Typing Faster

July 15, 2010

When “Original” Equals “Risky”: Warner Gambles on Inception

Filed under: Features — petertypingfaster @ 7:00 am

You get one of the worst summer box offices ever.

Sure there have been a few bright spots. Twilight is still raking in the dough (is there no God?). Despicable Me opened to a pleasant $56.4M. But overall the box office has been down in a big way. Month-to-month tracking has shown erosion of 10% to 25% compared to the same months last year.

So what gives?

A lot of folks, myself included, lay the blame at the foot of “sequelitis.” Sequels are tricky things. Sure audience awareness is higher, which means the marketing folks have a much, much easier job. But while the general public might say they’re interested in seeing the latest Shrek movie, the box office receipts paint a different picture. If I had to take a guess, people are showing up at the theaters, seeing nothing but the “same-old-same-old,” turning around and leaving.

So how do we keep people from leaving the theater? How do we get them to plunk down their hard earned cash and actually watch something? I don’t know, how about we make something original?

Seems like the people at Warner Brothers are thinking the same way. Tomorrow they release Inception. It’s a gamble, a pretty big one actually, and given the current economic climate it’s surprising to see a studio rolling the dice on it.

From the LA Times

The plot is difficult to explain in a 30-second TV spot (something about dreams within dreams). The star has a choppy box-office track record (most do these days). The director is not a household name (yet).

When Warner Bros. on Friday opens Inception, a complex action thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent who invades people’s dreams, the studio will give filmgoers something that they say they want but rarely support: a movie that is not a sequel, adapted from a comic book or inspired by a toy.

For Warner Bros. and financing partner Legendary Pictures, the $160-million Inception represents a gamble at a time when Hollywood shuns making big summer movies based on novel ideas. But those involved believe the film will succeed and its director, Christopher Nolan, is on the cusp of becoming as familiar as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Peter Jackson.

Of course it’s that last fact that really helps to mitigate the risk. Christopher Nolan is a popular up and coming director. He’s got a lot of geek and indie film cred having directed Memento and The Dark Knight. All of which explains the director-centric marketing campaign that Warner Bros. launched.

The studio’s $100-million-plus marketing campaign puts the director front and center. Although DiCaprio has the $1.8 billion-grossing Titanic on his resume, nearly every television ad for Inception announces that the film is “from the director of The Dark Knight before mentioning the actor, if at all. Posters, print and online ads do the same, emphasizing The Dark Knight in typeface that is as large, or larger, than DiCaprio’s name.

Between fans who are familiar with Nolan and those who remember only the unique style of The Dark Knight, studio executives believe Inception has what it takes to compete against more recognizable names in theaters this summer, including Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that opens against it, or Angelina Jolie’s Salt that debuts a week later.

It’s interesting to watch the studios scramble to come up with new marketing strategies to promote their films. Used to be that having the right actor headlining your film was enough to get butts into seats. Then, for whatever reason, people started to realize that just because an actor they like is in a movie doesn’t mean that the movie’s going to be any good. Without the guarantee of a big star, studios shifted gears and started doing sequels, remakes, reboots and adaptations. Now they’ve reached out and anointed a director. By greenlighting Inception Warner Bros. stays in the Christopher Nolan between Batman films.

So far it’s looking like a good bet.

Inception‘s sitting at 88% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (yesterday it was at 98%). It’s tracking incredibly well, especially considering it’s not based on an existing property. It’s not going to blow out the box office its opening weekend, but it’ll do a respectable $50 million. As it rolls out to a wider release over the next three weeks expect that number to grow. The question is will they be able to sustain interest and awareness in the film after its opening weekend.

“Sustaining the movie by having a presence on television and online after the opening is going to be important,” Kroll said. “We don’t have the brand equity that usually drives a big summer opening, but we have a great cast and a fresh idea from a filmmaker with a track record of making incredible movies. If you can’t make those elements work, it’s a sad day.”

It’d be a sad day indeed.

Inception hits theaters this weekend.

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