Monday, June 07, 2010

"I Heard of It" The Pull of The Familiar

Year after year I continue to be stunned by the near omnipotence of familiarity when it comes to ticket purchasing. With so much media noise about "what's good" in the form of blogs, reviews, articles, and whatnot, it's still nearly always marketing dollars and pre-established "names" that determine what people spend their money on. Even when people didn't like one movie in a franchise, they'll go again. I've previously referred to this as The Blockbuster Loop.

Actual conversation overheard in an elevator last weekend:
Movieless Woman: What's that?
Bootleg Loving Woman: [Holding a bootleg DVD of Prince of Persia] It's good.
Movieless: [Pointing at Jake Gyllenhaal] Who's that?
Bootleg: The Prince! It's good.
Movieless: You watched it already?
Bootleg: No, we watching it tonight. It's good.
Movieless: How do you know?
Bootleg: [exasperated] I heard of it.
Movieless: [pause] I wanna see that Robin Hood.
The conversation continued briefly after this. "Movieless" had not heard of Prince of Persia (or Jakey apparently). So "Bootleg" turned to me (!), the complete stranger eavesdropping, for backup. "It's good, right???"

Reader, I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders, feigning ignorance. That's what's called a leading question and I don't think she was looking for critical discourse.

What struck me most about the conversation was the equation of "heard of" = "good." Even Movieless, deprived all of these years of Jake Gyllenhaal, confirmed this. Hadn't heard of equalled skeptical. She wanted to see Robin Hood; "Heard of" = "Good". Everyone has heard of Robin Hood. Therefore Good. That's how it works. Honestly, have you ever met anyone who loves that movie? How did it do so well? It wasn't word of mouth. It was the 'I heard of it' [sic] factor.

Top Ten of 2010 Thus Far
  1. Alice in Wonderland [heard of it x all living things + Johnny Depp]
  2. Iron Man 2 [heard of it x everyone who was conscious during Summer 2008]
  3. How to Train Your Dragon
  4. Shrek Forever After [heard of it x past nine years]
  5. Clash of the Titans [remake + 3D fad + hey, it's jakesully]
  6. Shutter Island [heard of x Leonardo DiCaprio + hit book]
  7. Valentine's Day [heard of x at least a few of the cast members]
  8. Date Night [heard of x two mega small screen stars]
  9. The Book of Eli [heard of x Denzel Washington]
  10. Robin Hood [heard of it x all living things + Russell Crowe]
Just about the only arguable exception here is How To Train Your Dragon but even that is based on a hit children's book. Incidentally, of the top ten of the year so far it's the film that has had the slowest profit decline from week to week. It's now just 2 million away from becoming Dreamworks biggest animated feature outside of the Shrek franchise. So the "heard of it" factor is really about what it's about in a better world which is your classic garden variety Word of Mouth.

Some established brands, sequels, adaptations. B.O. rank for 2010 thus far

Once you fall a little further in the box office race, the familiarity begins to fade... a little, with more titles that aren't completely reliant on instant familiarity. But it's still an important factor. Consider the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (While it's only earned $7 million here in the States, that's a huge fortune in the current climate for subtitled features where films are lucky to hit the million dollar mark. That's three times what Let The Right One In earned in its US run and that film seemed like a Word of Mouth sensation. It would have easily hit 8 figures a decade ago when audiences were so much more willing to see foreign films). The Girl... is of course based on an international best seller. It's hard to go a day on the subway without seeing someone reading it. Heard of it!

If I were a young filmmaker with a truly original voice, I'd be sorely tempted to "reinterpret" some famous story or adapt a minor success book. Perhaps pre-established familiarity with an original spin is the best way to maintain your creativity and get noticed?


CT said...

"Shudder" Island. Intentional, or no?

James T said...

The funny thing is that people like the ones you overheard talking, see the movie they "heard" about and then they're like "Fuck. It was bad"

Really?? Who woulda thought?

Volvagia said...

It's anticipated not because of the star power or the trailers, or even Nolan's skill. It's being anticipated because even in the trailers they're allowing a sense of mystery to be there, mostly highlighting plot basics and one great moment (See also: Scott Pilgrim. In English cinema, great, interesting ad campaigns are only tied to either horror films or films that are trying to be great (Artistic or Commercial). (Or, in the case of the Antichrist scissor poster, both horror and artistic. I know I'm going to try to see that film eventually. Even if it disgusts me on every single level imaginable.)

Volvagia said...

Except it's not "Word of Mouth", which is normal people telling friends to see a film. It's "Words of Their Mouth". As in, TV is indoctrinating people with the words of the film studios mouths.

par3182 said...

box office smash = people are idiots (it's not an exact science but close enough)

James T said...

Nick - Answer to your tweet: Post it here and then Nathaniel can edit the post by just putting a link to your blog or just deleting it or whatever he thinks is best. Quite unorthodox, I know, but I can't wait.

PS: Nathaniel, sorry for the totally off-topic comment and obviously it's your blog and you can do whatever you want with it.

sewa mobil said...

Nice Movie. Must see it

Andrew R. said...

You really should have told that woman that Prince of Persia was a heap of shit. And Robin Hood too.

If I were to rearrange those Top 10:

How To Train Your Dragon
Iron Man 2
Shutter Island
Date Night
Alice in Wonderland
Shrek 4
Robin Hood
Book of Eli
Clash of the Titans
Valentine's Day

Granted, I have not seen a few of those...but friends have.

Christine said...

Tooth Fairy made 60 million? I have no problem with the fact that there are a lot of people out there who go the movies to relax and aren't interested in thinking too hard about them. After all, not everyone can be interested in everything. However, I don't get how The Rock in a tutu with a cute kid = something someone would pay eight dollars to see.

Lev Lewis said...

Wow, I'm kinda proud of myself for only having seen four of those. Of course, two of them were "Clash" and "Valentine's", so my pride only extends so far.

I really love these exchanges you share. Overhearing random film-related conversations or even having to be involved in them is often completely devastating/awkward/hilarious. Whenever I'm involved I usually either come across as completely ignorant, because I just try and avoid involvement, or a total snob, and then people just think I'm an asshole.

But really, how does one handle these situations?

Barry, Milwaukee said...

During my eleven years of working at a video store, I almost lost my mind after hearing the phrase "It's supposed to be good" about 100,000 times.

Kyle said...

Can I just say this about Alice in Wonderland? I was interested in it for about 30 minutes...and then got bored...and then the moment Johnny Depp decided to breakdance, I just got embarrassed.

Terrible movie, Tim Burton has officially sold his soul to the studio system.

Volvagia said...

Alice in Wonderland isn't 8 1/2. It's a solid, workable piece of commercial filmmaking. And I actually think, overall, it's a great, if slow, movie with an admittedly awful final twenty seconds.

Christine said...

Volvagia: I guess this is what I don't understand--why pay to see something that is just "a solid, workable piece of commercial film making? There are tons of things you can do for free if that is the level of entertainment you're looking for. (And I don't mean that to be judgmental--many days that IS the level of entertainment I'm looking for; I'm just too cheap to spend much money or time on it.)

Granted, my perspective is prob. colored by the fact that I live in a somewhat rural area and it takes me 30 to 40 minutes to get to a decent movie theater. I don't expect every movie I see to be a masterpiece, but I try to save my movie-going outings for something that at least seems to be trying. Otherwise, I'd rather buy some cheap bottles of wine and watch "Make Me a Supermodel" with some friends.

Arkaan said...

Alice in Wonderland is the fifth highest grossing film of all time.

HOW THE HELL DID THAT HAPPEN. It's like popular culture died and people forgot to have a wake.


arkaan -- i think it was the perfect storm of

a) Johnny Depp
b) Tim Burton being totally a corporate brand and no longer a film artist (and people love their corporate brands)
c) an established story that everyone in the known world has some connection/understanding of and feelings about
d) being the big name big star 3-d extravaganza directly on Avatar's heels.

Volvagia said...

Believe me, if I determined what my family bought, rented and went to the show for, I'd be the same way. Scott Pilgrim or The Kids are Alright would be summer preferences, based on what I've seen (trailers) and heard respectively, with Inception as an enthusiastic plan B if no one wants to see either of my other choices. Plus, Cera probably won't be monoemotional in Scott Pilgrim, as compared to his Juno and Nick and Norah parts (Jason Reitman = Great style, great lead performances, disappointing surrounding performances. Edgar Wright = Great style and consistent great performances of varying types. The kind of consistency that draws most people's attention away from great performances. (Consider: Timothy Dalton as Mustache Twirler, Jim Broadbent as, mostly, The Supportive Boss before being re-cast as The Ironically Psychotic Villain, Nick Frost as The Lazy Best Friend x2, 2.0 with a dramatic twist at the end, and Pegg as Everyman/Everycop. Plus Shaun of the Dead's style. (I count PT Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Sam Raimi, Kathryn Bigelow and Ealing Studios as influences so far on Edgar Wright. One style smith, one character director, a couple that maintain balance and a classic comedy studio. Jason Reitman? In 2005 he cites Kubrick, Alexander Payne, PT + Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith has minimal artistic or character uniqueness, PT Anderson has minimal artistic uniqueness but with some rich characters while Wes Anderson has style without a lot of character. Kubrick is pure style, no character and Payne is pure character, no style. Reitman has picked influences that leave him to try to get something cohesive. Wright, meanwhile, may grasp to mix his influences, but he also picks new ones each movie. (Scott Pilgrim actually looks to be another attempt at what Ang Lee was trying to do with Hulk, yet with a more acceptable piece of source material.))) As for Cholodenko, well, there's always DVD.