The Paradox of Blockbuster Event Movies

By  · Published on July 15th, 2015

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster

Disney/Marvel

When Screencrush’s Matt Singer went to Comic-Con this year, he experienced the best that a mile-long fandom line has to offer as well as the blunt talk of studio executives. At the “Studio Production Chiefs Speak” panel, he heard how some sausage is made, and came away with a quote from Fox’s Daria Cercek that confirmed the special ingredient we’ve all suspected made it into the meaty blend for blockbuster movies: an Event.

They want something that will force people off their sofas, away from their computers, into their cars, onto the highway and into theater parking lots.

No real shock that movie studios have been aware of the surge in TV and online content (since they’ve been battling TV’s incursion for half a century), but it’s nice to have blunt confirmation of where their minds are at now. This is the way studio executives view the playing field. Maybe most executives, maybe all.

You should read Matt’s article. Here’s his money response to Cercek’s comment:

If you’re looking for proof that Hollywood has essentially abandoned “adult storytelling” to television, look no further than those words. That’s simply not what mainstream movies are about anymore. They’re about events. And events are not defined by their quality; they‘re defined by their importance. Good or bad is ultimately irrelevant. Terrible but significant is vastly preferable to fantastic but trivial.

Matt also points to Jaws, a film widely seen as the birthplace of Big Ass Summer Movies, which brings us to the paradox of modern event films. It has at least two parts.

One, Jaws was based off a best-selling novel, but that in no way set it apart from thousands of other movies, and the “eventness” of the event was planned and executed beautifully by Universal, who spent a ridiculous amount (for the time) on TV ads for a roadshow-style roll out that drove people crazy enough to drive two towns over to the one area movie theater playing the film that weekend.

But – as any indie distributor can tell you – scarcity isn’t enough to drive demand. The reason that Jaws became an event is because the movie was really, really good. Because of that, word of mouth did all the heavy lifting, and the film raked in money to a blistering effect.

That’s the key, though. Without a great movie (one, in fact, that has survived 40 years and only grown in the height of its regard), those lines around the block never exist. Or at least they die out pretty quick. That suggests a two-step process for busting blocks:

  1. Say you have an event.
  2. Have that event deliver.

Thus, an “event movie” is something designed and launched by a studio, but perpetuated and cultivated by the people.

The problem with this is an obvious one. Studios can craft the hell out of advertising campaigns that cost as much as the production budget of the film, but it’s near impossible to make another Jaws. Or half as good as Jaws. Even when you throw all the right ingredients together, you can end up with something uninteresting, and ultimately disappointing, for fans.

Universal Pictures

Matt contextualizes the new studio event mindset by looking at this summer’s successes and disasters. Jurassic World, Age of Ultron, Fast 7? All events. Tomorrowland and Terminator: Genisys? Not events. One line is for winners, the other is for losers.

This feels right. However, I see this hindsight estimation of events as too easy to describe in positive and negative terms. What about Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the role that made him famous wasn’t an event? (There’s no excusing Tomorrowland and its terrible advertising.) Matt negates it because of the rehash nature of the film, which leads me to believe that Paramount might have done better to show as little as possible in their trailers, because those are what keyed us into the rehash-y feel of it all. Event diminished.

The point is that it’s easy to describe flops in terms of the event they were attempting to be, the event that the executives saw when they developed it. This is the maddening problem for studio heads looking for huge hits. Even when you can visualize the eventness of the event, it may not end up being an event. That’s the second part of the paradox.

Which leads us back to Jaws. How easy was it to guess that it would be the size success that it was – production nightmares and all? The paradox is that studios are relying so heavily on name-recognition and franchising that they jump at the chance for what seems like an event (Arnold’s back!) while closing off the possibility of something like Jaws surprising everyone. Some are limiting their field of vision to exclude the potential power of gambles because they don’t fit into a formula that doesn’t guarantee anything to begin with. The “formula” fails a lot.

Perhaps the lesson that studio executives have learned in the modern marketplace – the lesson that Matt has uncovered and pinned down in his editorial – is that you can get away with step one of the event formula (“It’s an event because we said it’s an event!”) while skipping step two (for the most part). Within a certain margin of error, movies can be not-awesome and still make a lot of money.

Here is where Matt’s article really nails down the problem. The key weakness to Jaws is that its quality led the charge of its success, and it isn’t that studios aren’t concerned with quality, but that they’re chasing summer dollars like Mayor Vaughn every single time out, and they haven’t gotten particularly good at ensuring long legs on their event.

But there’s a potential problem with the eventification of Hollywood. Something can only be singular once; once repeated, it loses its luster – and Hollywood’s other primary strategy is to repeat established brands over and over. They’re working on the second Spider-Man reboot in three years, and new interpretations of old favorites like Ghostbusters, The Jungle Book, Power Rangers, and Friday the 13th are all due in theaters in the next year or two. All of these films will be presented as landmarks in the history of cinema. But what’s to differentiate one particular production as momentous and exceptional if every single blockbuster is sold as momentous and exceptional – and every single one is a rehash of what’s come before?

Emphasis mine. Matt is right on the money. Every studio is going to tell us that their reboot/sequel/whatever is a game-changing experience that will awesome-ize our bland lives only to do it again one week later. It at least seems that it’s easier to craft a marketing scheme structured to invent an event than to bank on the movie itself being good.

On the other hand what about all the successes that don’t fall into the “event” pattern? How would Cercek or any other executive explain them, and if an explanation doesn’t matter, how would she respond to that different recipe for wild success?

Warner Bros. Entertainment

How was American Sniper (the highest grossing movie of 2014) an “event”? Or The LEGO Movie? How was Maleficent an event? Why would Ant-Man be considered an event outside of being “The Next Marvel Movie,” or is “The Next Marvel Movie” always an event now? What about Pixar?

The key is that you had some movies resonate beyond their eventness, creating success of a size that wasn’t expected. Which, in turn, turned them into events (see: The Hangover).

The scratched side of that coin is a movie like Battleship, which was a hard sale as an event (finally you’re 9th favorite board game is a movie!), but I have no doubt that if the movie itself had been better, it would have made more money. No question. Studios obsess over having a giant first weekend, but movies can survive without one if everyone tells their friends how they’ve got to go see it, and people only do that when a movie is great.

Compare Battleship to Mad Max: Fury Road. The latter had a bigger opening weekend (how was it an “event”?), but it also kept making money because people spread the word about how awesome it was and/or saw it multiple times. Critics may not matter anymore (debatable), but word of mouth can still be a killer or a savior.

Matt’s article is vital, but I’m not convinced that we’ve seen a true test of the power of a studio to eventize a movie beyond its natural ability to impress. The purest form of this would be a movie that’s genuinely not very good but works as an event. Even considering Transformers, there has to be a threshold of massive acceptability. What we’re willing to spend our money on past opening week.

One of the closest tests might be comparing The Avengers to Age of Ultron. The former was a genuine event, one that felt organically like a Thing Not To Miss for a gigantic portion of the population. I’m not sure exactly how the second one stacks up in that context by contrast, but here are some numbers that might help:

The first film scored an A+ CinemaScore and 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. The sequel scored an A CinemaScore and 74% on RT.

That drop had to mean something, or maybe the scope of the event wasn’t as obvious. The Avengers coming together for the first time was an Event, but the Avengers coming together for a second time was an “event” worth $200m less.

I recognize that a ton has changed since Jaws, but if studio execs are genuinely focused on eventalizing every tentpole release, they cannot afford to get tied up in confirmation bias. Try to force an event as much as you want, but don’t shut yourself off completely from movies (like The Hangover) that become events on their own. Instead of claiming that Thing We Recognize = Event, consider that very few movies become events until the audience says so. Parties exist not only because people show up, but because people stick around.

The audience is the most powerful thing that can crush an attempted event with apathy or magnify it beyond all reason. My hope is that what Matt said about the downside to eventificating everything will ultimately lead to a grand scale reconsideration of how properties get developed (or why some are ignored). At any rate, this confusing paradox should give us all a peek inside the insanely difficult task facing the people at the top of the filmmaking chain.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.