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Own Your Geek

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | April 19, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | April 19, 2010 |

The hot topic over the weekend, especially among movie bloggers and box-office pundits and the like, was the success — or lack thereof — of Kick-Ass, a movie that ended up with a $20 million opening against a $30 million expectation. William Goss already touched on some of this in his weekend box-office round-up, but I’d like to explore the issue a little deeper.

The way I see it, the opening of Kick-Ass wasn’t at all a failure. It was the expectations, based upon prognosticators without a real understanding of audience demographics, that screwed this up by predicting a $30 million opening in the first place. Kick-Ass had no shot at $30 million — there were no major stars (save for Nic Cage, a poisonous one), the source material wasn’t popular, it was rated R, and exposure to the movie was concentrated online. That exposure test is a fairly simple one: If your mother hasn’t heard of the movie, it has no chance of opening higher than $30 million. If your spouse hasn’t heard of the movie, then it has no chance of breaking $20 million (assuming you do not live in a two-geek household).

Movie bloggers, especially those associated with geek sites, were largely surprised by the lower-than-expected turnout. That’s, in part, because we’re a myopic bunch. When a movie hits its saturation point in our world, as Kick-Ass did, we believe that it’s destined for huge numbers. What we often fail to consider, however, is that our world is small. And that, though we are loathe to admit it, just like in high school, the geeks are unpopular, marginalized, and small in numbers (but at least we’re not selling cars, assholes). At the end of the day, the jocks and cheerleaders — or what I like to refer to as “dumbasses” — still rule the box-office.

Let me explain. I wish I knew how to make a proper graph, but I don’t, so the following very rough numbers will have to suffice. Let’s put the baseline for an incredibly successful opening weekend at a $100 million gross (ignoring things like budgets, marketing, etc.). To score $100 million, that means you need approximately 10 million people to go see your movie (give or take, based on a $10 movie ticket). So, 10 million is our universe. Kick-Ass scored only a $20 million opening. That means about 2 million people went to see it opening weekend, or 20 percent of our universe. That’s actually not bad if you consider that geeks only make up 20 percent of the movie-going universe. That means that Lionsgate completely maximized the base audience. The problem was, Kick-Ass had no crossover appeal. And to score a $100 million opening, you have to hit all the major demos.

Audiences are a lot like political parties. Movies have a certain base. You need to rally the base, and then pray that you have some crossover appeal to win. Sarah Palin, for instance, could rally her base and get only 25 percent of the vote because neither the liberal base (25 percent) or the mainstream middle (50 percent) would vote for her. (Fortunately, her followers aren’t really movie-goers, otherwise she’d be the next Tyler Perry). The numbers are similar for moviegoing audiences, although there’s obviously a significant crossover. But, to put it in an artificial black and white world, the demographic bases would look something like this (based on the 10 million universe):

2 million geeks
1.5 million horror fans
500,000 independent film fans
1.5 million mature, adult-oriented drama fans
2 million romantic comedy fans
4.5 million dumbasses

If I could do a VENN diagram, circles would be crossing over like crazy.

So, if you can rally your base, alone, you can expect box-office numbers in line with the above. For instance, Kick-Ass rallied their 2 million geeks and fetched a $20 million opening. Hellboy, which opened similarly, falls in the same category. A movie like State of Play, on the other hand, which is mostly limited to those who see mature, adult-orientated dramas, is going to score a $15 million opening weekend, assuming maximum exposure to the base and interest. Put Kate Hudson in a romantic comedy, and you’re going to open with about a $20 million opening no matter how bad the film is (see Fool’s Gold, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and You, Me, and Dupree) because that’s the rom-com base. Put Adam Sandler in a broad comedy, and you’re going to maximize your dumbass audience with a $45 million opening (give or take). See: The Longest Yard, Click, Anger Management, Mr. Deeds, Big Daddy, etc. It’s hard to rally the base on an indie crowd, however, because they’re limited to the big cities and the openings are staggered, but if you manage to rally that base over the staggered release schedule you could hope to end up with a $5 million overall gross (if you’re lucky) (this is why Oscars are important to indies — an Oscar gives it some appeal to both adult-oriented drama fans and the dumbasses who like to see anything that’s popular).

Now, to really succeed, it’s imperative that you crossover into the other categories, and the easiest way to do that is to pick off the dumbasses. Horror movies do that ten times a year. For example, horror-hounds are going to see most horror-movie remakes, even if they know they’re going to be awful, because that base is rabid. But horror remakes also pull in a lot of dumbasses, a few geeks, and even a few from the rom-com category who tag along as dates. A movie like The Dark Knight, on the other hand, is going to hit them all: Geeks, horror folks, dumbasses, adult-oriented drama, and even the rom-com crowd (who just like to go on dates no matter the movie, OK?). Look at Twilight: It pulled in female geeks, female horror fans, the rom-com audience, and half of the dumbasses (i.e., their moms).

This is just a rough sketch, and an overly simplistic one at that; it’d be impossible to calculate the real numbers. But the point is this: Kick-Ass maximized its base. If anything, the Lionsgate people should be happy about that. The geeks turned out in full force (whether they ultimately liked the movie or not is another question). Compare that to Defendor (review this afternoon), a similar movie with a similar audience which really did fail to reach its base. The problem was that it didn’t appeal at all to those other demographics. Not a whit (horror fans might have turned up in bigger numbers if they’d known just how much violence there was in the film, but the marketing didn’t really illustrate that).

All of which brings me back to the central thesis: Geeks still make up a relatively small portion of movie-going audiences. Yes, huge comic-book movies still rack up ridiculous box-office numbers, but that’s because they also appeal heavily to those other demographics. The dumbasses, for instance, will show up to anything that’s been cross-promoted at Burger King. Give us a good story and good acting like Iron Man did, and the indie fans and the adult-drama folks will show up, too (and the rom-com audience will show up to see RDJ).

Kick-Ass had none of that cross-over appeal, and in order to get it, the movie would have had to water itself down significantly and come up with a reason to cast Olivia Munn or something. I’m glad it didn’t. I think that Matthew Vaughn made the movie he set out to make (I just don’t think that a lot of people ultimately liked his vision), and Lionsgate did a nice job of marketing to the base. Of course, I wish it’d been better (and Dan wishes it’d been good), but the quality of the film really didn’t have a lot to do with the box-office opening (no one pays attention to critics on opening weekend, and everyone knows it). Indeed, for geeks, there’s nothing to be ashamed about here. You lost the popularity contest way back in junior high. All it means is that movies that strictly appeal to geeks aren’t going to make as much money as Grown Ups, starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Why is that bad? It doesn’t mean they’re going to stop making geek films, not if there’s a guaranteed $20 million base from which to start. Besides, why would you want to be lumped in with the dumbasses, anyway? And why would you want the dumbasses infringing on your territory? If you saw Kick-Ass over the weekend, that means you’re a geek. Own that shit. Wear it motherfucking proudly. And you can tell the geek bashers to watch Paul Blart and go fuck themselves.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.