LOS ANGELES — When negative Twitter commentary seemingly torpedoed the Sacha Baron Cohen film “Brüno” in July 2009, movie executives started talking in solemn tones about the ability of social networking to sway attendance. The era of using marketing to trick consumers into seeing bad movies was drawing to a close.
It was mostly lip service.
As Hollywood plowed into 2010, there was plenty of clinging to the tried and true: humdrum remakes like “The Wolfman” and “The A-Team”; star vehicles like “Killers” with Ashton Kutcher and “The Tourist” withAngelina Jolie and Johnny Depp; and shoddy sequels like “Sex and the City 2.” All arrived at theaters with marketing thunder intended to fill multiplexes on opening weekend, no matter the quality of the film. “Sex and the City 2,” for example, had marketed “girls’ night out” premieres and bottomless stacks of merchandise like thong underwear.
But the audience pushed back. One by one, these expensive yet middle-of-the-road pictures delivered disappointing results or flat-out flopped. Meanwhile, gambles on original concepts paid off. “Inception,” a complicated thriller about dream invaders, racked up more than $825 million in global ticket sales; “The Social Network” has so far delivered $192 million, a stellar result for a highbrow drama.
As a result, studios are finally and fully conceding that moviegoers, armed with Facebook and other networking tools and concerned about escalating ticket prices, are holding them to higher standards. The product has to be good.
Cynical cinema buffs will laugh: isn’t Hollywood always blathering on about quality yet churning out dross? Perhaps. And there are always exceptions — how else to account for “Clash of the Titans,” which sold a strong $319 million at the global box office in April despite messy 3-D effects. And as “The Last Airbender” demonstrated, also with $319 million in ticket sales, there may always be room in the summer for a mindless action movie that the critics cannot stand.
Still, the message that the year sent about quality and originality is real enough that studios are tweaking their operating strategies. Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio behind “The Social Network,” is trying to bet more heavily on new directors with quirkier sensibilities. To reboot its “Spider-Man” franchise, for instance, Sony hired Marc Webb, whose only previous film was the indie comedy “(500) Days of Summer.” The studio has also entrusted a big-screen remake of “21 Jump Street” to Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a pair whose only previous film was the animated “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
“We think the future is about filmmakers with original voices,” said Amy Pascal, Sony’s co-chairwoman. “Original is good, and good is commercial.”
At Walt Disney Studios, which has traditionally not worried much about directorial artistry (at least in its live-action films), a new executive team has been busy attaching A-list filmmakers to broad blockbusters. David Fincher, who directed “The Social Network,” is working on an adaptation of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Guillermo del Toro, the “Pan’s Labyrinth” auteur, is developing a new movie around Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride.
The model for Disney is Tim Burton’s arty adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” which sold $1.02 billion in tickets in the spring to become the year’s No. 2 release. (The critical darling “Toy Story 3” was an inch ahead with $1.06 billion; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” which is still playing, is third with $831 million.)
“In years past,” said Sean Bailey, Disney’s president for production, “most live-action films seemed like they had to be either one thing or the other: commercial or quality. The industry had little expectation of a film being both. Our view is the opposite.”
The future for 20th Century Fox is largely about James Cameron, who agreed in October to direct two “Avatar” sequels. But Fox is also encouraging producers to find more original material (perhaps talking-animal pictures, like the studio’s money-losing “Marmaduke,” have now been exhausted).
Fox, which remained profitable in 2010 but suffered a string of major disappointments (including the expensive “Gulliver’s Travels,” which sold an anemic $7.2 million over the weekend), is also trying to be more creative with its marketing. Last week, the studio announced the departure of its New York-based co-president of marketing, Pam Levine, as it sought to centralize operations at its Los Angeles headquarters.
“Movie marketing can’t settle for good anymore — it has to be great,” said Dennis Rice, a consultant who has held senior positions at Miramax and Disney, noting that he was not speaking specifically about Fox.
All of this talk about originality and quality is partly a studio response to the closing over the last two years of art-house divisions like Paramount Vantage and Miramax. Because the Oscars depended so heavily on films made by these divisions, there was suddenly a vacuum for the big studios to fill. Sony is in the thick of the Oscar race with “The Social Network,” for instance, while Paramount has both “The Fighter” and “True Grit.”
At its core, the flight to classier blockbusters is also about insecurity: when in doubt, flee to quality. Studios are having a hard time reading what the audience wants. Animation is not as infallible as it has been. Stars are not delivering, as evidenced by “The Tourist” and “How Do You Know,” a Reese Witherspoon film that moviegoers collectively ignored. The sequel strategy still seems to be paying — “Iron Man 2,” “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” — until you notice flops like “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.”
North American attendance for 2010 is expected to drop about 4 percent, to 1.28 billion, according to Hollywood.com, which compiles box-office statistics. Revenue is projected to fall less than 1 percent, to $10.5 billion. It has been propped up by a 5 percent increase in the average ticket price, to $7.85, thanks to 3-D.
One of the biggest surprises of the year was “Despicable Me,” the animated movie about a criminal mastermind who has a life-changing encounter with three orphaned girls. An original story and made by Illumination Entertainment for Universal Pictures, it sold $540 million at the global box office, an enormous validation for storytelling that is not derivative.
“I believe there is a long-term danger to moviegoing if familiarity becomes too pervasive in the films we make,” said Chris Meladandri, the founder of Illumination. “The industry has a responsibility to its audience and to itself to make films that allow people to have a sense of discovery in the cinema.”