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Blue? – or – Boo!

June 3rd, 2010 1 comment

A la “Speed,” here’s a a pop quiz: What was the most profitable movie last year?

If you guessed “Avatar,” you’re wrong. James Cameron’s movie may have made the most money of any film last year, but the winner in terms of profitability is “Paranormal Activity,” the ‘little movie that could’… “Paranormal Activity,” written and directed (on HD video) by Oren Peli for something like $11 thousand, went on to make $108 million domestically. For its part, “Avatar” made the most money ($750 million domestically, and about twice that overseas), but it also cost the most. The budget for “Avatar” is rumored to be in the $300 million range, while Peli used his own home to save on expenses. So it all adds up to big profits for Paramount – which, coincidentally, released both pictures. 

But in terms of return on investment, Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” earned an unheard-of-in-Hollywood 9,800% return. That makes “Avatar”‘s 750% profit (and remember – that’s worldwide) look downright puny. But pictures like “Paranormal Activity” are phenomena which rarely occur; Hollywood’s last bona fide breakout hit of this scale was “The Blair Witch Project,” and that was ten years ago…

Apart from their mutual heritage as very successful Paramount releases (‘Paranormal’ was actually a 2007 L.A. “Screamfest” festival entry before it made the rounds in Hollywood and ultimately ended up at Dreamworks, which ceded it to corporate parent Paramount), both pictures share another attribute which increased their odds: they are both genre movies. And that’s the secret to their successes…

Genre movies are Hollywood’s ‘ace up its sleeve,’ because they are popular and profitable and fairly cheap. Neither “Paranormal Activity” nor “Avatar” are fair examples, since they represent the exceptional upside. But you can point to a lot of solid genre performers in the marketplace, like “District 9” or “The Hangover,” both of which represented a low budget with high returns. Other genre successes include martial-arts/crime films (almost every Steven Seagal film has been quite successful – believe it or not…), action films (Val Kilmer still works; so does Dolph Lundgren), and the most recent sub-genre entry: dance films. These films represent something of a ‘sure bet’ for the studios (or their low-budget subsidiaries), since a low-budget film is far more likely to make money if it catches on with audiences – especially compared to their big-budget tentpole films, which must basically succeed just to break even. And a genre flop? Pffft. It’s dust – and dirt cheap at that…

 

Sure, the studios like to insist they’re creating art, 24 times a second, to paraphrase French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard, but really it’s ‘show business,’ not ‘show art.’ And like everybody else (except moreso), Hollywood wants to make money. That’s why they make side-bets with genre pictures while flaunting their big-budget productions. And it should come as no surprise that the most successful genre of all has been the horror/thriller genre. The success of “The Ring,” “Saw,” “Hostel,” “Scream” and all their gory and/or shriek-inducing sequels is part of a tried-and-true approach of marketing movies to teens that will cause them to slide together a bit closer in the dark. Granted, the splatter factor of recent years may be greater reason to cover each others’ eyes instead, but the business model remains the same: scare the sh#t out of the kids and they’ll always come back for more.

Genre success isn’t science fiction – I’m not joking. Genre success is kick-ass and steppin’ out. And an $11 thousand movie that makes over a hundred million? That’s genre success that’s truly shocking…