Speaking on Radio 5 Live to Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode today, Andrew Stanton, director of John Carter, complained that people were fixated on “the money”. “It’s the most boring subject in the world”, he protested. “I make films for myself.”
Of course, it is difficult to criticise someone with his track record (Toy Story, Wall-E, Finding Nemo, etc). But, as Kermode later protested, if you spend $250m on making a film, people are bound to focus on the money. Investors want a return. When you have spent $250m dollars – and, let’s say a further $100m for marketing – getting a healthy return is an uphill struggle.
Last year, two superb films about the history of cinema were released. As it happens, they both focused on the end of the silent movie era. They were both released on the same weekend in November. They were both the vision of independently minded producers. And they both won five Oscars.
In business terms, though, the story of The Artist and Hugo couldn’t be more different. In the box office – to date – Hugo has lorded it over The Artist, with global receipts of around $137m against $80m. But this is not the whole story: as everyone knows, Hugo cost around $170m to make; The Artist around $17m. Stripping out marketing and distribution costs, then, one movie is still in deficit while one has made a 500% gross profit.
Of course, Hugo was the work of an established master, shot in expensive 3D, with a stellar cast and a huge, purpose-built set. The Artist was the antithesis of this. In truth, both are brilliant but ultimately niche films. Even given the fair wind of marketing on their Oscars success, both would be lucky to double their current box office take. Neither would ever stand a chance of hitting the billion-dollar mark that John Carter would love to bust.
But, if you spend blockbuster sums making a film, the only sensible route is to spend blockbuster sums on marketing it. That, at least, is something that Disney seemed to have understood with John Carter. Even if its mid-Superbowl ad was considered an expensive flop, at least John Carter is being heavily promoted.
In contrast, it seems to me that Hugo was horribly under-trailed in UK cinemas. I saw four movies – two of them family films – in late November and early December, yet saw no trailer. A close friend, who runs the film desk on a major national newspaper, was given no marketing collateral for the paper or its enormously popular website. Most of the money seems to have been spent on posters; a poor medium for a 3D spectacle. In contrast, backed by Weinstein nous, the marketing for The Artist was both wily and charming – and quietly (boom boom) ubiquitous. Hugo disappeared from our cinemas in mid-January; last weekend, The Artist was still playing to full houses.
The history of Hugo is complex; but given Graham King’s involvement, it is unlikely that naivety is the root of its relative failure at the box office. It is a great film. If you haven’t already seen it, blame the movie marketing – and if you can still find a cinema showing it (particularly in 3D), go. You should also see The Artist. And remember that the same ticket represents a 10 times greater ROI on one film than the other.