Explaining flops – weather, censorship & holiday schedules

If you answer yes to the following questions, you are probably French. Have you ever decided against going to the movies because it was sunny outside? Have you ever said on a rainy day that it was a movie-going type of weather? This type of reasoning deeply affects the box office of films, in particular in spring and summer. For example A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures was released in 2010 and grossed 1.1 billion Euros worldwide, a considerable accomplishment for a European animated film. The sequel should have been as big of a success. Unfortunately after 6 weeks of rainy summer, the weather turned warm and sunny on the release date and gathered only 780,000 people in France. This type of unpredictability does not exist in the United States, where the weather has little to play at the box office.

In China a key variable is the political censorship. Being an authoritative State, China is not soft when giving advantage to national production and more often than not political reasons for censorship are a mere excuse to reduce competition for Chinese films. France uses quotas in the name of the “cultural exception” so as not to be flooded with American blockbusters. The major distinction is that the European Union (vastly lobbied by France when it comes to cultural matters) tries to encourage the production of certain content when China is limiting certain content through censorship and quotas. The first policy is inclusive and represents “positive quotas”, when the second is exclusive and based on “negative quotas” (1). The Chinese authorities use both strict quotas and blockade, when all foreign films are banned from the theatres. The result is quite inefficient as right when the ban is lifted the audience returns to the American blockbusters. Probably those films could have yielded more revenues… but still.  On the other hand the flop of a Chinese film at the box office can largely be explained by the release of an American competitor. In that regard China is no different to any country in the world. The Chinese government is pushing for Chinese content (not yet appealing enough the targeted audience) while the theatre owners want to earn money by releasing the latest American blockbusters.

INA global - Summer blackout chart 2012
Author: Robert Cain, “6 key lessons from SARFT’s foreign film blackout”, November 9, 2012

Finally the time frame for releasing movies is not be the same in every country, with different holiday schedules for example. In France, animation films fight to be released on the first weekend of the holidays. At that time children are free from school and parents are desperate to find them something to do. However every household has a limited budget and cannot afford to go see all the pictures released and will most likely end up going to the latest Disney or Pixar. This holiday competition can be hugely detrimental to European independent films. For instance in February 2014 two features were released in a week interval in France, The boy and the cuckoo clock heart (2) and Minuscule (3). This saturation was highlighted by Anne Sanchez, associate director of the Agence Mercredi: “Whatever dates the distributor picks, the film will face strong competition. For example, only in December 2005, there was: Harry Potter, Kirikou & the wild beasts, Chicken Little, Narnia and King Kong.”(4) A symptom of the phenomenon is the fact that the American studios DreamWorks and Sony Pictures keep on pushing movies to future dates so as to avoid competition with other expected box office successes not to harm their properties. The windows to release a movie are saturated as shown in the graph below:

Author: Raphaëlle Chaygneaud-Dupuy, "Seasonality of films released in France"
Author: Raphaëlle Chaygneaud-Dupuy, “Seasonality of films released in France”

Of course there are other factors that can account for a movie’s success or failure, other than the quality of the film itself that is. Distribution experts will be able to predict the result of a film with uncanny precision, depending on the amount of promotional investment and the national cultural habits and demographics. But chance always spices up this guessing game (a stressful game for producers), as we mentioned above. The latest and most tragic example happened in November in France. After the terrorist attacks that struck entertainment spots in Paris, movie theatres were temporarily closed and the public reluctant to go to the movies. Although it was only temporary and life returned as it should, some movies greatly suffered from it.

Knowing how hard and risky it is to be an independent producer, I urge you to go to the theatre as often as you can. On top of being a more fulfilling experience than watching it in bed with poor audio/video quality, going to the movies is turning into a militant act, but such a pleasant one!

(1) Vlassis, Antonio, “La Chine s’ouvre à Hollywood au détriment de la diversité culturelle”, June, 22, 2012
(2) A film produced by Europacorp (France) and Walking the dog (Belgium)
(3) A film produced by Futurikon (France), Entre chien et loup (Belgique), Nozon (Belgique) et 2D3D Animations (France)
(4) Cartoon, “Marketing, promoting and licensing a feature film” January 16, 2008

Bonus :

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