The Devil Inside: The Really Scary True Story (of Hollywood Marketing)
Here's a Hollywood riddle:
What will happen to the executives at Paramount who acquired an indie movie that received a rock-bottom “F” CinemaScore from the opening weekend audience and some of the worst critical reviews in living memory?
Answer: Those execs should expect promotions.
The Devil Inside - an indie film that Paramount acquired for $1 million - was the number one box-office performer of 2012 as the New Year commenced with an estimated opening weekend box office of $34.5 million.
What does the huge success of The Devil Inside say about the power of Hollywood to market (crap?) to a youthful crowd?
How did Paramount get millions of kids - 85% of the opening weekend audience for The Devil Inside was younger than 35 - to all come out at once to see a film that most of them would eventually hate?
What can indie filmmakers learn (if anything) from the marketing of a $1 million film with no stars?
And how does a $1 million film, made in Romania to save a buck, knock Tom Cruise (in an enormous comeback hit) from the top spot?
To analyze the success of The Devil Inside on the first weekend of 2012, lets start by analyzing how Hollywood executives plan their releases based on prior year results - learning from past audience behavior on certain key weekends.
In particular, let's look at the first weekend of the new year as if we are Hollywood marketing execs...
Historically (before 2005), on the first weekend of the new year, there were two kinds of movies in theaters: Oscar hopefuls expanding out of limited release and complete and utter dogs dumped into the weekend.
Why was the first weekend of the year - historically - a time that Hollywood execs cleared their shelves of unwanted merchandise?
The key factor was that the mass audience (newly back at work and school) did not turn-out after gorging themselves on movies over the Christmas break. Before 2005, the odds were that any movie released on the first weekend of the year would underperform and disappear.
Then, in 2005, one movie defied the odds. A PG-13 supernatural thriller - White Noise (2005) starring Michael Keaton - was dumped into wasteland of the first weekend of the year and unexpectedly performed. White Noise (2005) opened January 7th, 2005 on 2,261 screens and did $24.11 million that weekend, averaging $10,665 per screen and ultimately earning $55.87 million domestic theatrical box office gross.
Apparently, White Noise tapped into the audience for movies like The Ring (October 20th, 2002) and The Grudge (October 24th, 2004), as well as a surge of interest in the horror genre in general, to get a lot of younger people - bored by the feel-good and high-art programming that typically dominates the Christmas box-office - into theaters on the first weekend of the year.
Still White Noise didn't top the box office in its opening weekend. That honor belonged to Meet The Fockers in its third week of release.
In fact, before 2006, no new movie had been able to take the top slot over the stronger holiday fare still playing in theaters.
But - building on the unexpected success of counter-programming like White Noise - that all changed in 2006.
In late 2005, King Kong (2005) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005) were ruling over the box office. (Kong opened on Dec. 14th in over 3500 theaters and grossed over $500 million worldwide as did Narnia which opened Dec. 9th in over 3600 theaters.)
How could an R-rated horror movie compete with these blockbusters?
The chances for Hostel (2006) were further complicated because those who didn't get to see Steven Spielberg's political thriller Munich (2005) over the holidays got their first chance after New Years, as it nearly tripled its theaters hoping to build on the year-end buzz. (Munich opened in 532 theaters on Dec. 23rd and then expanded to 1,485 theaters on Jan. 6th, 2006.)
The success of Hostel (2006) changed everything. Made for under $5 million, Hostel went on to gross over $80 million worldwide, earning almost $20 million in US theaters on its opening weekend where it ranked #1 (in 2,195 theaters, $8,909 average per screen).
After White Noise (2005) and Hostel (2006) Hollywood marketing executives learned that horror movies could open with surprising numbers after the holidays.
In 2007, Three – a psycho killer thriller marketed by by Fox Faith, 20th Century Fox's Christian-themed label - tried to capitalize on this strategy in 458 theaters. But Three failed to take hold, grossing a paltry $1500 per screen.
Notably, because it couldn’t be ready in time, the sequel to Hostel (Hostel Part 2) was not slated for that now special first weekend of the year slot in 2007. Instead, the marketing minds at Lionsgate decided to put the sequel into the summer. Unlike Eli Roth’s first offering, Hostel Part 2 (2007) opened in a tougher, more competitive marketing environment in the summer of 2007. And it flopped. After taking $8 million on the first weekend in the domestic theaters, the movie tanked. It finished with only $17+ million in domestic theaters and another $15 million foreign.
Still, since 2005, the first weekend of the year has been set aside for heavily marketed R-rated horror fare.
The success of The Devil Inside suggests that Hollywood knows that marketing to context (we understand - you're a kid who wants a horror movie now) can triumph - even over bad content. In other words, having a good movie may not be as important - on certain weekends anyway - as reaching your audience with targeted marketing that hits them at a time when they're ready to spend.