Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Wimpy sequel despite a wimpy box office

I don't know much about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid phenomenon, if it even rises to the level of a phenomenon. I'm too old to read the books, and my child is not yet old enough. (He's not old enough to read anything -- during story time, he just slaps his hand against the pages.)

But I do know that the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie did not light the world on fire when it was released last March. It made a certainly decent $64 million domestically, according to IMDB, including $22 million in its opening weekend -- pretty impressive for March, I guess. And I also acknowledge that the profitability of a film is a function of its budget, not its ticket sales in an absolute sense. Since Diary of a Wimpy Kid cost $15 million to make, it made a healthy 50 million bucks. And that's just here in the U.S., although I doubt a movie like this does gangbuster business overseas.

However, I don't think you can argue that $64 million is enough to call it an unqualified hit. There are certain people out there who take their kids to every single movie that's both available and suitable, just to give them something to do for 90 minutes on a weekend. Considering that, and considering the staggering box office totals of some other brand-name kids franchises, $64 million seems fairly modest.

So I was a little surprised to see a theatrical sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid materialize only a year later. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules comes out today, and I guess they're trying to get slightly older demographics involved -- Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" plays during the ads I've seen on TV this week.

Whether or not there should be a Diary of a Wimpy Kid sequel is not really why I'm writing today. I'm actually writing to discuss the phenomenon of committing yourself to a franchise, come hell or high water. Once you've started turning a popular book series into a potential franchise, at what costs do you keep it going?

The most relevant example here is probably the Chronicles of Narnia movies, which I seem to keep coming back to on my blog. There are seven Narnia books, and you better bet Walden Media wanted to make them all into movies when they started out. After all, having what will ultimately be eight Harry Potter movies didn't prove too difficult for Warner Brothers, as people kept on ponying up the money to see those.

But the box office totals have gotten consistently less satisfying with each new installment, ever since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was considered an unqualified hit, turning an estimated $180 million budget into a $291 million domestic gross. (To say nothing of the overseas grosses, but if you know me you know I like taking a United States-centric view on things like this -- if only because I have historically been interested in domestic gross figures, as something I find easier to comprehend, compare and contrast.)

However, after the third installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, earned only $104 million on an estimated $155 million budget (figures from IMDB), it had to give them pause. About as much pause as the fairly unmarketable names of the next two books, The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy.

If you lose $50 million on a movie, clearly you stop, right? But it's not that simple. The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the most well-known brand names in all of fantasy literature. Setting out to make seven movies, and ultimately making only three, damages the brand on the whole. It's most likely that financial considerations would take precedence, but still -- I'd argue that Walden Media would be a lot more likely to press onward, despite the uphill battle, just for the purposes of bringing the endeavor in to the finish line, its grace and pride still intact.

Well, here's to writing blog posts in real time rather than planning them out first. I just checked and found that there are plans for a fourth Narnia movie -- but it will be the sixth Narnia novel. Apparently, they're jumping past those two awkwardly named books and going straight to another one with a good marketing hook: The Magician's Nephew. (Let's just hope people don't associate it too closely with last summer's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which didn't light the world on fire either.) In fact, according to wikipedia, this decision was just officially announced on Tuesday.

Seems like a good way to save face. Instead of making seven movies, make five. Because once they make The Magician's Nephew, they'll have to finish off with The Last Battle, right? It's got a marquee-friendly name, and it would conclude the series. It's much harder to stop 80% of the way there than 40%.

Another good movie to discuss in this context is The Golden Compass, the only movie from what was supposed to be a franchise based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials novels. I liked that movie, but I guess a lot of people didn't -- and not only the religious folks who protested its apparently pagan undertones. (Which only made me root harder for it to succeed.) It was pretty clear there would be no other movies made, and getting out after only one just means that it was a theatrical non-starter, and that was that. It wasn't that famous of a property to begin with.

I think the dilemma faced by Walden Media is a bit more tough. If they had made The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it had only done okay, they could have just stopped there without it seeming too awkward. Sure, many of us would have guessed that they planned to continue onward and make all the novels, but the story is pretty self-contained, so it could have stood on its own without there being too much egg on anyone's face. I think when you get started with a long project and then you have to stop, that's when the stink of failure starts to attach itself.

So what does all this have to do with a modest sequel to a modest movie about a modest elementary school student?

Let me know if you figure it out.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

The books are a true kid phenomenon (and actually quite enjoyable). The first movie was very profitable, especially since they made it on a slim budget. It didn't light the box office on fire, but it quadrupled it's budget. From a pure business standpoint, it's a winner. Add in what I'm sure were robust DVD sales and it's no surprise they made another one.

I also found the first movie to be utterly charming and very well done. I sincerely hope the sequel will do the same.

Dexter said...

I don't get why you (or most Americans) choose to ignore overseas grosses. The 3rd Narnia film grossed 300 million dollars outside America. That's A LOT of money.

Vancetastic said...

DGB - Yeah, I totally can't discount Wimpy Kid's financial success. Even if it fits better into my thesis to do so. Thanks for helping me keep it real.

Dexter - You are totally correct, and I made a half-assed attempt to explain it as an aside in the piece, without much success. Now that I can focus on it: I think it has to do with starting to become significantly more obsessed with film in general and box office totals in particular around the time that Titanic set the new domestic box office record. Since then I've kind of found American box office totals more useful in helping me wrap my head around a movie's success. I guess I don't have any better excuse to offer than it's what I'm used to. It's kind of why I understand the significance of a certain number on the Dow Jones Industrial Average but not on the Nikkei. It's like growing up on inches, feet and miles, and then trying to switch to metric.