Saturday, 27 July 2013

How Much is the Geek Dollar Worth?

In the aftermath of the meat grinder that is San Diego Comic Con and with the relative underperformance of Pacific Rim (in cinemas now! Go see it!) I’ve been wondering how much of a dollar figure can you put on the support of the worldwide, internet savvy nerd. Are films and comic books destined to remain in some form of ghetto? Ignored by the mass audience until something like “The Avengers” or “Harry Potter” breaks out into the mainstream once a decade? Full disclosure, I’m a geek. I play video games, have watched and enjoyed Anime, read comics etc. But I’m also financially minded, I studied Business in college and work in that area, I read a lot of articles about economics and finance. My life is clearly thrill a minute stuff to be sure. As a result of my education, I’ve always been interested in the business part of “entertainment business.” I’ve been known to read a book or two about the topic on my commute to work.

First, let’s talk “Pacific Rim”. I saw it, loved it and will likely try to see it again before it leaves cinemas. I’m sure many of you reading this had the same reaction. My Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of my friends saying great things about the film. It’s probably got the best word of mouth of any film this summer. But the end result is that the movie will struggle to achieve $100 million in its theatrical release in the United States. It’s good money to be sure but it’s far behind several inferior films released this summer. A cinema ticket costs ten dollars, a 3-d ticket somewhere around fourteen dollars. Going by those metrics probably around seven to nine million Americans will pay to go see Pacific Rim in the cinema. When you take into account those of us that will go see it twice or even three times the number of paying individuals shrinks down to the lower end of that 7 to 9 million figure.

That’s a reasonably sized market, but it’s only about 3% of the population of the entire country going to see one of the biggest and best summer films of the year. The film clearly hasn’t hit the mainstream in the way that its makers would have liked. It had a few things going against it: no brand name recognition and no “stars” being the main ones. Studios cannot make money selling a mass released product to 3% of the people, which means that films need to reach a broad audience. One way of ensuring this has been to take product from other sources and adapt it. Comics and books are the old reliables for adaptation as evidenced by the proliferation of comic books on screen we’ve seen since the mid-nineties. World War Z was based on a well-received, though not really mainstream book. Adaptations of pre-existing material have benefits, if they’re good they have a built in fan base and have a story arc mapped out on the page which means less guessing as to how to fix those problems in the third act.

Pacific Rim is an original creation, more or less, it’s heavily influenced by Japanese monster and mecha films and shows but it’s not a straightforward adaption of any of them. As a result it’s not as easy to market it to mainstream audiences. Most peoples experiences with the genres it draws from are “Godzilla” or something brought over from Japan and badly dubbed to be shown to an audience of sugar crazed eight year olds in the mid to late eighties. Telling people that the movie is “Robotech versus Godzilla” isn’t going to sell tickets. We’ve already been burned by that sort of thing thanks to Matthew Broderick. One complaint I’ve read about Pacific Rim is that the trailers didn’t grab people. This is most likely because the coolest stuff from the film isn’t blown in the trailers. This is something that’s infected Hollywood in a big way this past decade. The money shots are used up in two minutes of footage shown four months before the film is released. It drags people in to see the film but it also leaves audiences with a bad taste in their mouths once the film is finished 

Which brings me to San Diego Comic Con, this years’s convention was the biggest ever. 140,000 people passed through the doors of the convention centre to see previews of next year’s slate of geek friendly product. There were massive queues, some crying, new trailers etc. What got good buzz? The Hunger Games, The announcement of Batman versus Superman, The Marvel Studios panel and Agents of SHIELD. These properties don’t really need SDCC to sell themselves, they’re based on pre-existing material with a large fanbase. The trailer for Catching Fire could have been released at any time and garnered just as much attention. Batman versus Superman is a fine idea until you hear that Zack Snyder is directing it because you can then be assured that the plot can be written in two sentences: Batman and Superman are manipulated by some villain to fight each other. They then team up to take down said villain.

SDCC is a great promotional tool but it mainly works for pre-existing properties and caters to those fan-bases. The hype about the show being where projects are made or broken is just hype. There’s very little in the way of evidence to back up that assumption. New properties, whether they’re independent comics or new TV shows don’t break out into the main stream from a good showing at SDCC. I went to SDCC a few years back, one of those years there was reasonable buzz about the “Bionic Woman” pilot that was shown. The result? The series didn’t survive. Good word of mouth from SDCC didn’t help it reach a worthwhile audience share. Maybe there are examples of breakout successes for new properties from the convention but I’m honestly struggling to remember any. The  hype generated by SDCC doesn’t pass beyond the people who were probably going to buy or watch the product anyway and that audience isn’t particularly large to begin with.  

So in short, the engaged, hardcore geek audience is small, maybe it’s five million people in the United States and a few percent of the global market worldwide. There’s money to be made there for sure. But is it enough money to fund massive films and base an enterprise on? I think this year and next year will show it for certain. The summer blockbusters this year all underperformed except for Iron Man 3 (which was successful on the back of 2 previous films and the Avengers). Will the blockbuster season become one breakout hit per year with a bunch of barely profitable also rans like this summer has been? It’s a scary thought and it would mean that our summer films become ever more generic, mindless and dumb in order to get Joe and Joan Average to attend them in cinemas. Scripts and production design will continue to fall in importance in the Studio’s minds as it will all be about the marketing. Trailers will continue to show the best moments of the movie in order to get people in the doors. Which is exactly what Pacific Rim didn’t do and is now paying for.  Go see Pacific Rim and show the studios that there’s an audience for a superior summer film, before it’s too late

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