March 19, 2017

Watch: What Is the Recipe for Box Office Failures?

Hundred dollar bill
Why is it that brilliant art house films tank while tent-poles with bad stories become blockbusters?

There are many reasons why films fail at the box office. Maybe it has something to do with the economy, not enough publicity, or just the fact that it's a terrible film, but one thing is for certain: indie/art house films seem to "fail" financially more often than their tent-pole counterparts. Regardless of how well-made it is, indies, even ones with brilliant stories, don't bring in the bucks the way, say, a recycled Hollywood superhero flick does. Daniel Netzel of Film Radar explores the reasons why that is in this thought-provoking video essay.

I have nothing against tent-poles, superhero movies, or even Hollywood in general. These big budget, lowest-common-denominator films certainly have their place, because, for one, they do their job: they entertain. However, it is disconcerting when truly great low-budget indie films don't find success in a landscape that is riddled with boilerplate action/comedy/romance movies that reuse the same stories over and over again, many of which weren't that good to begin with.

But Netzel quells a little bit of that frustration by taking a long, hard look at the data. Tent-poles have enormous budgets, indies have small budgets, and both desire to recoup their costs. It stands to reason that Hollywood studios would invest more in their big budget flicks—spending millions on publicity, putting it in thousands of theaters, casting the largest net in hopes of catching the most fish. With low budget indies, particularly ones that don't have one-size-fits-all stories, the risk can grow the more you spend in these areas. They are already at a financial disadvantage, because they aren't built for mass appeal.

The industry is not likely to change any time soon, because damn, Hollywood makes a ton of money with tent-poles. However, there is something to be said about the artistic contribution of indie films. As Netzel notes: many Hollywood films that get mass distributed are forgettable, but good indies that only show at your local art house theater are not.      

Your Comment


It is worth analysing why the big films bomb too. I'm particularly thinking of John Carter and Lone Ranger. I think it can be for the most fickle of reasons. People were like "Does Johnny Depp know there is a bird sitting on his head ?"

March 19, 2017 at 6:19PM, Edited March 19, 6:19PM

Saied M.

I think this is a drastic oversimplification. Also, why is everyone so against blockbusters? Honestly, the problem with a lot of arthouse/drama films is that they don't keep your attention. Even bad super-hero movies have a quick enough pace, enough actions and a couple jokes to keep your attention.

March 19, 2017 at 8:03PM, Edited March 19, 8:03PM

Zachary Will

I think the biggest problem with the author's assessment is the concept of "brilliant"....a brilliant film to one person is trash to another....take Todd Solondz's films (hope I spelled that correctly off the top of my head)....many people find Welcome to the Dollhouse brilliant....I felt it was over hyped trash loved by critics and fans who simply want to appear more artsy and academic than your average "simpleton" movie don't get me wrong....there are many of these types of art-house films I enjoy and love thoroughly....I just used an example of one I did not like to drive home a point about the concept of brilliant...I think you need look no further than MOONLIGHT to find an art-house flick that has now generated a huge amount of box office as well....the other side of the coin is the tent pole franchise is marketed to the biggest audience possible.....when you have a million movie goers going to something...good or otherwise...its hard not to make a little money....and thats the goal with these big films.....some are bad....some are good....but the market is what it is....

March 19, 2017 at 11:00PM, Edited March 19, 11:00PM


I also was a bit disappointed in Welcome to the Dollhouse, but not because of the reviews - I absolutely loved Solondz' Happiness, and while I didn't hate Dollhouse it just wasn't nearly as good. But then again, I was born in '94, so my expectations in watching movies are drastically different than anybody who reviewed the film when it came out.

March 20, 2017 at 4:51AM, Edited March 20, 4:51AM

Not Me

If you look at the directors of Marvel's superhero movies, it's clear that they're not giving anyone their first chance, they're mostly directors who have proven that they can make successful films with little money: Guardians of the Galaxy's James Gunn started out working for Troma, Iron Man's Jon Favreau with films like Swingers and Made, Iron Man 3 was made by Shane Black, who started out with Lethal Weapon and made Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Avengers director Joss Whedon had success on television, just like Captain America: The Winter Soldier's Anthony and Joe Russo and New Zealander and Flight of the Conchords collaborator Taika Waititi will direct a Thor film. So, if you want to see a film by the next big thing in Hollywood, you may want to visit your arthouse cinema.

March 20, 2017 at 4:55AM

Not Me

Putting a film like Synecdoche on 1000 screens wouldn't mean the same PSA... It's an arthouse film that is meant for platform release going on word of mouth. A movie that makes a lot of money in a couple of theaters in NY/LA wouldn't directly do the same things in cities like Detroit. Completely different audiences. Synecdoche was clearly meant as awards bait, but it didn't get picked up in awards circuit, that's likely the main reason it didn't go (semi-)wide at any point.

Having said that. It was stupid of Sony to put $20m on a movie like that. Those mid-level budgets are super great for young/talented directors to prove what they can do if they work on (potential) blockbusters. Films like Nerve, 10 Cloverfield Lane and La La Land. Films with a big commercial value. It's an amount that's easily gained back, but it's also not too much of a loss - compared to losing $100m on movies like Monster Trucks.

March 21, 2017 at 7:23AM


The author acknowledges something that undermines his thesis in his own essay. He says outright that concessions are made for blockbusters to appeal to the WIDEST possible audience. That's an admission to the LIMITED audience art films, even great art films, have. So his model for audience exposure won't work. It's not a linear relationship. Synechdoche NY would not have made 30 million if it opened on 1000 screens - I just don't see that happening because regional tastes do exist.

Recently there was an analysis of the 9 Best Picture nominees and where they were "best liked" based on social media posts, which I presume translated to audience interest. It was VERY telling. Some, like Manchester By The Sea, only appealed to the Northeast, while others played more broadly. Hidden Figures played well in the South. So already one sees that a linear model would fall apart for a challenging film.

Sony did dump Synechdoche NY like an unwanted child, no question, but I feel the author here shows a bit of naivete when it comes to what a broader audience would seek in their collective trips to the movies. Most people that I know who go to the movies very rarely seek out movies they NEED.

March 24, 2017 at 2:23PM, Edited March 24, 2:23PM


A bit of film distribution emphasis in this essay wouldn't hurt.
How do we know they didn't intend to push the release window? Or if so, wasn't that going to affect other titles, even some of Sony's?
You don't afford to break any relationships in the Hollywood family for 20M $, that's the painful truth.

March 25, 2017 at 11:06AM