If you saw Moneyball, you probably remember how Brad Pitt's Billy Beane revolutionized the baseball scouting mechanics by focusing not on the typical stats that seemed to assure success - but by scrutinizing a player's on-base percentage. Thus, Beane was able to identify undervalued players who were capable of getting on-base and thus, in a position to score. When you can stock the bench with guys less likely to strike out or get tagged out, your odds of bring those guys back to home plate also goes up. And that means runs. Several base hits can add up to being as good as a home run.
Unfortunately, in the film industry, we seem to have not learned that lesson. Spielberg and Lucas got a lot of attention last month when they decried the negative impact of the studios focusing only on tentpoles. Spielberg complained that Lincoln nearly ended up on HBO and they predicted that the whole industry would eventually implode when too many of these films tank. Basically, Hollywood seems to be only going after the home run hitters.
But what about the movies that can get "on-base?" Let's take a look at five of this past summer's sleeper hits.
The Conjuring - $20M Budget / $127M domestic gross / $193M worldwide
The Purge - $3M / $64M / $83.6M
The Heat - $43M / $155M / $204.8M
Now You See Me - $75M / $116M / $274M
This is the End - $32M / $96.5M / $112M
Total production budgets for those five films - $173M
Total worldwide gross of those five films - $816M
So even if you were to assume $40M each in marketing costs for those films, that means that less than $400M was laid out for a return of $816M. Not bad, wouldn't you say?
Interestingly enough, Now You See Me is the only one where the domestic take of the worldwide gross was less than 72%. (57% of Now You See Me's gross came from overseas.) And hey, look at that - all five of those films are original ideas. Four of the five also happen to be R-rated, which is an interesting trend.
The Lone Ranger cost $215M (yeah, right), which means that for the cost of that film - all five of the summer sleeper hits could have been produced with plenty of money left over. Thus far it's only made $87M domestically (outgrossed by all of the above films but The Purge) and a mere $217M worldwide.
Pacific Rim cost $190M, which is still more than those five films combined. It's made $384 worldwide. That's better, but it's still not great.
I'm cherry-picking, of course, so let's take a look at a film that's considered a hit: Man of Steel. It cost $225M to produce and took in $289M domestically. Worldwide, that's $648M, which again, still doesn't really rival the five films there. (Unless the marketing costs for those five films was significantly higher than assumed.)
Somebody at the studios has to notice this eventually. I know that if I was running a studio, I certainly would be interested in getting five at-bats for the cost of one Lone Ranger. This summer's been a grim reminder that while some big bets CAN get big returns, they're also capable of yielding large deficits.
There's money to be made from the base-hitters. Hopefully that won't be forgotten any time soon.