What’s more impressive: the fact that 195 nations signed a global accord on climate change or that Star Wars: The Force Awakens lived up to the hype?
I’m going to go with Star Wars. The Paris Agreement to fight climate change still needs to be implemented. The Force Awakens has delivered the goods, earning a 94-percent certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and shattering box office records following an unprecedented $350 million marketing blitz from Disney.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the fastest movie ever to gross $1 billion worldwide, thus joining a short list of films have delivered against massive hype. Take a moment to walk with me down memory lane, as I recall six rare gems that exceeded the expectations created by their marketing. To qualify for my list, a movie needed to meet three requirements:
- Noteworthy promotion that was worthy of analysis in and of itself — in some cases for being inventive and in others for just being over the top.
- Box office success that exceeded estimates.
- Critical success, as measured by whether a film received a “fresh” rating on the popular Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates reviews from critics and the public. A fresh rating means that at least 60 percent of composite reviews are favorable. All of the films I’ve selected are not only fresh but also “certified fresh,” meaning the earned positive scores from at least 75 percent of reviewers.
Here are six that stand out:
Jurassic Park (1993)
Steven Spielberg needed a hit in 1993. His previous two films, Hook and Always, were critical and commercial disappointments. Universal Pictures pulled out the stops to ensure that his adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, Jurassic Park, would spin gold. In the run-up to the movie’s release in June 1993, Universal contracted more than 100 companies to sell 1,000 licensed products as part of an ambitious marketing and merchandising campaign, which included McDonald’s saturating its network of restaurants with Jurassic Park value meals. Jurassic Park succeeded, and then some.
Featuring state-of-the-art sound, special effects, and Spielberg’s sure-handed direction, the movie grossed $900 million globally in its initial run. The movie also revealed another side of Jeff Goldblum, who played the droll Dr. Ian Malcolm: the thinking man’s action hero. Jurassic Park was so successful that it spawned a franchise that continues to generate box office success for Universal, with 2015’s Jurassic World becoming the third highest grossing film of all time. Jurassic Park remains the best liked of the Jurassic canon, with a 93-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
It can’t be easy to walk in Peter Jackson’s shoes.
Throughout the 2000s he has invited scrutiny and criticism by adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit to the screen. Jackson walloped a commercial and critical home run with all three The Lord of the Rings movies, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. New Line Cinema placed a giant bet on the three The Lord of the Rings installments, with Peter Jackson filming all of them at once in New Zealand. In other worlds, New Line made an upfront investment into the equivalent of three epic films, all of them building on the previous rollout, and yet New Line had no guarantee that any would succeed.
Peter Jackson and New Line also labored under the burden of expectation, knowing that every passionate Tolkien fan would be standing in the corner, their arms crossed, their brows furrowed, looking for reasons to condemn any sign that Tolkien’s literary legacy had been tarnished.
New Line and Peter Jackson marketed the film through strong merchandising and what was then considered one of the first serious uses of digital to promote a film. On the movie’s website (an exotic medium for Hollywood in 2001) Peter Jackson posted a diary about the making of the movie, and visitors found interactive maps of Middle Earth and movie trailers that were widely downloaded. Fans launched more than 400 sites of their own, as well.
When The Fellowship of the Ring made it to screens in December 2001, the movie-going public responded to the epic scope of the story, excellent acting, and compelling themes that Jackson adapted through an indulgent, three-hour masterpiece. The movie earned $871 million worldwide and earned strong reviews.
New Line capitalized on the success of The Fellowship of the Ring by dropping The Two Towers in 2002 (earning $926 million) and Oscar slayer The Return of the King in 2003 (grossing $1.12 billion), followed by lavish extended editions of all three movies on DVD, thus creating revenue streams for years to come.
All three films have gained at least a 91-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (pretty much epic status). Since then, Jackson’s similar attempts with The Hobbit have failed to deliver the magic of LOTR, bringing his literary relationship with Tolkien to an unsatisfactory end. But no one can take away his accomplishments with LOTR.
Casino Royale (2006)
A blond James Bond?
The 21st official James Bond movie rebooted the franchise with the introduction of Daniel Craig, only the sixth actor to portray 007. The selection of the little-known Craig, who did not look the part of the darkly handsome Bond, triggered a controversy that created enormous buzz for Casino Royale months before its 2006 release. The movie was also preceded by widespread marketing that featured co-brands, such as a multi-media campaign between Heineken, EON Productions, and Sony, and a relationship with Smirnoff vodka the featured an online “Shaken & Stirred” contest in which fans could create their own Bond music mixes.
As it turns out, Daniel Craig was the perfect choice to revive a movie brand that had been showing its age. His performance, at once capturing the brutality and humanity of Bond, was widely praised, helping Casino Royale become the biggest-grossing Bond movie until Skyfall. Casino Royale is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 95-percent rating, putting the film on part with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and approaching the lovability of Pixar’s best films.
Avatar relied on the allure of cool technology and the promise of an immersive experience to attract audiences. Moviegoers would respond to Avatar‘s lavish creation of a fantasy world like no other — here was, finally, a film that used 3D to enhance a story, not distract from it, and an otherworldly environment that included creatures speaking in a language created expressly for the movie.
But when James Cameron unleashed Avatar in December 2009, no one knew if it would deliver against an astronomical budget (rumored to approach $500 million, including marketing costs). Certainly 20th Century Fox and James Cameron had done everything to hedge their bets in this expensive experiment. Cameron used his own reputation and renown to drop little nuggets of tantalizing, curiosity-building detail, such as his announcement, in 2006, that he was using his own Reality Camera System to achieve the immersive experience he sought. Knowing that the technology-enabled experience was going to sell the film, he also collaborated with Ubisoft to develop a 3D videogame based on the movie (James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game). Development of the game was announced in 2007, akin to a second movie announcement.
In 2009, 20th Century Fox cranked its own marketing into high gear. In July, at Comic-Con, the studio declared August 21 “Avatar Day” and thus turned a meaningless date into an anticipated event among fan boys. On Avatar Day, Fox releasing film snippets to 100 IMAX 3D movies screens, dropping a teaser trailer that broke a film record for most streams in a single day, and partnering with Mattel to unveil action figures, among other actions.
In other words, Avatar Day was Advertising Day.
By creating a day dedicated to promoting a film that no one had seen, Fox successfully brought hype to a new level. And what happened in December with the release of the movie became film legend. Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time even with a fairly standard plot and heavy-handed dialogue that makes Avatar the lowest rated (although definitely well received) film on my list, with “only” an 83-percent Rotten Tomatoes rating.
Not surprisingly, Cameron joined forces with Disney to begin constructing a theme park attraction that on completion in 2017 promises to provide the immersive experience of the film. And we have more Avatar sequels coming, one of which will coincide with the opening of Avatar Land in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Whether future Avatars can succeed remains to be seen — but you can bet your life on the hype will exceed Avatar Day.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
After creating some of the most cherished characters in modern film with Toy Story and Toy Story 2, in 2007 Pixar asked, “Can you top this?” by announcing the release of Toy Story 3, which would continue the adventures of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Jessie in 3D format.
No one really doubted Toy Story 3 would be good; but after the commercial and critical success of the first two Toy Stories, you couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Pixar was pushing its luck. How could Pixar improve upon perfection?
To create excitement for the third Toy Story, Disney seemed to wallow in the past, re-releasing Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 2009 as a double feature in 3D. In doing so, Disney kept the Toy Story franchise alive in the public eye — after all, Toy Story 2 had been released way back in 1999. The re-release in reminded fans of the joy of the Toy Story franchise and gave them an exclusive glimpse at Toy Story 3 via the unveiling of the movie’s first trailer with the double feature. But bringing Toy Story and Toy Story 2 back into circulation also increased expectations for director Lee Unkrich.
Of course, the marketing didn’t end there. Disney revealed more about the making of Toy Story 3 through an extra that came along with the release of a DVD/Blu-ray of the first two Toy Stories in March 2010. (Leave it to Disney to make fans excited about paying for its marketing.)
A bevy of companies marketed toys to get fans excited about the familiar and the new characters being introduced in Toy Story 3, and, in a masterstroke of co-branding, Apple incorporated Toy Story 3 into the April 2010 rollout of the iPhone 4 OS. Disney also relied on its media reach, including the Disney Channel, to overwhelm us with a Toy Story blitz leading up to launch day in June 2010.
But still, the question remained: would Toy Story 3 live up to the build-up?
Well, you know what happened. Toy Story 3 was not only equal to the first two films, but it introduced something new to the series: themes of loss and mortality. Who can deny the emotional power of Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Woody, and their friends holding hands as they faced their demise in the burning furnace?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed, making it the first animated sequel in history (and on the third animated film, period) to be nominated for Best Picture. Toy Story 3 became the first animated movie to gross $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and its 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes makes Toy Story 3 universally loved.
The pressure’s on for Toy Story 4, coming in 2018.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Don’t tell J.J. Abrams the odds. In 2009, he accomplished the improbable by asking the public to trust him to reboot the iconic Star Trek brand with a cast composed largely of unknowns. And yet he directed a satisfying and financially successful movie that made the Star Trek films before it look as cheesy as the goofy looking Mugatu that terrorized William Shatner in Season Two of the TV series.
Taking on one legendary space opera was not enough for Abrams, and so he famously inherited the Star Wars mantel with Star Wars: The Force Awakens — sort of like writing another chapter for the Bible.
You could argue that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was guaranteed to succeed. The movie had on its side the pre-built interest form Star Wars fan boys and the marketing muscle of Disney. Disney did not take success for granted, rolling out a global marketing blitz that was both widespread and well executed. The trailers alone looked like little high-concept Star Wars movies, making use of John Williams’s iconic score and giving audiences a tantalizing glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Disney also made good use of its media reach. For instance, the cast of Good Morning America, on Disney-owned ABC, dressed up as Star Wars characters for a broadcast. And Disney co-branded with at least 19 companies such as Kraft and Duracell on cross-promotional ads. But the marketing also raised the possibility that audiences might become be so worn down by the Star Wars saturation that they wouldn’t want to see the movie. The movie also needed to live up to the high standards of Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi and blot out the memory of the horrible three that followed.
The rest, as we know, is history written in 12 days. What elevated Star Wars from success to phenomenon is the same essential ingredient behind the popularity of Guardians of the Galaxy: memorable characters. Within 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Force Awakens honored the legacy of already popular characters such as Han Solo but also introduced five new compelling characters (including a droid): Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, droid BB-8, and nemesis Kylo Ren. The introduction of Rey, portrayed by Daisy Ridley, was especially important, as she quickly became a feminist heroine compelling enough to appeal to men and women.
By giving us characters we actually care about, The Force Awakens succeeded where The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith failed miserably. The new cast members also laid the groundwork for the next two Star Wars movies, set for release in 2017 and 2019.
These six films have demonstrated the power of media saturation but also the appeal of inventive branding, including viral marketing, video gaming, and storytelling. And as Casino Royale demonstrates, controversy can be an asset. But the hype also creates expectations: the more a studio spends on marketing, the greater the pressure that a movie must smash box office records on its opening weekend or else be considered a financial flop. The pressure to make a splash in one weekend makes it more difficult for lower-profile films to gradually build an audience.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight fares in the box office. The Weinstein Company is promoting The Hateful Eight through the old-fashioned “road show” approach, through which movies are first given a limited run in select theaters to build word of mouth before a general release. So far, The Hateful Eight is enjoying positive financial returns based on its limited run, earning $1.9 million in its opening weekend — which sounds unimpressive until you consider that the movie earned about $50,000 per screen in limited release. By contrast, the David O. Russell drama Joy, also opening in Christmas Day, earned $17.5 million, but only $6,043 per screen.
The Hateful Eight is garnering a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but not overwhelmingly so — and indeed it’s a typically polarizing Tarantino production. Will the road show approach work? Let’s see what happens when The Hateful Eight gets a broader release January 1.
What are your favorite examples of movies that have lived up to the hype?