Why the internet is responsible for a lack of originality at the box office
On May 4th, 2019, Avengers: Endgame became the second-highest grossing film of all time a mere 11 days after it premiered in theaters around the world. Of course, it actually took more — much more — than just 11 days for Endgame to reach such wild levels of success. In reality, it was the culmination of 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe films released over 11 years.
It’s no surprise that Endgame performed so well. The box office over the past decade has increasingly rewarded franchise films based on notable intellectual property. Disney, of course, was ahead of the curve in spotting the value in existing canonical stories and intellectual property, having acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for a relatively paltry (in hindsight) $4.24 billion and Lucasfilm for a mere $4.05 billion three years later in 2012. These prescient IP acquisitions have powered Disney to take control of the box office, with the studio producing the top grossing film for the past five years straight (2015–2019).
Top films from the previous six years (2009–2014) originated from five different studios (Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Lionsgate), featured original IP (Avatar, Toy Story), were based on books (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, American Sniper) — and some weren’t even sequels (Avatar, American Sniper)!
Many film critics have bemoaned the recent era of comic-book movies, sequels, and franchises — but the reasons behind their success is clear: they’re memeable.
In the movie marketing world there are three types of marketing: paid, earned, and organic. Paid media (trailers, TV commercials, billboards, print ads, etc.) is the primary expense of film P&A, while earned media (3rd party articles about a film, interviews / talkshow segments with a film’s stars) provides additional awareness at little to no cost to the studio and distributors. Organic media — traditionally referred to as “word of mouth,” was completely out of control of a movie studio, and prior to the internet, primarily meant people recommending a movie to their friends or coworkers in person.
Over the past 15 years, the internet has completely upended the historical hierarchy of movie marketing, arguably making organic media the most important factor in a film’s success. Not only can consumers broadcast their approval or disapproval of a movie to millions (instead of just their friends), they can also create / edit / recycle / and distribute viral visual content related to a film with tools like Kapwing.
Memes work best when there is a widely understood context and history behind them. In order to reach viral velocity, people must understand the original reference and the adjusted context, which is often the source of comedic value. The source material must also reach some threshold of cultural conversation and understanding across the internet — whether on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere.
Since widely known references are necessary for successful memes, “one-off” films, those based on original content, and small / mid-budget releases are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to organic marketing. Movies like Sorry to Bother You — which was endlessly memeable, but had limited distribution — can’t compete on the internet with big-budget, global films.
This has affected performance at the box office, and subsequently lured studios to focus on big-budget, franchise films which have better potential to gain widespread awareness. This global contextual IP knowledge can have a building block effect, with each film in a franchise capitalizing on awareness of all previous installments, often resulting in the most recent film of a series grossing more money than previous movies.
Until recently, major studios’ focus on big-budget franchises left small-budget original films without many options for distribution. SVOD players like Netflix and Amazon have stepped up to the plate as distribution platforms for these films — but unfortunately, they still rarely enter the zeitgeist, and instead enter and leave the public consciousness rather quickly. Since these platforms cycle fresh content continuously, and there’s rarely any announced plans for future installments or sequels, there’s no market or motivation for memes about movies like Polar, no matter how good or bad they are.
One exception to this may be the return of “starpower” for SVOD original films. The internet may have killed the days of $20 million upfront payments for A-list talent at the box office (whose involvement would serve as a primary marketing tool), since these celebrities lost their scarcity. While we used to only see stars in their occasional film, in the tabloids, or on the red carpet, in today’s saturated Instagram / Twitter / internet environment, we are exposed to celebrity too often for them to meaningfully drive viewership of content. However, as SVOD platforms release an increasingly high volume of original films, having a “star” like Sandra Bullock in a film may once again provide meaningful lift, signaling quality and significant investment in a film. It may be no coincidence that Birdbox is both Netflix’s most successful original film to date and the only one which has spawned viral memes…
Now that the power of notable IP and organic marketing is undeniable, Hollywood is scrambling to create new IP from scratch, with a history and built-in audience that can jumpstart organic media. Companies like AWA Studios and Allegiance Arts & Entertainment are creating new comic book characters and stories with the hopes of eventually creating a demand for film franchises, while other startups like brud (the creators of lilmiquela) are creating digital, transmedia properties that can advertise products, release original music, and eventually star in films. Cyan Banister from Founders Fund commented on her investment in brud:
“Brud wants to create a suite of characters, some of whom exist on different social-media platforms, with multiple interweaving story lines in the same vein as the Marvel universe…” — Cyan Banister
It’s increasingly clear that for content to reach the cultural zeitgeist in today’s fragmented ecosystem: 1) enough consumers must be aware of and understand its context; 2) some must like it enough to recycle visual content, adding new context and distributing it across the internet; and 3) it must have staying power — spawned by a known forthcoming follow-up or sequel. Bob Iger, Chairman & CEO of Disney perhaps understood this before most in the industry. When the news of Disney’s Lucasfilm acquisition broke in 2012, he simply stated:
“We love the fact that this will take its place in our live-action strategy as an already-branded, already-known quantity. Our long term plan is to release a new Star Wars feature film every two to three years.” — Bob Iger
That strategy, more than 10 years in the making, has landed Disney in the driver seat of both the box office and pop culture.