Getting People to Care: Why the 2012 Box Office Is Breaking Records

by: Phil Siegel

Well, that was quick.

After a dangerously slow 2011 at the box office, 2012 has managed a complete turnaround in just two months. Hollywood had a minor freakout that people, especially young men, were abandoning the multiplexes. 2011 had the lowest number of admissions since 1995, and even with 3-D surcharges, revenue declined 4%. But now? Box office receipts are up – way up. Admissions have increased a whopping 25%, according to Entertainment Weekly. Despite multiple home entertainment options, piracy, high ticket prices, text-happy audience members and fattening concessions, people still enjoy going to the movies. And no matter what excuse reporters give for the upswing – mild winter, brightening economy – the main motivator behind this rebound is the movies. If you make movies people want to see, then they will go see it.

So what is Hollywood doing right? They aren’t making better films from a review standpoint. No movie currently in the top 10 has a fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes.[1] Instead, they remembered that it’s not about how you make the film but how you market it. Today, a movie’s success is determined on its opening weekend, not by word-of-mouth. Movies earn around 35% of their total gross in the first weekend, then disappear from theaters a few weeks later. They don’t have to be good. The marketing just has to be loud enough and on point. If the movie’s any good, it’s an added plus.

Hit films this year have had flawless marketing campaigns. Young males, those guys we thought had ditched the movies forever, came flocking back for Found Footage films The Devil Inside, Chronicle, and Project X. Movies in this genre have the built-in gimmick of looking like a real life YouTube video. The studios got creative with their marketing campaigns, relying heavily on social media to get the word out. Paramount perfected this approach with its “Demand It!” campaign for the 2009’s Paranormal Activity. Studios also utilized unorthodox methods, such as having people-shaped aircraft fly over Manhattan to promote Chronicle.[2] Compare this to the 2011 movies for young males released last year, such as The Rite, The Eagle, The Mechanic and Season of the Witch. Their marketing campaigns were as generic as their titles – some TV spots during sports here, an official webpage there. Those movies averaged a final gross of $26.6 million. The 2012 Found Footage trio is averaging $49.1 million and counting.

It’s not just movies for the under-25 set that’s connecting with strong marketing this year. Sony’s marketing team made everyone believe The Vow was based on a Nicholas Sparks book. They emphasized Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum’s past involvement in Sparks adaptations. The studio also put a “Sweet Nothings” video of Tatum on the film’s Facebook page.[3] The Vow is an unabashed chick flick aimed squarely at women and has outgrossed 2011 misogynistic comedies Just Go With It, The Dilemma and Hall Pass released last year.

Men have rallied behind action films Contraband, Safe House and Act of Valor. Safe House had slick ads with Jay-Z and Kanye songs blasting in the background. Denzel Washington also made frequent appearances on the talk show circuit. [4] For Act of Valor, Relativity Media conducted an extensive pre-release screening program for veterans, first responders and even the President. They also bought four spots in the Super Bowl to reach its older male, patriotic target. The movie’s reported marketing budget was $20 million higher than its production budget. [5]

Taking the cake is animated film The Lorax. Its marketing campaign had tie-in sponsorships with Mazda, IHOP, Comcast, Pottery Barn Kids, Whole Foods, and 65 other partners.[6] There’s even Lorax approved toilet paper.[7] People criticized Universal of going overboard. The result? A $70 million opening, which is the third biggest opening in March, and more than 2011’s Rango and Gnomeo & Juliet combined.

For those who don’t believe in the power of marketing, may I direct your attention to John Carter, Disney’s colossal, $250 million bomb that opened this weekend. The studio has received more press for its awful marketing campaign than for the actual movie, and it’s easy to see why. None of the TV spots explained what the movie was about. We saw a shirtless Taylor Kitsch fighting a fuzzy beast, not unlike the climactic scene in Coneheads. We saw a four-armed, green creature waving to a crowd. That’s about it. The film’s pricey Super Bowl spot consisted of small images from the movie spelling out John Carter. Because everyone knows John Carter, right?

Additionally, the movie had zero interest from women, which is necessary to have a broad appeal hit. Both Safe House and Contraband’s audiences skewed half female, due to Denzel and Mark Wahlberg’s sex appeal. Not until recently did the John Carter marketing campaign attempt to tell us about the main character or plot. But it was too little, too late. John Carter will be lucky if it earns back one-third of its production budget domestically.

With The Hunger Games, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, it seems likely that 2012 will continue its breakneck pace. They just have to remember the most important objective of a marketing campaign: getting people to care, if only for one weekend.

Philip Siegel grew up in New Jersey, just down the block from a veritable Real Housewife. He graduated from Northwestern University and promptly moved out to Los Angeles, where he became an NBC page. Phil likes to think that the character of Kenneth on 30 Rock is loosely based on his life rights. Currently, he works at a major Chicago advertising agency by day while he writes novels at night and during his commute sandwiched in between colorful characters on the El. His plays have been performed on stage and radio, and he has published articles about gay line dancing bars and the French box office, among other fundamental topics. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @FillupSeagull.

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