Decisions disliked by moviegoers that worked

Staggered releases, 12A action films, regional coding and more. We might not like them but they work...

Read the comments sections of most film websites, and there are regular bugbears that keep coming to the fore. Some of them are exclusive to the UK, some of them affect people further afield. Yet each of the issues we’re about to talk about tend to at least irritate the more dedicated movie fan somewhere along the line.

However, depressingly, the majority of these unpopular decisions in the eyes of film lovers have proven to be popular decisions in the eyes of movie studio accountants. Most of them were undertaken as business decisions, and virtually all of the ones we’re going to discuss have worked as business decisions too. So whilst when we say these decisions “worked” we don’t mean for moviegoers, they did, on the whole, do what the people behind them wanted them to do.

Staggering the release dates of Disney movies in the UK

If you go back to even the early 1990s, then the mere notion that blockbuster movies would all land on the same day around the world was laughable. Notwithstanding the logistics, back when films were exclusively shipped around in cans of celluloid rather than encoded hard drives, there was limited demand. We had no world wide web to compare country with country, and staggered releases were an accepted norm. Even some cases, such as most Disney movies, the UK was almost a full year behind the US.

But the internet inevitalby played its part in cutting the gap. Furthermore, the spectre of piracy also changed things. Now, it makes more sense to get as many people in to see a film at the cinema as quickly as possible, before there’s an opportunity to get a decent hooky copy online. So that was the end of staggered releases, then, surely?

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Well, no. A year or two back, Disney in the UK attracted a fair amount of ire for staggering the release of Wreck-It Ralph fairly dramatically. It arrived in the UK nearly three months after the US release, and the same happened with The Muppets. Even the upcoming Big Hero 6′s UK release will trail the US by a couple of months.

So why, in an age when piracy is supposed to be the all-seeing risk, does Disney do this? Why does it upset so many cinemagoers in doing so?

Because it works. The best example of how dramatically this can work actually came with a DreamWorks release, the third Madagascar film. It’s long been sensible to schedule family movies around school holidays, and educational establishments in different places on the planet have their breaks at different times. In the case of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, DreamWorks’ then UK-distributor, Paramount, held the film back. It landed in the US on June 8th 2012, and by the time it hit the UK on October 19th 2012, its DVD release in the States was imminent.

That notwithstanding, the film was a huge hit in the UK. Paramount, by moving the film to a relatively empty school holiday for family movies, scored a huge success. In fact, outside of the US, the UK became the third most lucrative territory for the film (behind Germany and Russia).

Disney found the same with Wreck-It Ralph, which at the time was the studio’s biggest non-Pixar animated release in the UK (Frozen has since taken the record). And as unpopular as the staggered release of big family movies may be, the hard fact is that such a policy works more often than not.

Releasing trailers for trailers

It seems a curse of the modern age that you’re not allowed a simple trailer for a film now. Now there has to be a release date for the trailer, a review of the trailer, and – perhaps worst of the lot – the trailer for the trailer. In case you’ve not had the pleasure, this is a ten to 15 second snippet of a movie trailer, than tends to land a day or two ahead of the full promo.

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You know what’s coming.

We can’t give you substantive numerical evidence here, as we – at your behest – long since banned trailers for trailers from the site. Yet they work. Go to the top 10 articles page of a site running such a promo, and the trailer for the trailer tends to land near the top. Furthermore, if the aim is to get discussion going ahead of the main trailer release itself, that tends to work too. As an alert system to tell people that a new trailer is coming, it works, and as a device to spread the word about a film, it works.

Not with everyone, granted, and when we get to a trailer for a trailer for a trailer – as we pretty much got with The Wolverine a year or so back – the whole thing takes a journey long past parody. There is a growing degree of backlash to the trailer trailer. But not enough to cross them off the to-do list just yet…

Splitting the last film into two

We’ve got bloody Harry Potter to blame for this. Warner Bros, sensing the end of its most successful movie franchise ever, took the decision to split the final book in the Harry Potter series into two. Thus, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 preceded the release of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 by around half a year, and Warner Bros got to bathe in twice the amount of cash as a result. It prolonged a seven book movie series into an eight film one (three more spin-offs are now on the way).

It would be fair to say that lots of people took note, and this is perhaps the most disliked trend in current franchise cinema. Twilight followed the same path, and now The Hunger Games is doing the same too. The final book in the Divergent series is going to be a pair of films, whilst the last Hobbit film became the last two.

We’ve yet to see a film that splits a book like this to do it convincingly. The weak cliffhanger in the middle of Harry Potter is a good example, as it broke a story up in a place that didn’t seem natural. It’s forcing new endings and beginnings into a story that’s never been designed to have them.

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However, as a business decision? Splitting books has created absolute box office gold. There’s not one split book yet that’s not brought home a lot of extra money as a consequence of the decision. The Hunger Games will repeat the same feat later this year, and any movie executive that snaps up a movie trilogy to adapt will pretty instantly be veering towards four films at the very least. No matter whether the story deserves it or not…

Rebooting and remaking films

Given the number of movie reboots and remakes doing the rounds at the moment, there’s a simple guiding principle here: if people didn’t watch them, they damn sure wouldn’t make them.

At the moment, the key trend is rampaging through the films of the 80s and 90s to get remakes of those going. Every time we post a story about another remake/franchise resurrection, we sense – and sometimes share – the collective groan coming from the other side of the internet. And yet remakes and reboots are working. Earlier this year, RoboCop earned quarter of a billion dollars, for instance. 22 Jump Street is a sequel to a big screen take on a TV show. Then we have Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (a sequel to a franchise reboot), Godzilla (a reboot), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (a reboot) and About Last Night (a remake). Every one of them sits in the US box office top 50 for the year.

Not every remake/reboot works, of course, but studios argue that it hedges their bets slightly. That the brand recognition of repurposing an existing property makes more business sense than just trying something entirely new and fresh, and trying to sell that in an increasingly competitive market. Once again, the numbers – not always, but usually – tend to back the studios up.

Cutting A Good Die To Die Hard and Taken 2 to 12A

Recently, it was revealed that Paramount Pictures had, under requested guidance from the BBFC, trimmed Brett Ratner’s Hercules in three places to earn a 12A certificate in Britain. If people had cared more about the film, then there may have been more of an outcry. That, or it’s just accepted now, that big action franchises will target a softer rating.

The two most contentious examples were Taken 2 and Die Hard 5. So let’s take them in turn.

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In the case of Taken 2, as the BBFC reported on its website, “during post-production, the distributor sought and was given advice on how to secure the desired classification. Following this advice, certain changes were made prior to submission”. As such, 20th Century Fox resubmitted a softer cut, and a 12A certificate was duly granted. In this cut, Liam Neeson seemed to hug people to death.

The online reaction was not positive, and many threatened to boycott the film. But for everybody who did, a lot more went to see it.

Notwithstanding the fact that Taken 2 is a pretty shitty sequel, the film’s UK take was only beaten by the amount of money it snared in America. Taken 2 also made three times as much money in the UK as its predecessor did. How much a difference its 12A certificate made is up for debate, but it clearly made some.

Even more contentiously, director John Moore was obliged to provide a softer cut of A Good Day To Die Hard for 20th Century Fox to get a 12A in the UK. Notwithstanding the fact that the fifth Die Hard film was rated R in the US, Fox pressed ahead with its 12A plan for Britain. The UK would go on to be one of the few territories where the film did as well as expected, if not more so. The film took over £10m in the UK, off the back of hostile reviews. In the US, it earned just shy of $70m, the lowest by distance for a Die Hard movie.

From a purely commercial standpoint, notwithstanding the ongoing collateral damage to the franchise’s future, pretty much every 12A hack job to date – and none has arguably been as blatant as Taken 2’s – has proven to be a strong business decision.

Releasing a bare bones DVD/Blu-ray, and then following it up with a features-laden one later

As the DVD market has declined, this has become less and less of a problem. But throughout the 2000s in particular, the ‘vanilla’ initial release followed by the packed special edition was a depressing kick in the proverbials for many movie fans. In some cases, the filmmakers were transparent, and Peter Jackson led the way on this. As with The Hobbit, it was little secret that the initial release of the Lord Of The Rings films would be followed by an extended version several months down the line.

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In some cases, though, DVD publishers went back to the well of a certain film time and time again. Fans of John Carpenter’s Halloween have a bevy of releases to pick from, each with a mix of features that means finding one definitive release is no easy task. Even something like Field Of Dreams was republished in a second special edition, which left off the best feature from the first release.

So accepted was this process, that it even got a name – double dipping. And for a long time, it worked. Studios again bathed in the riches brought in by disc releases, and it’s only been over the past five years or so as download services – legal and otherwise – have become more prevalent that things have changed.

Now, a different phenomenon has kicked in, as studios try and move us all from cheaper DVDs to more expensive Blu-rays, and more profitable streaming services. Thus, DVDs are increasingly bereft of special features, forcing people who want everything towards the Blu-ray. Even in that instance though, we had Star Trek Into Darkness last year, where special features were left off the Blu-ray, so they could be divvied up between assorted streaming services. To date, no Star Trek Into Darkness disc with all of the features included has been released.

There is a sense that the tide has turned here, at least. Heck, even the UK anti-piracy adverts that used to adorn discs have turned into a thank you. But for a long time, the double dip was the curse of the DVD collector.

Regional coding

Let’s end on another relic of the movie business, that’s still just about grasping on. Pre-internet, very few moviegoers in the UK would import videos and laserdiscs other countries. There were technology problems, the historically troubled compatibility between the PAL and NTSC systems, and the sheer cost involved in importing.

The internet, online shopping and DVDs came into consumers’ lives roughly around the same time, and the convergence led to a burgeoning market in DVD imports. Regional coding tried to put a stop to that.

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The justification for regional coding was that the copyright holder for a film in one territory wasn’t necessarily the same in another. Using a high profile example, Titanic was distributed by Paramount in the US, and by Fox in the UK. If a UK consumer imported a DVD from the US, then Fox – which had invested to get the UK rights – wouldn’t get any money. And there was an argument that was unfair.

Consumers roared back that blocking people trying to legitimately and entirely legally buy discs was even worse. Even though piracy wasn’t as big a problem then as it is now, it felt as though legitimate customers were being disadvantaged, just for wanting to buy films.

Eventually, multi-region DVD players all but negated the coding system, but it came back to life with Blu-ray, where multi-region hacks are far less common. It’s become less of an issue, again due to download services (although they come with geographical locks of their own), but the cheapness of important hardware has also offset the problem.

So did it ever work? For consumers, no. It was an inconvenience, and punished arguably the most enthusiastic of film fans. Did it work for movie studios? In truth, we wonder if – in an exception to everything else in this piece – it did more harm than good…

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