Timing is Important, but Story is King


The motion picture industry understands how to time the release of a feature film. Studios block out release dates years in advance to make sure their blockbusters have little competition. Even independent films attempt to release during down screen times to minimize the competition. But there seems to be a group of filmmakers that are more concerned about the actual dates than the competition.

Faith-based filmmakers compete for release dates around Easter, convinced their audiences want to see a religious picture during the highly celebrated season. While that might be the case, past surveys consistently reflected that those who enjoy the faith-based genre are only willing to see 1.5 movies in a given month.

That means the first faith-based film released, with some level of fanfare during the Easter season, will take the audience out of the equation for other faith-based films. This year I Can Only Imagine released first and drew in $80MM, Paul, Apostle of Christ released second and drew in $17MM, and God’s Not Dead 3 drew in $5MM.

While a substantial consideration, it’s not always the release dates that make the difference. The above films happened to be released in order from best to worst story. Regardless, an overabundance of a genre’s films during a specific timeframe can quickly saturate a niche market.

Plus, the average moviegoer only watches four films a year. That means the person who watched I Can Only Imagine and probably watched Black Panther only has two more films left to watch. The faith-based film attender might hold off on another genre film to consider a summer blockbuster that their peers will discuss at the water cooler, and a Christmastime film for the entire family to enjoy.

When I’ve talked to producers of faith-based films, they’ve made it clear that they never consider secular competition. This is a peculiar situation since avoidance of thought never reduces the number of actual competitors vying for box office dollars. And, everyone in the industry knows that PG-13 films, which are typically aimed at some form of family, are watched by members of all faith groups.

Movieguide’s annual report to the industry points out how family-friendly films, with elements of faith and patriotism, always bring in more box office dollars than the competition. This has been consistently true since I’ve tracked it over the past 20 years. In fact, when the audiences of successful blockbusters are looked at closely, people who live by faith are the ones that make a significant uprise in the box office.

One could surmise, yet no one has taken that bold step to publish a thesis on the topic to date, that those who live by faith are the determining factor in a film’s box office success. If that is the case, then faith-based filmmakers should become masters of the craft in order to drive their films’ successes. And, those who live by faith must be educated in how their ticket purchase determines what films succeed.

Now, I’m not talking about forcing change by purchasing up tickets for bad faith-based films to spur on the genre. I’m talking about faith-based filmmakers learning how to tell great story. The audience will always promote a film with great story. Consider Black Panther as a perfect example of a great story that took off.

Some might say it was the black community that came out in droves to support the film, but I say that’s foolishness. Anyone tracking Tyler Perry’s career knows that he regularly draws the niche black audience, which doesn’t look anything like the audience watching the Black Panther. The story was great and therefore pulled in a great audience.

I’ve heard that there are 12 faith-based films attempting to position their release for next Easter. The one that will win the box office is the first best story released. The others will have dismal results. This begs a new question—Why aren’t the 12 faith-based films releasing one a month throughout the year?

The answer suggested to me last month by a faith-based producer went like this… “Faith-based films preach; they don’t tell story, so none of them can stand on their own without the churches pushing people to attend.”

While the producer sounded cynical, I’m pretty sure his comment has some merit. Film is a story-based, emotional medium that does not handle preaching well. Radio, on the other hand, is an ideal medium for preaching. Finding the right medium for the right message is crucial to reaching an audience.

Independent horror films use similar production processes as faith-based films. Instead of focusing on preaching, horror films focus on generating screams or startlement. Both typically generate about the same expense to box office ratio and few of either genre put story first.

A Quiet Place is a horror film with a message on parenting that is driven by story, not scream gimmicks. Because of its focus on story, the film should soon cross the $150MM box office mark. The key to the film’s success wasn’t being timed for Halloween, since it was released this spring, but the fact is the story was king, focusing on parenting children in a hostile world.

Release dates are important to avoid too much competition, but without story being the key focus, timing won’t matter.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

The Shape of Best Picture

Academy AwardsThe Shape of Water took home the Best Picture Oscar® and was the perfect choice in reflecting the media’s interpretation of who we as a country have become. The picture presented the LGBTQ community in a positive light and as the new norm of society, even though it makes up less than 2% of the population. The story also focused those with a liberal we/they political mindset to a new enemy and quickly divided the audience.

The antagonist, or the uber bad guy in The Shape of Water, was a white, Christian man who required his wife to submit and loved shooting guns. The proxy antagonist was a white, male business owner who, after being propositioned by a homosexual, refused to serve the man going forward. Both men were put into the light of being extremely evil.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was snubbed, in the name of politics, even though it was a better choice. That’s not to give my stamp of approval for it, as I’d prefer a couple films that weren’t nominated due to its lack of politics.

In Three Billboards, the protagonist treated everyone the same and demonstrated unity. No dispensation was required of any people group, as everyone in the film was equal. The protagonist and antagonist had a profound respect for each other. While neither backed off of their heated position, they treated each other with a commendable amount of dignity. They shared laughs and tears, and made sure each one’s opinion was clear and respected, regardless of the conflict between them.

Some say the large increase in Academy members included people that haven’t mastered their craft, but are politically far left, making a difference in the award outcome. While minorities were limited in the past and the pendulum swinging wide will help balance the industry, many members are now voting based on politics for the sake of balance, rather than on art.

I watched all nine movies nominated for Best Picture and disagree with the outcome. While The Shape of Water was brilliantly made, the story was working overtime with its heavy-handed political agenda—destroying the very art it was creating. Three Billboards respected the audience and provided a unique look at political issues that are worth considering by both sides.

Last week I was at a conference with numerous filmmakers and television producers. I had a chance to talk with many of them and watched seven film premieres. Most of the pictures took the we/they approach of an overt, in-your-face presentation. But one film, which brought me to tears, demonstrated a respect for the audience and stirred everyone in the room with what I’ll call “the right way” to present inclusion. I’ll share more about that film in a future post.

This year’s Best Picture is a perfect selection if the award is to represent the political climate in our nation. Many filmmakers have jumped on the bandwagon of overt content to further the phenomenon of dividing our culture with the we/they mentality—a sad commentary.

Art, when done without an overt and disrespectful agenda, helps the nation look at important issues, while uniting both sides in the name of healthy progress.

Unfortunately, The Shape of Water did not respect the audience and elevated the LGBTQ community as the new norm, which in of itself might help the pendulum swing to a healthier place, unless the lack of respect neutralizes the effort. Three Billboards shared the same valuable message without alienating or disrespecting its audience.

I’m a firm believer that films should artistically stir change through exploration, not politics. And, the award for Best Picture should be given to the best crafted film, not to the one with an in-your-face political agenda. So, call me old fashioned, because the trend is not likely to change until filmmakers that believe in the intrinsic value of storytelling get funded.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Where Do I Sit?


The weekend has arrived and those dating are most likely headed out to dinner and a movie, but they don’t know where to sit in the theater. Most know to avoid the first few rows and some will make sure they don’t end up in the back of the theater unless they like being remote. But few know, for which seats the director designed the movie.

Theaters range in size and shape and follow the rudimentary formats prescribed by the National Association of Theater Owners and the Motion Picture Association of America. These formats are based on screen ratios and the projector’s “throw” of light based on lumens, curvature of the lens and the screens’ reflective material.

Let’s make it simple…

Without trying to figure out the complex formulas to determine seating placement, a well-designed theater will provide good seating about two thirds of the way back from the screen. Unfortunately that’s based on typical screens being about 20’ X 47’ and the theater having a total depth of… Nope, let’s keep it simple.

Have you ever attended the rehearsal of a stage show? Did you notice that the director always sits in a specific place? Or, how about at a concert venue, did you notice where the mixing board is located?

Microphone jacks are typically placed in the ideal location for the director to plug in his headset or microphone in professional, university and high school theaters. This gives him the closest view of the stage, while still being able to see the entire stage. If he moves closer, he can’t get the big picture. If he moves further back, he can’t focus on the detail.

In film, the same rule of thumb holds true. When a director is viewing his final mixed film, he is seated based on the screen location and surround sound speakers. Even in the mixing room the director is positioned in the ideal location and makes all the decisions based on that spot.

When the show releases to the silver screen the ideal location is about 2.5X the screen height back from the movie screen. If you select a seat in that location, you’ll notice surround speakers directly to the left and right of you. The entire movie was created based on those seats. Any other point of view changes the impact of the film.

For instance, if you don’t like horror films you can sit in the back to diminish the surprise factor and reduce the emotional pull on your heart. If you enjoy rollercoaster like action films you can move closer to the screen to keep your head moving and help your stomach churn your latest meal.

Regardless of the screening room size, you’re safe sitting 2.5X the screen height back from the screen in order to see the film as the director designed it.

© 2017 by CJ Powers