Motion Pictures

Lecture for Thursday, January 20, 2000.


How would you make a popular entertainment film about the following:

1. Ship sinks due to human arrogance and error.

1500+ killed

2. Life of pioneer woman broadcaster. Boozer, druggie, tragic death.

3. Leading sleaze porno king, misogynist




I. Making (popular, commercially successful) movies

Only 20 percent of U.S. films are highly profitable.

Most movies are not profitable at all. How can someone succeed in this business? What are the general ways the business operates? How does this influence the content of movies?

Movie makers need to make money, and most mainstream movie makers are shooting for $100 million or more in US box office revenues. So, this is what they pay attention to:

1. Demographics

Most of the people going to movie theaters are young, generally under 30 years of age. About 25% of the population buys 80% of the tickets (although people over 40 are starting to return to the theaters, instead of mostly using video rentals).


a Young people

In 1998, there were 39 million teens in the US. By 2010, there will be 42 million. They have lots of money to spend; estimated at $80 billion today. (through direct purchase or influence over their parents’ spending).

48 per cent of 12-17 year olds go to the movies at least once a month. Over the age of 18 but under 25: 26% go at least once a month.

The single most financially-successful movie of 1999, at least in terms of costs and revenue together, relied almost exclusively on young viewers -- and benefited from a marketing campaign that was directed to and by young viewers. Blair Witch Project.



b. Teens = 27% of movie tickets sold at adult ticket prices in US.

Horror does well with this group (Scream, Scream 2, I know what you did last summer, I know #2, ec.)


c. Young males. Action movies do well with this segment. The Adam Sandler movies (Wedding Singer, Waterboy, Big Daddy) are directly targeted at this audience. Chief demographics for Sandler movies are males 8 to 35 (with a few girls, but that’s not central to the segment being sought). Sandler movies tend to show some rather plain or even nerdy boys/guys who succeed. In Waterboy, for example, Sandler plays a socially inept youth from the Louisiana swamps who, as a water boy for the college football team, is turned into a devastating tackler. The rationale for success of these movies: ordinary boys succeed -- not just the good looking, highly gifted kids. Adam Sandler usually plays a nice guy who isn’t as smart or as clever as every one else, but who triumphs anyway.

Robert Simonds is the producer of these Adam Sandler movies. The formula for young males:

There’s Something About Mary also appealed enormously this audience, as did Austin Powers.



d. Young girls. Titanic pointed to the immense power of this segment. Many girls --teen and pre teen -- went to the show more than once -- some a dozen times or more.

Other shows that have done well with this segment include Good Will Hunting. (The original script was more of a thriller, with evil government agents. Will’s love interest with Skylar was added to provide romance -- and thus to woo preteen and teen girls.

e. Older 40. Over 40 is growing, though. 1985= 15% of total ticket sales; in 1995, 26%. Some movies for the over 40 crowd: Nixon, Grifters, English Patient, As Good as It Gets.

f. Multiple segments: blockbusters.

Armageddon was engineered for the ground up for maximum box office impact.

Key steps:

i. Concept. Has to be short, simple, direct.

You’ve got an asteroid and it is hurtling toward earth. A group of deep core oil drillers and NASA recruits fly up to the asteroid and land on it-- to blow it up. Then everything goes wrong.

ii. Hot director (Michael Bay)

iii. Power Studio (Disney)

iv. Catchy Title (Armageddon). Sounds ominous, which is good for this type of film.

v. Major star needed: Bruce Willis ($15m)

vi. Quirky costars: Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton

vii. Sex appeal: Ben Affleck

viii. Romance. Liv Tyler for Ben

ix. Watch the rating: keep it at PG 13. No cussing.

x. Plan opening date. July 4 weekend.

xi. Control costs

xii. Marketing.


Ally, Dawson

xiii. Promotional Tie ins


2. Sequels

If one movie succeeds, then make a sequel.

Most recently: Toy Story, Toy Story 2.

Godfather I-III, Rocky I-V, Rambo I-III.

Scream ($15 m to make, $103 in domestic box office). Scream 2

Babe; Babe, Pig in the City


Psycho, You’ve Got Mail, Prince of Egypt, Thin Red Line, etc.


Sequels usually do about 2/3 as well as the original. But Toy Story 2 may surpass Toy Story 1.

Note: not conducive to creativity necessarily.

3. Whammies


Special effects that kill a lot of people -- mostly bad people, but a few good people need to die to explain the story (especially if revenge is part of the story). In FACE OFF, John Travolta’s young son is killed by the bad guys at the start of the movie.

Writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne talk about a Stallone script (Gale Force) that they were revising. The studio encouraged them to increase the amount of whammies. One executive said that the first act needed "better whammies," in the second act, the whammies should "mount up," and in the third act, it should be "all whammies."


4. Feel Good Stories

Golden Girl -- Up Close and Personal

Alanna Nash book, Golden Girl, about Jessica Savitch.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, writers, describe the script process.

Dunne: "When we left Burbank that day, this is what we knew: that as long as Disney was footing the bills, Jessica Savitch would cease to be a factor in the Jessica Savitch screenplay."

Up Close and Personal: Story of Tally Atwater (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Warren Justice (Robert Redford).

5. Comfort Zones

Least Offensive Programming

Books get changed when they are adapted to movies: Color Purple, Fried Green Tomatoes, Bastard Out of Carolina, Man Without a Face, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Why start with books at all? Popularity demonstrated, although sales of 100,000 to 300,000 are excellent for a book, while similar numbers for a movie are abysmal.

[Some other recent movies that were adapted from books: Angela’s Ashes, Green Mile, Snow Falling on Cedars, Girl Interrupted, Stuart Little, Talented Mr Ripley and Cider House Rules]

6. Marketing

Hunt for Red October

Not marketed as a cold war film, but as a suspense movie.

Was going to be marketed as cold war film, but early focus groups and test audiences indicated that the key target audience (young men) didn’t care about the cold war.


Marketed as a Robin Williams film. Nothing in the advertising about gays or about cross dressing. The Nathan Lane character appears in a suit for only a very small part of the movie -- but that’s how he’s presented in the marketing campaign for the movie.

People v. Larry Flynt

People v. Larry Flynt. 1996. Larry Flynt publishes pornography , including Hustler.

How do you make a movie about a porn king? Hustler included examples of violence and sexual violence against women (dead women, beaten women, women in chains, etc.). The Flynt companies have been the target of protests.

The movie focuses not on pornography but on free speech. First Amendment issues stressed; Flynt’s opponents shown as bigoted, narrow minded Puritanical public officials. Feminist protests about Flynt empire ignored.

Scriptwriters: the intellectual arguments of feminists are less cinematic than the idea of government putting you in jail.

So there’s an emphasis on Flynt versus the government, with Flynt the hero standing up for free speech against narrow minded public officials. Ads for the movie included a picture of Woody Harrelson (playing Flynt) with his mouth gagged.

The movie also skipped some aspects of Flynt’s life -- including his 3 marriages and children. We just see one wife, played by Courtney Love.

This marketing plan almost worked. Early reviews were good, but a backlash set up -- primarily from people who didn’t like the porn that Flynt’s empire produces.

Con Air

Disney action movie. Story about a group of America’s deadliest criminals; they hijack a prison transport plane and a war with federal marshals ensues. Early marketing plans wanted to focus on one poor innocent parolee (played by Nicholas Cage) who gets caught up in all of this. But a 2ndary marketing stream opened up in an effort to draw women to the movie. It was marketed, to some extent, as a love story. The emphasis is on the heroic parolee trying to get home to his wife (and the young daughter he’s never met).

Why this effort? The movie was expensive; Disney wanted it to do well both in US and abroad. Disney wanted to move beyond the movie’s obvious key audience (young men who like action movies) to include women. So romance is added at the start of the movie (with the Cage character slow dancing with his wife, references to her pregnancy). The song (for the dance) was sung by C&W star Trisha Yearwood. Music videos (with her) and the very few tender moments of the movie are marketed on VH1 and in ads around soap operas (watched primarily by women). The violence in the movie was also reduced somewhat.


American Beauty.

Not a very upbeat movie. Made for just $15m, relieving it from the pressure to gross $100m to be profitable. By December 5, 1999, it had grossed over $70 million. Marketing? DreamWorks passed out thousands of temporary tattoos of a rose (the image featured prominently in the movie) to those attending Lilith Fair concerts in the summer of 1999. Also screened on college campuses -- to boost its stature as high minded cinema. Press screenings were also early and numerous.

Movies for women: My Best Friend’s Wedding, Titanic, First Wives Club, Waiting to Exhale, Preacher’s Wife, One Fine Day, Evita, English Patient.

Marketing as love story: Jerry Maguire

7. Scheduling of movies

Scheduling involves a very serious game of strategy: cross between chess and chicken. Studio distribution chiefs play this game year round, but with increasing intensity during summer and holiday release periods, when so much concentrated box office activity takes place.

One movie executive says: "There really is a science to it. A movie that’s released at the wrong time can disappear at the box office. You look at how much money is riding on each of these releases, so much is on the line and your release can really make or break you."

Another movie executive says: "There’s always going to be a movie opening every weekend, so you try to open yours when someone else isn’t going after your same audience. The problem is, you have to look really hard, because there’s always somebody going after your audience.

In the 6 or 7 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years, Hollywood makes about 16% of its year’s total revenue -- $1.1 b in 1998 (out of $6.95b). Concentrated burst of ticket buying energy second only to the lucrative summer season, when are kids out of school.

Some trends:

1. Family oriented films open at Thanksgiving

2. Films aimed at women late in December, after the holiday shopping and housework are done.

3. Many films open on Wednesdays instead of Fridays to extend impact of holiday weekend (around Thanksgiving, Christmas)

4. Open some serious films and harder to sell holiday films in a limited number of theaters to qualify for Oscars, build critical acclaim before going into wider release in January. (e.g., Snow Falling on Cedars)

Goal always the same: give your film a good chance of doing well, without a lot of competitive distractions.

Disney slated Toy Story 2 for Thanksgiving weekend. So competitors stayed away from that weekend. Pokemon and Stuart Little were scheduled earlier, later, respectively.

Holidays and movies.

Hollywood does well during holidays.

Big 0penings on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving 1998: $182m

Thanksgiving 1999: a bit over $200m.

Family films frequently open on Thanksgiving.

Disney has done quite well, dominating the Thanksgiving weekend for the past 5 years.

1999: Toy Story 2. $57.3 for the weekend (and $80.8 for its first week)

1998: Bug’s Life. $45.7m

1997:Flubber. opens at $35.9m

1996: 101 Dalmatians. $45m

1995 Toy Story. $39m

1995. Santa Clause (Tim Allen): $27.4



8. Titanic

Story of the sinking of the ship Titanic on April 5,1912. About 1500 of the 2200 people on board died that night.

Most expensive movie ever made.

Cost $200m (went $100 m over budget).

Looked like a big loser summer 1997, but debuted in December 1997 with good press reviews and high expectations that it would do well. The turnabout on the movie’s fortunes (and word of mouth) can be attributed to a carefully orchestrated plan, beginning with a tantalyzing trailer, followed by early screenings of the film for the press, industry insiders and test audiences around the country. Consensus was that the film was a good one.

Some point to a web site by Harry Knowles. His AINT IT COOL site (as well as other sites) provided very strong support for the movie on the web.

Why did the movie succeed?

Mass market movies

Costly but huge profits possible

1. Emphasis on first weekend

Stars, Simple Story

2. Demographics

3. Whammies

4. Feel Good

5. Sure bets:

sequels, remakes, books

6. LOP

7. Produce Placement

8. Foreign Sales



Pressure Groups


I. Southern Baptists

Disney Boycott


2. Parents Television Council

Steve Allen


3. Focus on the Family

Praise for Prince of Egypt

Dawson’s Creek: "Trash"

Something...Mary "Sick"

Fight Club: "Diseased Material"


4. Christian Action Network

"Homosexual Content Warnings"

FCC ignores


5. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation

Defense of Ellen, Will & Grace

Protest stereotypes, attacks on lesbians, gays

Response to CAN request

Praise for shows (D.Creek)





I. Southern Baptists

Disney Boycott



1. Critics say: Sexy Messages Hidden in Cartoons

Three Texans sued Disney, arguing that three Disney animated video hits -- Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King carried subliminal sexual messages slipped into them by the Disney company.



--Aladdin says, "Good teenagers, take off your clothes." Disney has previously insisted that the line is, "Good tiger, take off and go." But with the music in the background and the garbled sound quality, it is very hard to tell.

One Web site contends that Aladdin says: "Good kitty, take off and go."

This rumor started soon after Aladdin was released on home video in 1993. A garbled and whispered portion of dialogue that could barely be heard in the theater was being replayed over and over in some homes but was still hard to distinguish. Someone came up with a salacious phrase; the rumor spread.

In 1994, the rumor appeared in print, in Movie Guide magazine, an Atlanta-based Christian entertainment review. Due to that article, the controversial phrase was brought to the attention of the American Life League, a religious organization which had been boycotting Disney films since the previous April as a protest over the movie PRIEST. The American Life League gave new prominence to the rumor in September 1995 when it claimed the phrase was yet another piece of evidence that Disney had been sneaking "sexual passages" into their animated films for the past several years.


Lion King

--Lion King looks on contentedly while the stars above spell out the letters S-E-X.

About half way to three-fourths of the way through the film, Simba, Pumbaa and Timon are lying on their backs, looking up at the stars. Simba arises, walks over to the edge of the cliff, and flops to the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. Eddies of dust form and dissipate in the roiling cloud, and at one point the various curves and angles in these eddies appear to form the letters SEX.

You have to incline your head slightly to the left to see the letters as the dust drifts to the left hand side of the screen.

It takes a bit of persistence to see specific letters in the shapes formed by the swirling dust clouds, even when the video is played in slow motion.

People who are just told to look for a word in the clouds seldom can find one. People looking specifically for SEX sometimes can find it.

Origins: A young boy, viewing the video with his head tilted, noticed the appearance of the letters SEX and told his mother about it. His mother notified a religious organization called the American Life League, which claimed that was yet another occurrence of Disney’s deliberately inserting hidden images into their animated films.


Little Mermaid

--The minister in the wedding scene in Mermaid has an erection. Either that or knobby knees.



Southern Baptist Boycott

In 1996, the 15-million member Southern Baptist Convention put Disney on notice -- they were watching the company’s actions. A year later, further dissatisfied with Disney, the 2000 delegates at the 1997 Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney and its subsidiaries. The resolution urges "every Southern Baptist to take the stewardship of their time, money and resources so seriously that they refrain from patronizing the Disney Co., and any of its related entities." The resolution was not binding on the 40,613 churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.


Objections to Disney:


Rev. Richard Land, President of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission:

Health benefits to gays, gay days, Ellen, some Disney movies: all objectionable. He advised: target Disney theme parks and megastores rather than trying to hit all Disney movies and TV shows.


Herb Hollinger, convention spokesperson: "There seems to be a feeling that Disney has ignored us, and the crowning blow was the coming out of Ellen."

Other criticisms of Disney:


"Magic Kingdom" dubbed the "Tragic Kingdom" by some of its critics.



Eisner Response: no effect

Michael Eisner, Disney chairman, called the boycott "ridiculous" and denied it would have any effect on Disney. No effect financially, he said. Eisner denied that Disney was pushing an "anti Christian" or "anti family" agenda. "That’s ridiculous. We’re not pushing any agenda."


Eisner on Pocahontas: "When somebody says Pocahontas is anti-Christian or anti-Jewish or anti-black or anti-Native American, I say inside deep down, ‘They’re nuts." They really are. She didn’t become a Christian in the legend until after our story ended. Pocahontas is one of the most pro-social movies made in the 75 years of the history of the Disney Company."


Eisner on Ellen: He said the show’s lesbian story line had been very well done. He said that a recent advisory placed at the beginning of an ELLEN episode (where the star, Ellen DeGeneres kisses another woman) was in no way a response to the boycott. Eisner said the advisory warned parents who didn’t want their children watching something that is against what they believe in.


Eisner on Gay Days at the Theme parks: "I think it would be a tragedy for us to exclude anybody."


Are the boycotts of Disney effective? Answer depends on whom you ask.


Any Effect?


1. YES:

Disney recalled 100K copies of a hip hop album laden with obscenities just days after it was released to stores under Disney’s Hollywood Records Label. The unusual decision to pull the record, Insane Clown Posse’s THE GREAT MALENKO came just about a week after Baptists announced their boycott of the company for its alleged anti family products and practices. Disney senior management said the recall was not triggered by the boycott but by "inappropriate" lyrics. Internal review procedures had not caught those at first. Said lyrics: offensive to women. (Disney has been trying to revive its Hollywood Records; signed Insane Clown Posse for $750K. ICP is a white hip hop and that has self released several albums previously).

In 1999, Disney’s Miramax film company gave up distribution rights to the movie "Dogma" (with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) after it was judged controversial. The movie was generally cynical about religion and was deemed by some to be anti-Catholic.


2. NO:

Quite possibly true. Many Baptists have criticized the boycott, calling it doomed to failure. Some have argued that it needs to be focused on a few Disney properties (e.g., movies or theme parks) rather than on television. The wide spread of the Disney company (including ESPN, theme parks, etc.,) means that there are many attractive aspects of the company. That makes a boycott all the harder.


Washington Post story, July 6, 1997:

The Rev. Ray Hope had just arrived home from Dallas where he’d helped approve the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of the Walt Disney Co. His 1-year-old daughter met him at the door, dressed in a Minnie Mouse bathing suit. Inside, his son was watching a Disney video. The pastor of Rockville (Md.)’s Montrose Baptist Church also has cable television, leaving him vexed with the problem of how to stop his money from going to Disney-owned channels, including the all-sports ESPN. How far do you go? Hope wondered aloud. "What am I going to do, call the cable company and say I don’t want cable anymore? Where do you stop? Do I not go to McDonald’s because it’s promoting [Disney’s] Hercules?"


Other Baptists are very critical of the boycott. Rev. Robert Maddox, pastor of the Briggs Memorial Church in Bethesda, Md: "I’m embarrassed to be a Southern Baptist anymore. There was no struggling with the real issues, with the pain that I think a lot of gay people feel, the ostracism. If Baptists had any hope at all to minister to the gay community, they’ve just wiped it out. To go after a very complex problem in this kind of shotgun way is a terrible misplacement of energy and a terrible loss of compassion." (Maddox has been a pastor for 40 years.)



2. Parents Television Council

Steve Allen


3. Focus on the Family

Praise for Prince of Egypt

Dawson’s Creek: "Trash"

Something...Mary "Sick"

Fight Club: "Diseased Material"


4. Christian Action Network

"Homosexual Content Warnings"

FCC ignores


5. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation

Defense of Ellen, Will & Grace

Protest stereotypes, attacks on lesbians, gays

Response to CAN request

Praise for shows (D.Creek)


History, actions of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation