Nothing To See Here?

It wasn’t a particularly great weekend to be part of the movie business.  Especially if you were part of the Universal team that had to deal with the kind of Debbie Downer news that proliferated in the wake of yet another box office disappointment.  As VARIETY’s Rebecca Rubin mournfully reported on Sunday:

The Fall Guy,” an action-comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, kicked off the summer movie season without much sizzle.

The film, backed by Universal and directed by David Leitch, fell just short of expectations with $28.5 million from 4,002 North American venues in its debut. Heading into the weekend, “The Fall Guy” was projected to earn at least $30 million to $40 million.

Well, I guess I should shoulder part of the blame. Universal actually seemed to be evoking a blueprint that created franchises such as MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–take an old TV show, offer a supersized reboot with top-name talent, and bring in both the current generation of movie-goers as well as the nostalgia lovers of a less core demo.  I was exactly who should have been racing out to see this at some point.  I actually remember the original FALL GUY TV series on which this far more explosive and big screen worthy execution was based.   Indeed, I even helped developed the plan to sell reruns of it, at a time when almost anything that ran four seasons was finding a welcoming syndication market.

But the problem that both OG and 21st century FALL GUY share is that they weren’t cheap, and hence actually making a profit eludes them.  Residuals for the large, costly cost of the TV show were prohibitively high, and by the time the 113 episodes were made available to licensees the show’s popularity had waned considerably.  There was never enough success to warrant even a single trade ad.   Rubin summed up the challenges that the current version faced and will continue to deal with:

The trouble is that the movie cost $140 million to produce, so it needs strong word of mouth and interest at the international box office to recoup its budget during its theatrical run. “The Fall Guy” opened to $25.4 million overseas, bringing its global total to $65.4 million.  There’s hope that “The Fall Guy” can stick around over the coming weeks… and that’s because Leitch’s prior film, 2022’s Brad Pitt-led assassin thriller “Bullet Train,” overcame similar box office odds.  Also, audiences and critics are digging the film, which landed an “A-” CinemaScore and 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.

All well and good, except the task at hand is to get people off their couches or away from other entertainment options at a time when fewer disposable dollars are available to most of us.  And when one considers exactly how much heavy lifting was needed to coax folks away from their home entertainment options, especially on a weekend that saluted both Star Wars (all-day marathons on cable networks, plus a one-day release on “May the Fourth” of PHANTOM MENACE that took in a bit more than half of what FALL GUY did over the full three-day stretch) and Cinco de Mayo, it’s hard to be upbeat about any serious chances for significant staying power.  Mother’s Day isn’t exactly an ideal time to expect a flurry of moviegoers to treat Mom to an action film, even one that stars Ken.

And it’s more than just bad timing that is working against theatrical success.  Really good movies have made their own stabs at theatrical releases only to underperform against even modest barometers, a fact that PUCK’s Matthew Belloni reported on yesterday when he let his subscribers in on some problems a couple of my other former colleagues have been facing:

Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, the stewards of Apple’s 5-year-old foray into Hollywood, were summoned to Cupertino last month for a curious sit-down. Tim Cook was there, I’m told, as was services V.P. Eddy Cue, the overseer of the content initiative and the Apple TV+ streaming platform. Budgets were on the agenda, of course, as was the breakdown in content spend between series and films. And notably, Cook and Cue are said to have asked some very tough questions about the company’s recent experiment with movie theaters.

According to Nielsen, the service still generates less than 0.5 percent of total viewership of connected TVs. That’s far below Peacock and Paramount+, long considered the also-rans of the streaming wars.  (M)ovie theaters were supposed to help fix the viewership problem. If Apple TV+ has low subscriber numbers (Apple has never revealed) and low engagement (they push back on those Nielsen numbers), a well-marketed theatrical movie with good word-of-mouth can raise awareness and at least get people to sample the product. 

Belloni, as per usual, tripped up on the finer details, neglecting to acknowledge that Nielsen data doesn’t include viewing on devices, and a company that is effectively making content to push sales and subscriptions to its phones and tablets, much like RCA did old-school TV with NBC and Sony did with what was Columbia, would more than prefer you stay within their walled gardens.  But he did accurately capture the concerns of the top brass, especially when he revealed some of the results Apple saw with movies that were even better received than FALL GUY:

Killers (Of The Flower Moon), with a production budget of between $200 million and $300 million, depending on whose B.S. numbers you believe, and a full-scale marketing campaign and awards push, grossed just $157 million worldwide. Not great. Killers was followed in November by Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, released by Sony, whose marketing chief, Josh Greenstein, did a nice job with a poorly reviewed movie. It cost far less than Killers and grossed more—$221 million worldwide—with 72 percent coming from overseas.  Still not great, but a better result than Matthew Vaughn’s disastrous Argylle, which Apple bought for $200 million and released via Universal in February to just $96 million worldwide, a true turkey.

For the moment, contends Belloni, it’s business as usual for JZ and company:  Lessons were learned, the duo promised, data was collected, and it’s early—the two career TV guys will figure this theater thing out.  

They might be able to take some solace in the fact that movie theatres aren’t the only legacy business facing existential challenges.  Witness what THE NEW YORK POST’s Shannon Thaler reported is worrying some of the other anchor tenants around malls and multiplexes:

Fast-food franchisees are worried that customers will defect to fast-casual options like Chili’s and Applebee’s as the state’s minimum-wage law forces basic burger joints to jack up menu prices to offset soaring labor costs.  The higher-priced chains aren’t subjected to the new wage requirements, which took effect April 1 and only apply to workers at limited-service restaurant chains — or eateries with at least 60 outposts nationwide where diners pay before eating and there is either no or limited table service. As a result, the price disparity between fast-food and casual-dining restaurants could shrink, Business Insider earlier reported, especially after California-based eateries have already lifted menu prices to offset the new $20 hourly wage — which is 25% above the state’s general minimum pay.

Their prices are climbing, but they’re still well below what movie theatres are charging for their num-nums, arguably no better quality.  This is an actual listing from a current advance-order AMC Theatres menu:

Sickening, no?  And that’s even before you take the first bite.
So may I offer up this potential solution to the myriad problems at hand, one that also borrows from the good old days:

More drive-in movies.

Heck, studios were screening old movies with success during the early days of the pandemic, socially distancing CARS for crissakes, and not even thinking about how much better the experience could have been by offering the option of a Jumbo Jack.   An SUV with reclining seats offers as much comfort as most living rooms do, and eliminates the main complaint that most Reddit posters have about movie theatres today.  This one from Almighty_Push91 succinctly sums up typical laments:

Tbh, I am much more selective now on when I go. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but my local theaters aren’t very good. People talk throughout the movie, and take out their phones. And there’s nothing to actually deter them from doing it. Add to the fact that the screens are usually dirty, and the seats not the cleanest.

If I’m going to pay money to leave the comfort of my home and go sit in a room with a bunch of strangers, it better at least be a good experience. Or else I can just sit at home and watch the movie when it inevitably goes on streaming for free without my pants on.

There are plenty of parking lots adjacent to half-empty malls that could easily accommodate a big screen.  Sure sounds like folks experienced with supplying food to people in cars would be willing to partner with the logistics of crowd control.  And hey, Apple, you probably know people in cars love using your devices.  You might even be able to push bonus content, with sponsorships, through your app to make the in-car experience worth the price of gas, or even the drain on battery life.

And hey, Universal, if your goal is to take as many cracks at getting people to sample your movie over the “long run” most analysts contend will be needed to make efforts like THE FALL GUY closer to whole, wouldn’t it be worth trying something other than merely making it available on Peacock as an intermediary step, especially when it’s abundantly clear going to a movie theatre to see it isn’t a call to action that’s resonating at this point?

Sure, it would be a stunt.  But hey, wasn’t that the point in the first place?

Until next time…

 

 

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