The Best Shot for Hollywood

You know you’re getting somewhere when a newspaper writer on the other side of the continent takes his best shot at your cause.

Such was the case on the July 16, 2004, when Steve Persall, film critic for the St. Petersburg Times, took more than a few inches of column space to contemplate why the Parents Television Council is “all growl and no bite.” This Tampa Bay reporter focused specifically on the PTC’s approach to exploring content in movies. (Persall also quotes from Gail Schiller’s article that appeared four days earlier in the Hollywood Reporter entitled “PTC Tries Softer Approach in Film Foray”.)

His opinion piece closes by quoting grading samples from movie reviews he attributes to the PTC. (Schiller makes the same assumption.) For clarity’s sake, the reviews are actually published by my company under the name Parent Previews (formerly Grading the Movies). The PTC kindly places prominent links to our work on their website, allowing readers to access the information more easily.

But the confusion on this matter is a minor aside. Persall’s main criticism is the recently developed Seal of Approval the PTC bestows on films deemed appropriate for all ages. He argues such “positive reinforcement” from the “group of conservative watchdogs” concerned about the media their children consume, “Ultimately… won’t have much influence on what moviegoers see because our grownups are watching too.” He adds that, “A mere sign of approval isn’t the dollar sign Hollywood approves most.”

To prove his point, Persall examines the box office performance of movies that have received the PTC Seal of Approval. Looking at the ticket sales of America’s Heart and Soul, Two Brothers, Ella Enchanted, and New York Minute, the critic notes these films collectively grossed a scant $55 million—only covering about half their production and advertising costs. (He neglects to mention that, as of his writing date, two of these films—Two Brothers and Ella Enchanted—still hadn’t finished their initial runs in theaters.)

Unfortunately Persall doesn’t delve deeper into why family-friendly movies aren’t making more money, but I welcome the opportunity to point out a few observations.

First, the notion Hollywood shies away from making films that don’t write a box-office money-back guarantee on the script simply isn’t true. As an example, here’s another list of four titles: House of Sand and Fog, 21 Grams, City of God, and Girl with a Pearl Earring. Collectively, these films made about $49 million in the US market… that’s $6 million less than the four PTC award recipients—and all of them have ended their theatrical run.

Second, it is false to assume any seal or award will insure blockbuster status. Lets look at this list again, because each of these movies bears a mark of distinction too. No, it’s not the humble Parents Television Council sticker… instead they are all Oscar nominated films from the 2003 Academy Awards. Using Persall’s argument, the all mighty Oscar is even weaker at creating customer demand than the PTC’s approval.

Please note even Oscar winners don’t always profit in cold hard cash. Often their reward comes more in the form of accolades and media “buzz.” For instance, last year Charlize Theron took home the coveted statue for her role in the R-rated Monster, yet the film only grossed $34 million in the domestic market.

In our age of Spiderman and Lord of the Rings, $34 million is becoming chump change. If studios really embraced Persall’s logic, pictures at both ends of the spectrum would be threatened—the art house flicks like City of God and a quality family film like Two Brothers.

That takes us back to the real question: Do organizations like the PTC, or columns like Parent Previews make any difference at all? In my opinion, we are making inroads, and we’re about to get on the freeway.

I think “word of mouth” (or “WOM” to use the industry acronym) is the key to marketing family movies. It is a tool Hollywood loves to use with artsy titles, but executives still haven’t got a handle on how to use this networking technique in the family film genre.

Family audiences approach the theater a little differently, especially as many have had a negative experience in taking their children to a movie, only to discover objectionable content.

Speaking from personal experience (I have four children), if I’m going to pay out the 50-plus dollars it will cost to take my family to a theater, I’m not likely going to hit a film on its opening weekend. First, I’ll ask other parents for opinions. Then I’ll research the film on the Internet and in newspapers. Unlike the twenty-something couple heading out on a date, for families, a movie experience isn’t usually an impulse purchase.

To help with their entertainment decisions, parents are looking for organizations and sources of information they can trust. The WOM provided by a tightly knit network like the PTC, can be just what the studios are looking for. Executives are just beginning to recognize this valuable marketing tool.

Next, studios and distributors need to have enough faith in these family products to give them the time to mature.

Remember New Line’s Secondhand Lions? If you don’t, you’re not alone. Perhaps they were too caught up in making hundreds of millions from Lord of the Rings, but I’d love to know what happened with the promotion of this excellent film.

It too was a PTC award recipient, and an “A-grade” movie in my column. It featured three great stars, Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Haley Joel Osment. It had a fine story of love, adventure, and life with broad age appeal. While some critics debated issues of dramatic arcs and other technicalities, I have yet to meet a parent or child who has seen this film and not enjoyed it.

But when Secondhand Lions came to town, it barely got a chance to meow, let alone roar, before it was ushered off the screen. However, in the four weeks it got, it grossed $36.5 million.

So why was the Academy Award winning Monster was given 23 weeks to earn it’s $34.4 million? Because Newmarket Films carefully worked WOM with Monster, and they gave it the time it needed to build.

Far too often, I see this patience extended to R-rated “serious” pictures, while the scant few high quality family films are expected to fill bank accounts in a matter of days.

If we want to make a difference in the quantity and quality of movies suitable for all ages, we need to become part of the network. We can do so by talking about what we want to see in the media. We can speak positively about great films we’ve seen, and encourage others to support these productions. With a little concerted effort, we may even begin to see our best shot written up in papers across the continent.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…