Let’s be honest with each other — an engaging plot isn’t the first thing we think of when we’re headed to the theaters for the latest big-budget blockbuster, but it’s hard to deny that many of our summer “hits” in recent years haven’t turned out to be quite the hit that the studios would have hoped here in the United States. The reasons for the slumping success of movies like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Geostorm” are pretty easy to assess: the films use mad-libs style plot points that rely on your familiarity with trope to justify rather than story progression, the dialogue is often forced and awkward, and the high profile stars often seem to be openly phoning their performances in. Here in the United States, these films have consistently underperformed, often failing to recoup their production costs during their domestic theatrical runs. When I was a kid, we called these movies bombs, but today, they are widely hailed as financial successes.
How can this be? It’s simple. They were never really intended to be smash hits in America.
China has rapidly become the second largest movie market in the world, forcing a shift in the way big budget films are made to allow for the broadest possible appeal in both American and Chinese markets. Because these two nations have different languages, cultural touchstones and regulations pertaining to what type of content can be released, most studios recognize that the easiest way to make a buck when writing a story for two distinctly different markets is to keep the dialogue and plot points extremely simple, and to keep the focus placed squarely on the effects-driven action. You may have to sub new dialogue over Dwayne Johnson’s mouth for a Chinese release, but explosions don’t need translators.
For those who aren’t movie geeks, let’s break down what it takes to consider a movie a “success” financially. In most cases, the cost of production sets the metric for the film’s success: if the movie costs $30 million to make and it grosses $100 million on its opening weekend, it’s a hit. If it costs $200 million to make it grosses $25 million in its opening weekend, it’s widely considered to be a flop despite the fact that it still has weeks to make money throughout its theatrical run. Why can we slam the gavel and judge a movie’s success so quickly? Two rules of thumb come into play (and I call them that because there have obviously been exceptions): the first is that all movies see a dramatic drop off in sales the week after their opening weekend (in fact, that drop off is often also used a metric for a film’s success, especially in smaller films that rely on word of mouth). In plain English, a movie is never going to make more money in a weekend than it does during its opening.