‘Star Trek’ and the real art of movie marketing: Managing expectations

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Ask any Hollywood marketing chief: Opening a big summer movie is a painful experience, full of moments of total terror, paranoia, panic and flop-sweat crisis management. But part of the real nightmare these days involves keeping media expectations in line about how well the movie is supposed to perform at the box office.

If you haven’t noticed, virtually every film nut on the planet seems to be in the business of predicting movie box office ... old media, new media and everyone in between. If your movie doesn’t match those opening weekend predictions come Monday morning, you’re faced with an onslaught of stories saying your film may have earned $40 or $60 or $80 million at the box office, but -- gasp! -- it didn’t meet expectations, transforming what might have been a success story into a gloomy and often premature obituary.


So what do the savvy studio marketers do? When box-office reporters call, they go out of their way to downplay their movie, hoping to knock down those predictions to a Lowell number they could easily beat. This game has flourished in Corporate America for ages, with companies desperate to produce quarterly earnings that can beat the predictions of Wall Street analysts. But according to my colleague, John Horn, who regularly makes box-office predictions in his weekly Word of Mouth column, the Hollywood version of this has become an intense, and often hilarious, battle of wits.

John says that, week after week, he finds himself in conversations with studios determined to spin expectations about their films as far downward as possible. Some studios -- the worst offender being 20th Century Fox, he says -- come up with projections for their films that are so ‘absurdly low’ that they’re hardly worth paying any attention to. As he puts it: ‘If Fox’s estimates to me had come true, all of their movies would have bombed.’

He recently survived another skirmish in the expectations war, this one with Paramount, which was determined to set the bar as low as possible for the opening weekend performance of ‘Star Trek.’ When John predicted last week that the movie would have a $70-million opening, the studio was apoplectic, claiming there was no possible way ‘Star Trek’ could possibly do that well.

As John explains: '... I was told by Paramount, that even if ‘Star Trek’ grossed $60 million -- a perfectly good outcome for the studio, the way it saw it -- the weekend grosses would be considered a disappointment, because I had set the bar too high.’

And Paramount’s efforts to tamp down expectations worked. Most box-office predictors had the movie opening to a $65-70 million number, so when it actually ended up grossing $75.2 million, the stories were all positive, with influential publications like the Wall Street Journal writing that the film ‘beat industry predictions.’ Ah, another successful example of media management.

But what really happens during those sparring matches between reporters and studio executives? Which studios have offered up the biggest whoppers in terms of low-ball predictions? And which studio has a top executive who’s going to have to buy John lunch after losing a bet over who had made the most accurate box-office prediction? Here’s John’s own take on the cat-and-mouse Hollywood expectation game:

Like any reporter who covers the film business, I am forever being told by studio executives, agents, producers and publicists how great an upcoming film might be -- how I not only have to see the new movie, but also (pretty please) write about it. Six days of the week, it’s a steady stream of that kind of boundless optimism and enthusiasm. But come Wednesday, some of those very same people pull an about-face, suggesting that their otherwise great film may not do very well at the box office.

Because I write a column that often makes box-office predictions before a film is released, the studios in particular are relentless in trying to lower my expectations. It’s an obvious game: If they lower the bar as far as possible, even a modest debut will look like a blockbuster in comparison. But I am not in the game of managing a studio’s expectations; rather, I want to be able to come up with the most accurate forecast possible. And that means I almost always pick a number greater than the studio’s low-ball estimate.

The Word of Mouth projection typically comes from reviewing data from audience tracking services and talking to competing studios (many of whom are remarkably honest and accurate) about what they think a particular new film might gross in its opening weekend. Inevitably, the studio releasing the film will try to spin me too, but it’s always -- without exception -- in one direction: down.

Take “Star Trek.” About two weeks ago, Paramount started suggesting that the most meaningful comparisons for the film’s opening weekend were 2005’s “Batman Begins” (opening weekend: $48.7 million) and 2006’s “Superman Returns” ($52.5 million). The similarities, Paramount said, were obvious: movies without big stars that were based on old franchises that had been in decline and needed a serious overhaul. What’s more, “Star Trek” by Paramount’s thinking (and the early audience surveys confirmed this) appealed to older moviegoers, not the young kids who drive opening weekend box-office business. The audience tracking surveys backed Paramount’s assessment of the film’s potential opening weekend haul, suggesting that a debut of about $55 million or so looked about right.

But the movie just felt bigger than that -- fantastic early reviews, surging 2009 movie admissions, J.J. Abrams’ pop culture credibility, and a Paramount marketing campaign that had successfully shifted the sales pitch from a dusty TV show remake to a hip, action-packed adventure story. It was the film’s potential word of mouth that really seemed critical; nobody seemed to like “X Men: Origins,” and it grossed $85.1 million in its debut.

So my column projected a “Star Trek” opening of $70 million. The next day, Paramount said I had clearly set the studio up for failure, as there was no realistic chance at all the movie could gross that much in its premiere. Everybody would be writing the story, I was told by Paramount, that even if “Star Trek” grossed $60 million -- a perfectly good outcome for the studio, the way it saw it -- the weekend grosses would be considered a disappointment, because I had set the bar too high. My prediction was unfair, unreasonable -- you get the drift.

So I bet a senior Paramount executive, asking him in essence to put his money where his cautious box-office prediction was. If “Star Trek” grossed less than $65 million, I’d treat him to lunch at a restaurant of his choice, but if it grossed more than $65 million, it was on his dime. With an opening weekend of an estimated $72.5 million (with an additional $4 million from its Thursday-night screenings), I’m making reservations now.

Paramount is probably the most aggressive studio in trying to spin downward, although Warner Bros. is a close second. Fox’s suggested numbers are so absurdly low they’re usually not even worth considering -- if Fox’s estimates to me had come true, all of their movies would have bombed. Universal, Disney and Sony are surprisingly close to offering reasonable guesses, although like every other studio, they’re almost always on the low side.

Here are some other examples of studio spin, with my predictions followed by the actual opening weekend.

Cloverfield.” My prediction: $36 million. Paramount’s response: There is no way a low-budget genre film with no stars can gross more than $20 million. Opening weekend: $40.1 million.

“I Am Legend.” My prediction: $60 million or more. Warner Bros.’ response: Will Smith may be a huge star, but we don’t think this film can open to $50 million. Opening weekend: $77.2 million.

“Iron Man.” My prediction: $70 million. Paramount’s response: We’d love that number, but it isn’t possible with a comic book no one knows. Opening weekend: $102.1 million.

“Jumper.” My prediction: $38 million. Fox’s response: We are hoping the movie can just get to $20 million. Opening weekend: $27.4 million.