Shifting Baselines

Okay, I’m going to give this one last shot. Regardless of whether I know what I’m doing as a filmmaker, what I do know is that in the spring of 2006 I spent two weeks at the Tribeca Film Festvial meeting with theatrical and home DVD distributors along with my sales agent, Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, the guy who sold the Coen Brother’s first film, “Blood Simple,” and they based the Jeff Bridges character, “The Dude,” in “The Big Lebowski,” on him.

Two things that Jeff said from the outset, over and over again, is that first, “home DVD is your cash cow — its the biggest revenue stream for most any movie,” and second, theatrical distribution is often a “loss leader” meaning the movie may not make its money back at the box office, but by getting it into theaters you score all the major reviews, purchase ads, get much wider media coverage, and create a general awareness that pays off later when the home DVD comes out.

These are the basic rules I was taught. And this is why I found it baffling that so many people, including P.Z. Myers, would weigh in so confidently that “Expelled” was a financial loser overall just based on the box office performance. How can you draw this conclusion? It hasn’t even come out on home DVD. I simply don’t get it.

It’s not that I’m cheering for the movie. I think the movie stinks as much as anyone else with a background in evolutionary biology. I just simply don’t understand how all these people can come to such a solid conclusion about the financial success or failure of a movie that hasn’t run it’s course. And even if they do get a ruling against them on the rights issues regarding a song or animation sequence, it only takes a day to cut those bits out. (It’s not like the movie is some finely crafted masterpiece that can’t afford to be altered)

I simply don’t understand why so many people from the science community feel compelled to draw a conclusion without any data.

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Box office vs. home DVD sales: Is anyone qualified to predict the outcome?

Comments

  1. #1 ERV
    May 25, 2008

    Im not sure they are currently capable, legally or financially, of releasing a DVD :)

  2. #2 eirc
    May 25, 2008

    That’s silly. Of course they’re capable, and of course it’s been part of the marketing strategy from the beginning — they only question would have been what channels they distribute through.

    In any case, production is dirt-cheap: What costs, and what’s vital, is distribution.

    If someone wanted to really hurt _Expelled_, they’d attack the DVD distribtion. Find out what the man channels will be, and go after them. I’d call it a victory if they were forced to fall back to the Christian Entertainment Complex.

  3. #3 Kevin
    May 25, 2008

    I simply don’t understand why so many people from the science community feel compelled to draw a conclusion without any data.

    Oh, I couldn’t agree more. But you forgot the link: href=”http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/04/expelled_a_box_office_success.php

  4. #4 Pete Nelson
    May 25, 2008

    I certainly don’t claim any credentials in the film world, but it sounds to me like the jury is still out: The box office sales don’t sound like a slam dunk (to me), and we’ve still to see how the dvd sales go. For the very little it’s worth, I expect that the folks like us are likely to rent Expelled more than is the target audience–the latter will be taken up with more important matters like cute girls and car chases. Actually I’d rather watch the latter and let Randy tell us about Expelled!

  5. #5 CanadianChick
    May 25, 2008

    I think the main jist of the “it’s a flop” concept is more due to the disparity between what the promoters/producers are saying and what the box office results are saying.

    While the homeDVD market is the big cash cow, if I recall correctly, success in the DVD market correlates with success at the box office. Films that did well at the box office are ordered by retailers, films that did not are not.

    Of course, this film has a built in audience, but how many church youth groups are there?

  6. #6 Matti K.
    May 25, 2008

    Kevin: “I simply don’t understand why so many people from the science community feel compelled to draw a conclusion without any data.

    Oh, I couldn’t agree more. But you forgot the link: href=”http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/04/expelledaboxofficesuccess.php”

    What I gather from the writings of Chris and Randy, they do not count themselves part of the science community. Of course, drawing conclusions without data is plain stupid even for an enlightended layman. But maybe this framing business is less about data and more about eloquently expressed gut feelings?

  7. #7 John McKay
    May 25, 2008

    There is currently a court injunction, as part of Yoko Ono’s suit, preventing any further distribution of the movie including DVDs. I always thought DVD and church showings would be the real market for the is film. Those are not possible until the suit is settled.

  8. #8 Jeff Knapp
    May 25, 2008

    I think Randy is right pretty much. There are a number of films that did fairly poorly at the box office but did very, very well in home video sales/rentals. The original “Austin Powers” and “Hotel Rwanda” are a couple of titles that come to mind.

    Where the disparity, I think, is coming from is indeed expectations vs. what actually happened and by what criteria you measure the film against. The “Expelled” promoters were (whether just blowing hot air or voicing actual expectations) claiming expectations of even beating Michael Moore at the box. Of course, that did not happen. Nor did they come anywhere close to the box of a major studio release. I believe this is the comparison PZ et all. were making. However, as documentaries go, $7 mil at the box is pretty good and by that standard, yes, “Expelled” did rather well. Was it a runaway hit (even for a documentary)? Not really. Was it a success as measured by other documentaries? Yes, you betcha.

    While the homeDVD market is the big cash cow, if I recall correctly, success in the DVD market correlates with success at the box office. Films that did well at the box office are ordered by retailers, films that did not are not.

    Not necessarily as evidenced by the examples I sited above. In fact, it is fairly common for a film that “tanked” at the box to do fairly well, especially in the rental market. It seems to me, that with the built-in audience that “Expelled” has, it will likely do quite well in home video. Remember, not only will they have the traditional sales and rental outlets, they will also likely have strong “grass roots” channels via churches and mail order.

    Reportedly, “Expelled” cost about $3.5 mil to produce, roughly $15 mil (I think) to promote and distribute. Did it make back its costs at the box? No. By that standard, it was a failure. Will it make back its costs and then a profit in home video? Probably likely.

    Did it achieve mind share in the general public? Sort of. For those of us who keep up with the culture wars, science issues, science vs religion issues, etc., most definitely. For the general public? I would say (purely anecdotally), not that much. Was it a success that way? I do not really know.

    Did it succeed at getting its message out? To its intended audience? Almost certainly. Will it have a long-term impact on peoples minds? My gut tells me that it probably will not though, it may very well hang around for a long time as an irritating thorn in our sides.

    I, like PZ and crowd, very much wanted to see this piece of trash go down in flames. It did not do that. But, was it a runaway hit that had a profound impact on changing peoples minds about ID vs. evolution, I very much doubt it will have much of an impact beyond the already converted quire the film was preaching to.

    And even if they do get a ruling against them on the rights issues regarding a song or animation sequence, it only takes a day to cut those bits out.

    Yep. I could probably sit down with Final Cut Pro and restructure the film without those two elements and make it pretty slick in an our or two. A little bit of voice over to replace the song clip (or some titles with the song lyrics) to deal with the Lennon song. A couple still images or illustrations (with permission) to replace the animation or, just loose that sequence all together replacing it with a talking head explaining the process. I would guess they have a talking head interview with somebody who gives this explanation.

    I think PZ and gang were really using a combination of wishful thinking and measuring it against improper criteria such as against the box of a major studio release, not against other theatrically released documentaries. Also, how well crafted the film is is secondary to how well it plays to its intended audience. By all anecdotal accounts I have read about, it was playing very, very well, getting the intended responses at the appropriate moments from those audiences. However, where it really matters – how much impact the film will have – is something that just is not known yet and won’t know for some time. Home video sales will tell us a lot more about that. We shall wait and see.

  9. #9 tincture
    May 26, 2008

    I think PZ and gang were really using a combination of wishful thinking and measuring it against improper criteria such as against the box of a major studio release, not against other theatrically released documentaries.

    The figure of 12 million for the first weekend was given by the makers of expelled as what they would consider a successful first weekend. They didn’t even get 4.
    Even compared to other documentary movies, it certainly wasn’t anything special. It opened in more theaters and made less money.

    How much its intended audience loves it is beside the point. Its inteded audience will love anything they’re told to, nobody ever doubted that.

    When DVDs do eventually go on sale, it’s no mystery where they’ll be going. They’ll occupy the sought after market of church movie night and free give aways from WND along w/ whatever tripe by coulter they’re giving away this week.

  10. #10 island
    May 26, 2008

    I’ve said it before, and here it is again:

    Almost instantly upon release of the movie, every left-winged critic in the country announced that the movie was a dismal failure at the box office, while literally every single right-wingned critic proclaimed it to be a huge box-office success.

    So what’s the problem?… other than the fact that science has nothing to do with what motivates people like PZ Meyers.

  11. #11 ERV
    May 26, 2008

    And even if they do get a ruling against them on the rights issues regarding a song or animation sequence, it only takes a day to cut those bits out.

    Yep. I could probably sit down with Final Cut Pro and restructure the film without those two elements and make it pretty slick in an our or two.

    But thats not what Ono and EMI are asking for. They are not just asking for their music to be clipped out. XVIVO is not just asking for their animation to be taken off the promo videos.

    Theyre asking for that, and a shitload of cash.

    From a production company that already spent a shitload on advertising and have only recouped a fraction of their production costs (they dont bring home 100% of that 7.5 million), and they cant tap into DVD sales for $$$ until they pay off Ono & Co plus legal fees plus loss of ticket sales during this injunction.

    Reportedly, Premise is currently going under already.

    I think (hope) this issue is moot.

  12. #12 Paul W.
    May 26, 2008

    I simply don’t understand why so many people from the science community feel compelled to draw a conclusion without any data.

    People like yourself, perhaps?

    It seems to me that maybe you’ve backed off from proclaiming Expelled to be an unqualified box office success to it being an unqualified success with Box Office + DVD sales, etc., and then backed off again to saying we can’t know, and that people should stop jumping to conclusions.

    Meanwhile condescendingly talking about some of P.Z.’s commenters as developing “pharyngulas” because they’re willing to change their minds.

    Hyeesh.

    You seem to want us to do your homework. We’d like you to help us, being the movie guy that you are.

    Could you maybe make a couple of phone calls to your movie biz friends and ask

    1) how you quantitatively estimate DVD sales

    2) whether the usual formulas apply to movie with a huge release (1000+ screens) but modest opening take (3M) whose box office has a half life of a week.

    I’d be happy to make a couple of calls, but I don’t know who to call.

    Suggesting a book or two about the modern movie biz might be good, as well.

    It would be nice if you would at least try to write as carefully about your area of professional expertise (movies) as P.Z. does about his (biology), focusing on your strengths rather than carping about his shortcomings, and his fans’.

    It’d even be nice if you’d show that you tried as hard to get it right in your area as P.Z. does in your area.

    If you argued more carefully and even-handedly, you might find more Pharynguloids to be willing and able to take what you’re saying seriously.

    I sometimes go against the grain at Pharyngula, and sometimes get dogpiled—but that’s only to be expected, and it’s manageable. I find that if I explain myself, people are more or less willing to listen.

    Russell Blackford and I have argued that Premise Media’s “fair use” claim has merit, on ScienceBlogs and at Panda’s Thumb. We’ve done a better job of it than you, just because we’ve gone to the trouble to explain our point of view rather than saying “trust me, I know the biz.”

    Some of us have argued other points you make, as well, often in weakened form because you don’t give us much ammunition except to say “Randy Olson says so.” That’s the best we can do, because while we take your opinion quite seriously, we don’t trust anybody who doesn’t show their work.

    Also keep in mind that P.Z. is a frequent target of criticism in ways that amount to “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

    It often seems that no matter what he says, the Framing Twins will flame him for it on their blogs, sometimes citing you.

    On one hand, his blog is so insignificant that it does no good propagandizing there, compared to have a MOVIE.

    On the other hand, his blog is so important if that if he doesn’t stay on message, and hands the enemy talking points, he’s almost a traitor to the cause.

    On one hand, he shouldn’t hand the enemy talking points, but on the other, his critics say he should give the devil his due, and they praise the enemy’s movie professionalism and marketing acumen to the skies.

    Which is it? Should P.Z. be honest and even-handed, or should he frame stuff strategically? Does the same advice apply to the media-savvy bloggers telling him what to say and what not to say?

    Those seeming conflicts may be resolvable. I could do a better job of defending P.Z.’s critics than they seem to bother to do for themselves. Instead they tend to bail out on serious discussion, and complain about being beseiged by P.Z.’s “army” of “screechy monkeys,” etc. Lightweights.

    I can’t say the same for P.Z., and I think that says something.

  13. #13 Paul W.
    May 26, 2008

    But thats not what Ono and EMI are asking for. They are not just asking for their music to be clipped out. XVIVO is not just asking for their animation to be taken off the promo videos.

    Theyre asking for that, and a shitload of cash.

    ERV,

    I’m wondering if it’s realistic of them to expect that. I’d think that if they had a good chance of being awarded huge damages, they’d have gotten a stronger injunction. (One that blocked showing the movie, rather than just blocking further distribution.)

    But then, I’m not a lawyer or a Movie Expert. Got any good links about that?

  14. #14 Paul W.
    May 26, 2008

    Reportedly, “Expelled” cost about $3.5 mil to produce, roughly $15 mil (I think) to promote and distribute. Did it make back its costs at the box? No. By that standard, it was a failure. Will it make back its costs and then a profit in home video? Probably likely.

    Joe, could you show your work here?

    Do you have any particular numbers to go by in estimating that Expelled will probably net more in DVD sales than it grossed at the box office? (By my reckoning, it’ll net about 4 million at the box office, and have to net about 14 million on DVD just to break even, if your cost estimate is right.)

    Where do those numbers come from, and how do you guess that they’re applicable to this odd kind of movie?

    These are not rhetorical questions, by the way; I’m curious how one plausibly guesses these things.

  15. #15 Jeff Knapp
    May 26, 2008

    to Paul W:

    For the production costs, it was the estimated number given on the Internet Movie Data Base:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1091617/business

    The marketing costs are my estimate based on what a typical “wide release” feature costs to market – typically anywhere from about $10 mil to as much as $60 mil for an “Iron Man” for example. I placed my estimate towards the low end based on the fact that they probably didn’t have a huge marketing budget thus more judiciously targeted their marketing on shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” rather than on prime time network shows, and relied on a lot of grass roots marketing through the promo screenings and their Web site.

    Here are “Expelled” box office numbers btw:
    http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2008/EXPEL.php

    As for my example “Hotel Rwanda,” it did $23,519,128 domestically.
    http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2004/RWNDA.php

    As of July 16, 2005, it had done $27.1 mil in DVD rentals alone.
    http://www.imdb.com/boxoffice/rentals?date=2005-07-17

    I do not know if Expelled will do better in home video release than it did at the box office but, given the low numbers at the box (compared to all movies and compared to per screen averages for all movies released that week) and given the very large potential audience in home video, and knowing that home video is often the primary market for documentaires in general, it seems reasonable to assume it will do better in after market than it did in its theatrical release.

  16. #16 Jeff Knapp
    May 26, 2008

    To ERV:

    But thats not what Ono and EMI are asking for. They are not just asking for their music to be clipped out. XVIVO is not just asking for their animation to be taken off the promo videos.

    They’re asking for that, and a shitload of cash.

    Sure. That is certainly what I would do too. They are almost certain to get the injunction against using the song and animation however, what kind of monetary award above and beyond that might be given, that is an open question.

    From a production company that already spent a shitload on advertising and have only recouped a fraction of their production costs (they dont bring home 100% of that 7.5 million), and they cant tap into DVD sales for $$$ until they pay off Ono & Co plus legal fees plus loss of ticket sales during this injunction.

    Do you know what their marketing and distribution costs actually were? I have not been able to track down those numbers. I would love to see them.

    Reportedly, Premise is currently going under already.

    I would love to see that too. Where did you see this information? It would be personally satisfying to me if that were true.

  17. #17 Bad
    June 8, 2008

    Again Randy, I think you’re playing a little fast and loose here. First of all, plenty of people have said that Expelled will likely make tons of money on DVDs. After all, they have a virtually locked-in audience of church libraries and other places that will order copies right off of the factory floor. So I don’t think it’s fair to assert that all us ignorant cretins without film experience were unaware of this fact.

    Second of all, you’ve gone from claiming that the film was going to be a huge success in the theaters to talking about DVDs: at least acknowledge the switch-up in claims. And Paul W’s take is far closer to the overall truth: Expelled failed to meet its makers hopes either financially or in gaining a large and ongoing audience (little sign of a sleeper hit either). It did indeed do decently well for a documentary, but this has to be weighed against the fact that they spent millions on promotion and managed to open in far far far more theaters than most documentaries can ever hope to do.

    In short, there’s little evidence that the film went beyond its built-in audience of people who already believe everything it claimed in the first place. As to whether the producers will ultimately earn back whatever their production costs, its true that we don’t know, but that DVD sales will likely make up the gap. But then, the same could be said of all sorts of stinkers: does that make them successes?

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