In Hollywood, studio executives would like to forget last summer. The “Summer of Hell” saw a more than $600 million decline in global revenue compared to the summer of 2016. Blockbusters featuring A-list stars like Tom Cruise and franchises like the Transformers and the Smurfs failed at North American box offices, although foreign sales helped some achieve profitability. For other films, there was no foreign savior. According to Box Office Mojo, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword grossed $39 million in the United States. Even sales overseas weren’t enough to cover the estimated $175 million in production costs.
What’s going on? Insiders point to “sequelitis” and competition from Netflix, Amazon, and HBO. Who wants to watch a tired rehash of the Transformers when Game of Thrones or Man in the High Castle or Stranger Things beckons?
But if you dig deeper, another issue emerges: Hollywood studios don’t really understand audiences as much as they think they do. In other words, despite the skilled writing, acting, and production talent at their disposal, not to mention the expensive marketing campaigns unleashed upon the public, the studios continue to make movies that fail to interest audiences.
It’s time for studios, scriptwriters, and directors in Hollywood and elsewhere to consider Lean Media. Allow me to rehash the framework’s key principles:
- Reduce waste. Employ a stripped-down team structure with just enough people to make something great, and limited approvals from non-creative people.
- Understand audiences. Focus on gathering audience feedback during the actual ideation and production stages to inform creators, instead of waiting until the official launch to determine whether audiences will be interested.
- Focus creativity. With less bureaucratic overhead and a better understanding of audiences, develop new media in a way that’s faster, cheaper, and more likely to resonate with audiences.
Lean Media doesn’t mean handing over creative control to test audiences, or holding popularity contests — rather, it’s a way to validate whether or not the creative magic can lead to something that audiences truly love. Teams can ignore feedback, or use it as a starting point for internal discussions on how to iterate to the next stage of production.
If the media doesn’t resonate, the team can pivot in a new direction (for instance, by changing the plot of a movie or the angle of a news story). It’s also OK to abandon something that’s not working and move on to something else. Why waste further time and money on something that will likely flop?
In Hollywood, focus groups are used to test marketing campaigns or gauge early audience reaction. It’s also used in the late production stages in certain genre films such as comedies to validate editing and other elements. But why not have the feedback loops start earlier, and actually inform the creative teams as they develop ideas, write scripts, and start filming? It’s worked before — the cult hit Napoleon Dynamite (2004) was filmed on a budget of just $400,000 but grossed more than $44 million. As I describe in the book, it started as a college film school project titled Peluca, and was refined through feedback in the classroom and campus screenings before a professional cast was recruited for the feature film.
Among movies that have a better chance of succeeding in today’s box office environment are superhero movies, which often have a feedback cycle going back decades to the comic book era. Creative teams know the dynamics between characters, intriguing storylines, and audiences, and can leverage this knowledge to make better movies. Smart studios such as Marvel extensively use focus groups to test plots and characters, and will change course if something’s not working, as it did for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Marvel is one of the few studios that’s continuing to have success, judging by its recent track record at the box office. Even in the 2017 Summer of Hell, Marvel scored the #2 and #3 spots for the season, grossing $390 million globally for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and $333 million for Spider-Man: Homecoming. The top movie of the summer season? Wonder Woman, a character that first appeared in 1941 in DC Comics, went on to have a successful TV run in the 1970s and 1980s, and roared back over the summer, grossing $412 million globally in five months.
We’ll see how Marvel does in the summer of 2018 with releases that include Avengers: Infinity War and Ant Man and the Wasp.