How flops can be big hits

If you’re interested in movies, Tom Shone’s “Blockbuster” is fantastic. It looks at the evolution of the blockbuster from Jaws and Star Wars to today’s big-budget behemoths, and it also covers some of the high profile failures such as Godzilla and Pearl Harbor.

One of the most interesting bits is the section on Godzilla which, Shone explains, was a crap film. Critics knew it was crap, the studio knew it was crap, even the film-makers knew it was crap. It made stacks of money.

Godzilla’s an example of a flop that wasn’t a flop: it was a critical disaster and audiences stayed away in their droves, but it still made money. That’s because massive marketing efforts persuaded lots of people to go and see it on the very first weekend of release; by the time word of mouth started to circulate (“It’s shit!”), millions of people had already handed over their cash.

There’s more to the story than that, of course – DVD sales, video and cable sales also helped make money as people became curious to see just how bad the film actually was – but the lesson is clear: if you can get people to hand over money before word of mouth and critical opinion can circulate, you can’t really lose.

I wonder, does that explain why film magazines are increasingly lagging behind release dates? More and more, the film mags are falling into a pattern. Typically it’s this:

* Cover feature with big star talking about how great the movie is
* Interviews with the whole cast talking about how great the movie is
* Interview with the director talking about how great the movie is
* Intervew with the FX guy talking about how great the movie’s effects are

But no review.

That comes a month later, two or three weeks after the film’s release. By the time the reviews hit print, the reviews don’t matter: people have already gone to see it. In effect, the studios have annexed the movie magazines and made them part of their PR campaign while ensuring that the magazines can’t do their job, which is to let people know whether the movie’s worthy of your money.

There’s a solution, though, which begins with “the” and ends in “internet”. Blogs, aggregators such as and movie mags’ own web sites can help redress the balance, getting the word out about movies early enough to prevent you paying to see a turkey. In the longer term, electronic paper will bring that immediacy back to the print titles, but for now – in reviews at least – the movie mags need to develop a life beyond the printed page. If movie mags are going to do their job properly, they need to put their words online, immediately.