It is now clear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a smash hit, and everyone connected to it is an absolute genius. (Bill Murray’s joke here: "I’d like to thank everyone connected to Lost in Translation, but so many people take credit for it now, I wouldn’t know where to begin.")
It’s worth remembering that the striking thing about the film, and the thing that most surely saved it from being fiber free, Nutrasweet pap, is the performance by Johnny Depp. And this is worth remembering because Disney came close to canning his performance
[T]he eccentricity of Depp’s approach sent ripples of panic through Disney’s executive suites. Frantic phone calls were placed to Verbinski, Bruckheimer, and Depp’s agent: Why is he walking funny? Why is he talking like that? Is he gay? Is he drunk? And it wasn’t only the suits who were concerned: ”The first scene I did with Johnny, I was like, What the f— are you doing?” Knightley says. ”None of us knew if it was going to work.”
Depp was not to be deterred. ”It was just fuel to go further,” he says. ”Not because I wanted to piss Disney off, but because I believed it was the right thing to do. Finally, I said, ‘Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you can’t trust me, you can fire me. But I can’t change it.’ It was a hard thing to say, but f— it.” (Rottenburg)
Whew! Talk about dodging a bullet! Imagine if the lead actor didn’t have clout or courage. Imagine a director (Gore Verbinski) who was not prepared to retire to a life as a "goat cheese farmer." Imagine if this was a bigger bet for Disney, and not a movie based on a ride from it’s theme park. Depp might well have been deterred. Disney might well have prevailed. All of a sudden, it’s no longer an opening weekend of $132 million or a ten-day-take of $258 million. "I can’t change it." When was the last time these 4 words made a studio this much money?
Hollywood, one of the places culture and commerce combine spectacularly in our world, is having a hard time of it.
1) costs are going up. The Motion Picture Association of America says that it now costs $96 million dollars on average to make and market a film. This is up nearly $20 million from 2001.
2) ticket sales are still flat, and hover at what they were 4 years ago.
3) DVD sales are beginning to slow, after years of double-digit growth.
The industry, once famous for its big spending ways, is changing.
1) new cost discipline is in effect at the studios, not least because they are now owned by large multinationals.
2) big stars are dropping their salaries. Tom Cruise did for Mission Impossible 3.
3) the studios are, in the opinion of Stephen Prough of Salem Partners, "absolutely less fun" to work at.
4) There is even talk of a "death of the middle" strategy embraced in other markets.
Hollywood executives have also opened a debate about the proper size and composition of a studio’s film slate. One theory is that studios should do away with mid-sized films–say, with budgets in the $50 range–and instead focus on the blockbusters, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and niche products. (Chaffin)
The "death of the middle" strategy is straight forward. It says, spend massively to guarantee hits at the top, and fund lots of little films to fill niches (and find sleepers) at the bottom. The middling films, the DOM stategy says, are too small for marketing muscle and too big to connect to anyone.
But what are we assuming here? We’re assuming that the block busters are manufacturable, that the studios can manage their way to sensational numbers. Really? It looks like Disney came this close to refusing the essential ingredient of this summer’s blockbuster. (Is he drunk? Is he gay? Please. It’s called acting.) Were it not for Depp’s refusal to rework his foppish Jack, this block buster might well have been a middle weight, and no block buster at all.
I wonder if it isn’t time for Hollywood to get chunkier. Maybe the real opportunities lie in the middle ground. A chunky approach to marketing says go for the sweet spot, the place with money enough to hire real talent, and enough freedom to set them free. (Freeish.) There has to be a habitable space between the deeply eccentric, entirely self indulgent freedoms of the indie and the "fear of falling" rigidities that understandably beset the studio when spending $160 million.
Maybe the next move for Hollywood should be managers who can manage the middle. I mean most anyone can spend their way out of risk…except when they can’t (which is now much of the time). And just about anyone can max out their parent’s credit cards in the creation of the next great indie act of film school nicherie.
More easily said than done. Managing the middle, looking for chunky markets, this takes people who really know the interface between culture and commerce, people who can read consumer taste and preference, who can work a fragmented culture because they know that culture, AND bring the project in on time and budget. It takes people who know their culture and their commerce. I don’t doubt there are people in Hollywood who qualify as centaurs, but I’d be very surprised if these people were industry standard.
Hollywood’s problem is everyone’s problem. Every packaged goods brand face the problem of the vanishing middle. Every marketer must learn to speak to a turbulent marketplace. One of these days, a business school or an industry association will rise to the occasion. In the meantime, we’ll just have to hope that the actors will save us. (And when you are relying on Johnny Depp to save you, well, God save you, too.)
Chaffin, Joshua. 2006. Hollywood’s blockbuster budgets leave the chests bare. Financial Times. July 17, 2006. [source for all data reproduced above in point form]
Rottenberg, Josh. 2006. The Piracy Debate: the rough seas of the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. Entertainment Weekly. July 07, 2006. here.
Bill Murray quote approximate.
Russell Davies offers this as one of several insights from his stay in Portland at Nike and Wieden + Kennedy.
7. Brands that influence culture sell more
This feeling was always in the air. People were trying to build popular culture not piggy-back on it, trying to create new culture, not just repeat old ones. About the worst thing you could say about an idea was that it had ‘borrowed interest’. And it was palpably clear that this instinct led to more effective, more profitable brands. So I remember writing ‘brands that influence culture sell more’ in a creds deck and getting the highly prized Wieden nod of approval. That was a good moment. (Or at least I think I remember writing that, it seems to have turned up in other places too, so maybe I heard it somewhere first, perhaps through some sort of strange wormhole into the future.)
Davies, Russell. 2006. Seven things I learned at Wieden and Kennedy. here.