind taking a chance on a movie, because it was only five to ten bucks wasted if the movie turned out to be a flop. But now, a family of four can easily spend well over $100 for a single night at the movies, between tickets, snacks, and possibly parking – an absurd figure for a simple night out. Going to the movie is no longer an easy pastime, but an investment. So audiences are more careful about making that investment, and if they don’t understand exactly what they’re getting, they won’t risk their money. Say what you want about modern trailers practically giving a movie plots away now, but that’s what audiences want. It’s what they need to feel secure that their hard-earned money won’t be going to waste on a movie that will only disappoint.

There should still be room for mystery, and the big reveal. There should still be room in Hollywood for the risky projects, the ones created entirely through passion, and for studios having a strong enough vision to ignore the demands of fans when it knows it has a potential hit on its hands. An industry that caters entirely to the whims of fans is a terrifying concept.

But studios should start understanding their fans on a far deeper and more intuitive level than they do now. People may gripe about the Marvel method, but it’s undeniable that at the moment, it’s the only studio that seems to be firing on all cylinders and whose films never miss their mark. The difference is not that Marvel caves to its audience; it’s that Marvel understands it. Other studios certainly shouldn’t try to become Marvel. For one, it would make for an incredibly boring entertainment industry, and for the second, it’s impossible. But the synergy between fans and that brand is something that other studios should very much look to emulate.

It would save them a lot of time and money, and a lot of movie bloggers from having to write articles, well…exactly like this.

Happy little nerd in a world made of words. | Editor-at-large: Moviepilot | Writer: Forbes, Marvel, and Film School Rejects | Contributor: Birth.Movies.Death.