This article is Part 1 in a series of 3.
Straight Outta Compton is not a blockbuster, it doesn’t have major stars and it was produced for a mere 29 million dollars. Projections ahead of its release were optimistic (40 million dollars) however reality passed expectations by 20 million in the opening week. Screening rooms were full, jaws dropped, news anchors reported. The results made it the box office leader domestically and the fifth best August release of all time.
Every now and then, a surprise hit emerges and Straight Outta Compton is now part that select club.
But why is this story such a surprise and why do so few independent films achieve this status?
Over the last ten years movie production in Hollywood has evolved into a pattern of blockbuster economics — a method that de-risks the film business by going for the largest possible returns. This recipe for success implies popular actors, an action-packed story line, over the top visual effects, franchises and adaptations to the detriment of original screenplays.
Nowadays, budgets regularly surpass 200 million dollars and include large international marketing spends that often equal the production cost. The logic goes, the bigger the production budget, the bigger the marketing budget, including the sum invested in making copies of the film, so that it can premiere in as many cinemas as possible. All this effort is geared towards making the biggest splash around the opening weekend, which continues to be regarded as the best predictor of a movie’s success.
Box office data is probably the closest we can get to the actual numbers on movie performance and potential returns as production budgets are hardly ever disclosed and marketing budgets even less so. The Black Box economics of Hollywood coupled with international tax loops and incentives often make the process of deciphering a film’s potential balance sheet even more complex. One thing is clear: studios would not keep investing in these movies if they weren’t highly profitable despite the flops and the huge write downs.
As writer-director Scott Frank puts it, the question used to be “What is the best story we can tell”; now it’s turned into “What is the best story we can sell”. The result is success at the expense of originality as you will see with the change in commercially successful movies over the last two decades.
Another unfortunate consequence of the blockbuster strategy is that small and mid-budget films struggle to get financed or seen once they are produced. While the external logic is that a cheaper product should be easier to make, the perceived amount of risk frames such films as unsound investments. As a result, many potentially great stories never make it to screen. It’s been convincingly argued that in addition to the economic aspect another negative impact on the cultural level is keeping (potentially) great directors out of work and their potential audiences out of the cinemas.
For the newly produced films, the second major bump comes with distribution- both theatrically and through home entertainment. The movie industry’s windowing system often means time frames are too short to build sufficient word of mouth for a movie. In addition, competition is incredibly fierce and it’s expensive to capture the attention of general audiences through advertising and marketing in these short time frames. The chances of a film making good money for a distributor following time honoured marketing practices are slim; often the best they can hope for is breaking even. Lumped with declining returns on DVD and home entertainment sales, this means that most movies struggle to make a profit.
For a producer to succeed, they need to be exceptionally effective when it comes to reaching out to their audience.
One strategy, exemplified by Straight Outta Compton, is playing the card of the film’s subject, putting it in a wider cultural context or movement. In this case, it was hip hop culture. The buzz grew quickly, especially with some of the rappers portrayed in the film being involved as producers and bringing their celeb caché.
The second direction concerns those mid-tier films that put forward either something very original (in terms of story), very special (particularly genre-wise) or break with convention in trying new means of marketing and distributing their films.
In all these cases the potential for success relies in putting effort into reaching and engaging the right audiences at all stages of the film’s life cycle. The good news is that in today’s connected world there are plenty of alternative strategies that mid-tier filmmakers and producers can explore. We will be discussing these strategies in more detail in subsequent articles.
Straight Outta Compton took a decade to make. The explanation for its success is rather odd in the current landscape: the producers made something that a broad part of the population wanted to see.