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"To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous"

August 24, 2018

I love this quote, but I'm not sure how many other people really believe this to be so....

 

Socrates said the above words 400 years or so BC, and they still speak a universal truth in the world of business today and they especially resonate in the sphere of independent film distribution, where certainties are all but non-existent.

 

Most, if not all, senior film executives have passed on films that went on to become blockbusters and backed ones that ended up being flops. I remember, early in my career at Universal Pictures, when the wonderful Sally Caplan quite happily told new recruits that she had passed on The Full Monty, when it had been pitched to her at Polygram Filmed Entertainment. I wonder if there are many male execs that would have been quite so open about that, let alone be able to laugh about it. (I was lucky enough to later work with Sally, at Momentum Pictures, and she had a fantastically philosophical and refreshing approach to business affairs, an approach I've not experienced since). 

 

Over the years I have worked with some who seemed to talk more in certainties than in opinions, and I regret to report that those types seemed to flourish more long-term in the workplace than those of us who offered more balanced or fair appraisals. I put this down to their superiors putting more faith in confident-sounding types, despite the exceedingly questionable nature of some of their claims and their track records ultimately exposing the fact that they knew no more than the rest of us at the time. 

 

Despite having been in distribution for over 18 years, I am wise enough not to imagine that I can fully foretell box office outcome scenarios. There are too many variables and so much is beyond your control.  

 

Experience in film distribution can save you a whole lot of heartache, but ultimately it can't guarantee you an unbroken run of success. At the end of the day everything is just a professional opinion and nobody has all the answers, nor correct predictions. I have worked with some very smart people, and these people have undoubtedly prevented numerous disasters from happening, but nobody can fully predict what an audience will respond to on any given opening weekend.

 

What separates execs in a boardroom is often only confidence levels and self-belief. Look what happened to Solo this summer, for example. Hindsight is 20:20 vision when it suddenly becomes obvious to everybody that it was released too soon after The Last Jedi... 

 

Film forecasting largely relies on 'comps', which are previous releases that you have sales data on. This is a very spurious business, however, as most films share few similarities, unless they are franchise sequels, and no one weekend is the same as another, as they will all have different films in concurrent play at the time, and different weather conditions and competing leisure-time events, such as sporting occasions (such as the World Cup). Crucially, they will also all get different critical acclaim scores, which can have a huge effect with audiences. Even if you replicate the same opening weekend as a previous film with a comparable film (in terms of genre, overall cast recognition and critical acclaim) - a year later, and spend the same on prints and advertising, the chance that you can predict the outcome is still very slight, even if you go as far as replicating the colours on the poster (blue and yellow was very popular in the last 18 months).

 

The other problem with forecasting is that you tend to take a mid-range probability of outcomes, based on your comps, and that is neither a particularly bad scenario, or a particularly good one and that can see distributors under-investing and the results being a self-fulfilling-prophecy. However, taking a huge punt on every release is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, and many distributors have fallen by the wayside through over-ambitious investing. 

 

Angus Finney, who ran a course on film distribution for the FDA, that I attended in 2011, said you should always see what 'doubling your marketing spend and halving your box office expectations' does to your P&L, just to get an idea of how deep a hole your release could end up in if it really does all go awry. Trust me when I say that this can, and does, happen, leaving your finance team scratching their heads in despair, and disbelief. 


So, what is the best way to approach projecting certainty versus uncertainty in the film distribution workplace, without looking weak and indicisive? Assuming we all agree that certainty is certainly a 'ridiculous' stance to take? Do we profess full confidence in our forecasts and emphatically sell that to the business, upwards and downwards, regardless of any statistical probability of success, or do we simply say, 'look, this might just work if we get all of our ducks in a row and work our asses off, and hope we get a few lucky breaks along the way'? 

 

To finish, I guess there is just one true certainty in film that isn't ridiculous, and that is "The public is always right" well said Mr Cecil B. DeMille.

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