Sunday, March 5, 2017

March 5, 2017 - The March Madness of Geek-Week


Ask studios what are the most greedily sought-after release dates of the year, and you get several answers:
The first week in May, of course, for the first big summer-blockbuster.  July 4 weekend, going back to those old 90's days of the Transformers and ID4.  The first week in November is the coveted spot to seek the Christmas family films, and Avatar, Tolkien and Star Wars have since turned the week before Christmas into a billion-dollar sci-fi fan convention.  
And last but not least, of course...the second and third weeks in March.

Cue the audience saying "Huh?  Sure you're not talking about the basketball thing?"  No, I'm not talking about the basketball thing.
For the past ten years--celebrating the anniversary this year--middle-March has become a strategic and necessary staked tentpole for studios to court specific high-school and college-aged fanboy and fangirl audiences with the week off for Easter vacation or Spring Break, to provide them with their own fan-niche targeted blockbusters that might not otherwise have universal appeal during May or June.  They're only out of their cages for a week or two, so grab your nets and catch them, before they go back in again!
And thus the tradition of "March Geek-Week" was born.  So what is Geek-Week?  Well, right now, as the detergent-selling manicurist used to say, you're soaking in it.

Up to about ten years ago, March, like February, was not particularly in high demand.
January, with snowbound audiences, and theaters looking for any excuse to clean out their empty December-movie screens, was the time for studios to clean out their wastebaskets and unload their trash--Usually either minor horror movies, or misfired studio projects that had already had their release dates delayed twice already out of panic, and that the studios hoped would disappear under the radar and under the rug.
February was considered an extension of the winter-cleaning, with the exception of a few movies that tried playing the "Valentine's Day" programming (which explains why nobody went to see the Fifty Shades movies on the second week)--Until Disney discovered that February also had Presidents'-holiday school vacations, and was a good excuse to float a family-movie that wasn't meant to last very long.  Which it usually didn't, once vacations were over, and the key audience was back in school again.

March and April were considered a time to grab some audiences out on Easter vacation, and maybe give them a big-budget movie that was meant to be disposable (if Disney delayed "The Alamo" till April, you could write your reviews from there), and maybe tide desperate two-months-starved audiences over with a little quick snack until the "real" summer movies hit on Memorial Day.
But that release ethic was suddenly changed in 2007...BY SPARTA!!

Nothing creates an instant overnight phenomenon than a movie that nobody can figure out why it becomes a hit, and creates fear, awe and superstition--That, in a nutshell, is the founding idea that all the "core" Geek-Week classics share.  
Warner, in particular, didn't have much faith in "300", a bizarrely over-stylized tribute to a pretentious Frank Miller comic graphic-novel story, by a young promising comic-fanboy director named Zack Snyder.  (Who had previously shown such promise with an "unwanted" Dawn of the Dead remake with core-fan audiences in March '04, and was therefore a "lucky charm")--Particularly after "Sin City" hadn't exactly brought out the core Frank Miller fans in droves.  But the fans had heard of it, and those who hadn't were curious to look at it anyway, and came out quoting all the cool cult lines.  With little or no competition in theaters to stop them, except for studios' spring disposal bins of cheap horror and Will Ferrell comedies, the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae became...unstoppable.  
And in Hollywood, the rule is, "If you can't beat 'em, pledge eternal loyalty and obedience."

Now, to understand Geek Week, here's where we need to get back to the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant:
Like the six blind men feeling the ear and saying "It's a fan!", or feeling the trunk and saying "It's a snake!", studios tried to feel around 300's success without standing back and looking at the whole beast.  One blind studio exec felt the plot and said "This 300-phant is a new generation sword-and-sandals epic!" and proceeded to remake "Clash of the Titans" for spring.  Another blind studio exec (ahemwarner) felt the comic-core audience, said, "It's clear to anyone, this 300-phant is the success of Zack Snyder graphic-novel movies!", and immediately gave Snyder the keys to fanboy-faithful adaptations of "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch".
But then, in 2010, an even bigger, more titanic elephant stampeded trumpeting into the room:  Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland".  Here was an elephant with a dozen different parts to feel, and months to spend feeling them:  A Tim Burton core-fan targeted movie (back before Alice, Burton fans were still devoted zombies hoping his next "weird" movie would bring back "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), with fangirl fave Johnny Depp front and center on the poster (no, he wasn't playing Alice), and the glorious lure-promise of Dark Burton-esque Weirdness with the fairytale.  Any one of the reasons would have made it a fan-cult juggernaut for HS/college vacation week, and here we had three, to start with.  If you needed a clue, you could have spent some time at the Disneyland parks, watching fangirls Instagramming themselves in the mock-Depp Mad Hatter cosplay hats they'd simply had to pick up.
And the more money it made, on into April, the more the blind men started feeling until their hands were sore:  This Alice-phant is clearly a big-budget, candy-colored CGI epic, with all the money Disney can pour into it!  It's a "re-examination" of classic stories, with CGI coming out of its ears!  Nonsense!--It's a DARK version of fairytales, and just look at all those girls swoon dreamy sighs...Quick, get those Snow White adaptations ready, and polish up those glass coffins!


And The Hunger Games?  Well, let's not get into that.  We'll assume everyone knows by now there's a reason why Lionsgate or Summit tries forcing YA-novel franchises on us every March, even after 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars" turned out to be the bigger summer YA-cult reader hit gone to the screen.  (Self-martyring YA-reader teens now dream about terminal illness; crossbows, tournaments and government dystopias have Had It.)

Okay, so the name's cheating a bit--It's not really a week.  It actually lasts the whole month long, and sometimes into the first weekend of April, since studios have the two problems of:
A) Seven studios each trying to cram ONE lovingly groomed niche-targeted blockbuster into the same two or three-week period, and 
B) Nobody really knows for certain which week high-schools and colleges have off for break, as it can often vary from one state or school to another.  At least, y'know, it's sometime in that general ballpark.
And, of course, competing with the non-Disney family studios, like Dreamworks, that want to grab elementary and middle-school Easter-weekend audiences with their big animated/family tentpoles that staked out their release territory.  Which starts to get a little crowded in the room.
Together or separately, the studios feel that to crack the Mystery of Geek Week, superstition dictates that they must provide:
  1. A CGI-heavy action blockbuster
  2. A CGI-heavy period-fantasy blockbuster,
  3. A long-awaited cult-comic or videogame adaptation that mainstream audiences haven't heard of
  4. A dark fangirl fairytale, heavy on the romance, and
  5. The latest core chapter in a YA cult-novel series.  (Which, after Allegiant, the studios have since wisely decided to cut back on, and move to streaming-miniseries to cut their losses instead.)
That's five movies, minimum, each year, in the space of one month, that studios believe they're obligated to release, regardless of audience demand.  The competition is fierce, the budgets are high stakes, and the dogs that lose the fights lose a lot more than their tails.

A brief lineup of the targeted March Geek-Week movies, their release dates, and final domestic US box-office grosses, from 2007-2016:
  • 300 - 3/9/07 - $210M
  • 10,000 BC - 3/7/08 - $94M
  • Watchmen - 3/6/09 - $107M
  • Alice in Wonderland 3/5/10 - $334M
  • Battle: Los Angeles- 3/11/11 - $83M
  • Red Riding Hood - 3/11/11 - $37M
  • Sucker Punch - 3/25/11 - $36M
  • John Carter - 3/9/12 -  $73M*
  • The Hunger Games 3/23/12 - $408M
  • Wrath of the Titans - 3/30/12 - $83M
  • Mirror, Mirror - 3/30/12 - $64M
  • Jack the Giant Slayer - 3/1/13 - $65M
  • Oz the Great & Powerful - 3/10/13 $234M
  • Olympus Has Fallen - 3/24/13 - $98M
  • GI Joe: Retaliation - 3/29/13 - $122M
  • The Host - 3/29/13 - $26M
  • 300: Rise of an Empire - 3/7/14 - $106M
  • Need For Speed - 3/14/14 - $43M
  • Noah - 3/28/14 - $101M
  • Cinderella (live-action) - 3/13/15 - $201M
  • Divergent: Insurgent - 3/20/15 - $130M
  • London Has Fallen - 3/4/16 - $62M
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane - 3/11/16 - $72M
  • Divergent - Allegiant - 3/18/16 - $66M
  • Batman v. Superman - 3/25/16 - $330M*
As you can see, it's not exactly the Yellow Brick Road to riches, even for Oz, the Great & Powerful.  
(Although it was necessary to put a baseball-asterisk on two of the statistics, as  "John Carter" was considered to have been sabotaged by a marketing campaign so disastrous it helped cost the chief Disney studio exec his job, and "Batman v. Superman" was idealistically and artificially boosted by a small, angry Trump-like core of downtrodden DC Comics fans that wanted to prove their numbers and identity to the world, in the hopes they'd get that cool Wonder Woman movie next year.)
It's a myth that studios continue to bet the farm pursuing, and often losing, possibly for the simple reason why studios DO put such blind faith in an over-marketed movie:  They were so caught up in "properties" and release dates, they simply didn't know their audiences.

Leaving aside the quality, or lack of, the movies (and in "Noah"'s case, that's saying a lot), there are more problems with releasing a movie in March than there are rewards to it:
1) It's not summer.  Theaters don't have as many afternoon screenings when the kids aren't out of school for long terms, and less chances to do business in a day.  And if you're recouping a movie with almost three times the gross of its $150M budget, you're going to want as MANY screenings available as you can get.
2) It's not forever, and it's not on the calendar.  Since nobody's quite sure which week schools have off, as it's not a national holiday, it becomes like Spring Break tourism in Ft. Lauderdale and Cancun in that weeks can differ from one college to the next.  You'll get some movie business the entire month, but not the all of May orJuly.  And if the majority of common vacation time is one week, that ain't much.
3) You're targeting a movie to only a select front-loaded group of people who care and will be in line the first week only, fully knowing few normal mainstream civilians will be there on the second.  Again, a big-budget movie can't afford to be choosy, even when that was pretty much the purpose of the movie going in.
It's going All-In on a high-stakes poker match with two pairs, and you'd better be able to afford to lose.  Because someone's going to.

Which brings us to March Geek-Week Madness, 2017:  
In this bracket, Fox's critically well-received but prohibitively R-rated "Logan" for the comic readers, Disney's much hyped "Beauty & the Beast" for the dreamy fairytale-fangirls, "Kong:Skull Island", for Warner to blitz us with CGI Action 'N Stuff, and launch their new "Monster-verse" (their name, not mine), Lionsgate's "Power Rangers" reboot, for the cult-fan love, and Paramount's American live-action remake of "Ghost in the Shell", which every cult Japanese-anime fan will be demanding that civilians go see, and if not, well, Hollywood always ruins 'em anyway.
Five films courting for those TWO slots of #1 and 2 at the running box office, with the #3 and 4 films out of the running overnight, never mind what happens to #5.

Who's got game?  Place your bets, folks, we're still in the quarter-finals.  
And as you can see from the list, don't feel sorry for the losers.

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