Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Money for nothing: A commercial (not artistic) defense of Paramount's decision to convert GI Joe Retaliation to 3D.

As most of you know, Paramount has announced that it is moving one of its three major summer releases, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, from June 29th, 2012 to March 29th, 2013.  The official reason for this date change is not quality issues with the film, the need for reshoots, problems with the marketing, or the desire to 'unkill Channing Tatum due to his increased visibility/profile. but purely because they want to take the extra nine months to convert the film to 3D for theatrical release.  Obviously most of the film punditry world is crying foul over this decision and as someone who was looking forward to the film I sympathize.  But putting aside the "I want to see it *now*!" and the "I hate needless and/or post-converted 3D!" arguments, it's tough in this current box office climate to argue that Paramount didn't make the right call.  Since Avatar kick-started the 3D trend 2.5 years ago, there has been a flurry of would-be tentpole films going the 3D route and an equal number of would-be blockbusters choosing to renounce the gimmick and go out as 2D only.  While we can all appreciate the filmmakers who stuck to their artistic guns in the face of box office pressure, the truth of the matter is that in today's marketplace, where a big-budget film's financial fate is often decided by overseas dollars, it's almost fiscal self-injury not to make the call.  For anywhere from $10 million to $20 million extra, you can add around 15-20% to your opening weekend grosses and around 15% to your total domestic box office, with an un-quantifiable upshot for foreign grosses.  For numbers like that, why *wouldn't* you convert your purely commercial popcorn adventure film to 3D?

I have remarked several times that I was genuinely surprised that Universal opted not to go 3D for Battleship, since the film appeared to be (and arguably was) among the more soulless and corporate-minded would-be blockbusters in recent memory.  At a cost of at least $210 million (and as much as $250 million), the film now appears to be an instant domestic flop after opening with $25 million.  That puts the film on path to a $70 million domestic total, which will be added to the film's $215 million foreign total since the film debuted overseas on April 11th (Universal should have opened the film domestically that week too, but that's another story).  Let's presume that it makes $70 million domestic and crawls to $255 million foreign giving the film a $325 million worldwide total.  Let's presume that the film was converted to 3D for theatrical release.  Just for domestic grosses, that would add at least 15% to the film's opening weekend (presuming a low-estimate of 40% 3D tickets sold over opening weekend at about 33% more money per ticket).  Now $29 million wouldn't have made the film look like a smash, but add that over the course of its theatrical lifetime and a $70 million domestic gross becomes $80 million and an additional 15% worldwide turns the $325 million gross into $375 million.  So for an estimated extra $15 million (and that's presuming that 3D conversions don't add less to the budget if they are planned from the get-go), Universal would have seen at least an extra $50 million in box office.  And that's discounting the possibility that I've grossly underestimated the box office bump that 3D adds to overseas grosses, which I'd argue I have.  Paramount cites foreign markets as the reason for the conversion, and I don't think they'd be spending $15-20 million on a 3D conversion for an extra $50 million in global grosses.

Last summer Thor grossed $181 million while X-Men: First Class grossed $146 million at the domestic box office.  Thor was in 3D while X-Men: First Class went out as 2D-only.  Had the latter been in 3D, using the above calculations (plus discounting that Thor actually sold 60% of its tickets via 3D over its opening weekend and not 40%), their domestic grosses would have been nearly identical with the X-Men prequel/reboot grossing $168 million in America.  And while The Avengers still would have broken the opening weekend record three weeks ago if the film went out as 2D-only, the 3D bump is the primary reason it not only broke the Fri-Sun record but soared over $200 million, which looks a lot sexier in news headlines than $175-180 million, which is the arguable weekend gross had the film went out without the post-conversion.  Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes would have crossed $200 million in America and $500 million worldwide with a 3D theatrical distribution.  Warner Bros' Green Lantern was still a costly flop in 3D, but the film would not have even crossed $100 million domestic and $200 million worldwide if it had forsaken the (admittedly terrific) 3D conversion.  Assuming you can add 3D to your would-be blockbuster for less than 8% of your budget, then doing so when the likely result is at least 15% more in worldwide revenue is at this point a no-brainer.  You're damn right that Fox probably insisted that Ridley Scott shoot Prometheus in 3D before green-lighting its production cost and/or given the okay for the eventual R-rating.

The March 29th release date is arguably about trying to put a pure summer movie in the 'Spring movie season' with hopes that a barren marketplace will yield Fast & Furious type results.  The 3D conversion is a perceived necessary evil that Paramount arguably believes will result in a lot of heavy breathing and not iota of damage done to the film's box office.  We may all whine about the delay and the 3D convert, but we will still be first in line to see G.I. Joe: Retaliation next March.  The general moviegoers have consistently voted with their dollars, choosing 3D and its resultant ticket price-bump around 40-60% of the time even as studios get smarter about plentiful 2D options.  That the film is being moved so far in advance means that Paramount doesn't want to do it fast and lazy.  They surely remember that The Last Airbender took grief from the press over its rushed 3D conversion just as they surely noticed that the infamously terrible film only grossed $300 million worldwide due to the 3D ticket-bump.  Truth be told, this is only an issue for film critics who often have to choose between seeing the movie early in 3D or waiting for opening day in 2D (only Warner Bros. goes out of their way to offer multi-format press screenings).  General consumers will see G.I. Joe: Retaliation in whatever format they choose when the time comes.  As far as artistic concerns, the 2D version will still exist and will still be available to see at a theater near you.

We may eventually learn that the 3D conversion was motivated by concerns over the film's quality, although nothing heard thus-far would indicate as much.  I don't like the delay and I'm not thrilled that the film will know face additional critical scrutiny over a 3D conversion that its director likely never intended. It's ironic that G.I. Joe 2 is being retrofitted to appeal to non-US audiences, especially as Paramount tried to make the G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra a player in the red state/blue state culture wars three summers ago (if you recall, they basically hid the film from critics claiming it was a movie for 'regular folk' and not uppity film snobs). But from a purely commercial perspective, converting G.I. Joe: Retaliation to 3D makes complete business sense.  For a token increase in budget Paramount is betting that a 3D G.I. Joe 2 will monumentally out-gross a 2D version in the foreign box office markets.  And precedent is on their side, making it a no-brainer.  But that doesn't mean you have to like it.

Scott Mendelson


Brandon Peters said...

You can't really full believe that this has nothing to do with the quality of the film. A month out, when marketing has been started and promotional stuff (kids toys, fast food tie ins) are probably just about to kick in and they yank it for "3D Conversion". I don't buy it. I can buy that Battleship's box office demise may have prompted this a bit. But GI Joe seemed to be riding a hype that it looked better and more credible than the first. Pulling it now might make those interested think twice.

I see the 3D excuse as an easy scapegoat and not the full reasoning

Scott Mendelson said...

There may-well be token issues with the film, and Paramount may use the 9-month gap to do reshoots and/or add Channing Tatum back into the picture in some fashion. But GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA was mostly despised by the pundit class while general audiences didn't very much care. I have a tough time believing that GI JOE: RETALIATION is somehow worse than RISE OF COBRA is some horrifying way that makes it un-releasable at this point. At the end of the day, it's a friggin GI JOE film. Assuming the film is coherent, has a few likable heroes and a couple hissible villains, plus has a few solid action sequences, you're pretty much good to go. This *could* be a case ala Universal's The Wolfman where they spent $60 million overhauling the film and ending up with a final product that was pretty bad anyway, arguably no better than what they started with back when the film cost just $90 million. We'll know soon enough, but I really think they realized that they were leaving 15% more domestic gross on the table and who knows how much foreign grosses on the table for a film that is a pure popcorn entertainment with no higher artistic ambitions. I don't know how much 3D boosts overseas box office takes, but I imagine it's enough to justify the move. Again, I have a hard time believing that GI JOE 2 was so utterly horrible as a GI JOE film that it couldn't be released as is.

Brandon Peters said...

I'll admit, its a fascinating topic right now, from all these angles. You'd think a franchise name, The Rock & Bruce Willis could open a summer movie on its own. haha. It also looks like the recent test screenings were asking a lot of Channing Tatum questions as well. I wonder if how much of the film that was supposed to be released this summer will resemble the one that comes out in March.

Also, I was in the "It was just some good 'ol dumb fun" camp with the first one. Wasn't jones'ing for the sequel, but alas, wanted to see it. I can be patient and wait.

TheDLA said...

I saw this film in February at it's first sneak preview. I generally liked the first film for what it was, a pure popcorn dumb summer movie based on a 80's cartoon designed to sell toys. I thought RISE OF COBRA was a mess, trying to reboot the franchise while still remaining firmly tied to the first film. The first act with The Rock and Tatum onscreen together worked. When Tatum left the film basically died with him until the Rock could share screen time with Willis. (In the middle act of the film the Rock was given nothing to do but stand around, flex, and look pissed.) There are two key roles in the film that are acted so badly I thought I was watching a bad fan film posted on YouTube. The Rock and Willis were the definite highlights of the film. It made his role in Fast Five look like Shakespeare in comparison. The action scenes were top notch. All of the ninja subplot with Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow was very entertaining. I think there actually is a good summer movie in there, if they have the stones to actually attempt to so some reshoots and rework some of the film.

TheDLA said...

Whoops, got distracted at work and goofed my copy/paste. I was trying to say that the Rock was basically playing the same role in the film as in Fast Five, but with a way underwritten part.

Anonymous said...

No one is saying that adding 3D isn't worth the price tag in terms of return on investment.

What IS making this suspicious/not worth it is that they must have dropped tens of millions on advertisements already. Multiple trailers are out. There was a SUPER BOWL AD. Toys already hit the shelves in some places and had to be recalled.

No rational people say 3D is not a good commercial decision. But purely from a commercial standpoint, this move comes so close to the release date that it is probably going to turn out to be a bad one. The increase in marketing budget and pissing off retailers will be huge.

spongeblog said...

It's nice to hear what 3D is all about: money, not art.

spongeblog said...

It won't make as much money in the spring, 3D or not. Maybe this is a case of The Producers: Universal gets a bunch of old ladies to invest in GI Joe, while making the movie so bad and cheap that itll flop. Studio saves expenses, and runs away with their investment. Springtime,for Bruce Willis and the rock....


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