Are people only going to the cinema to avoid spoilers?
With the second sequel of a second-time-rebooted superhero franchise currently enticing cinema-goers back in droves, we ask industry experts: just what is driving movie-going post-pandemic? Spoiler alert: it isn’t just spoilers.
As the IP war rages on and streaming services offer even more at-home alternatives for original cinematic storytelling, investment continues to be funnelled into franchises. These sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and “requels” often use nostalgia as a means to entice a four-quadrant audience (male and female, over-and-under-25s) to buy what they’re selling. And it certainly paid off for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The second sequel of a second-time-rebooted superhero franchise, released in December, has become the only film to cross the £1 billion global box office mark since the pandemic began. Daniel Craig’s fifth and final outing as James Bond hasn’t earned quite so lofty a figure, but No Time to Die was last year’s highest-grossing film in the UK and Ireland. Of those 20 highest-grossing movies of 2021, only action-comedy Free Guy truly offered a completely original concept. Well, it was still bursting with pop culture nods to other film series, but its success has already confirmed its own franchise future. So, what’s currently driving the moviegoer urge to see Spidey 3, Bond 25 and other sequels over recent originals like The Last Duel, The French Dispatch or Last Night in Soho?
The culture of “#DontSpoil[Insert Film Here]” has certainly cast a widening shadow over the far reaches of the internet where, especially for comic book franchises, film fans are either bemoaning the slightest plot detail revealed in reviews or on social media, or readily sharing images and key info about the movie both before and immediately after its release. Six of the UK’s highest-grossing films last year concerned superheroes, with No Way Home providing the most amount of spoilery content as it intertwined the web narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Sony’s previous Spider-Man franchises. Even Edgar Wright issued spoiler warnings before each screening of his film Last Night in Soho. It’s a lawless online world, making it harder for critics, especially, to review films effectively without cries of outrage over the briefest mention of what happens in an opening scene, let alone the final act. So for Spidey diehards, the peril of spoilers was enough to secure their opening weekend tickets. That fear likely helped the film score the third biggest global opening of all time.
“It’s always better if you can get butts into seats without giving away the film as such a thing boosts post-release word-of-mouth since there’s a sense of viewer discovery,” Forbes film critic and box office pundit Scott Mendelson says, but he cautions against the overuse of the spoiler label. “There’s a skewed backlash, relatively speaking, where we all now treat regular storytelling as mega-spoilers. We now expect films like Star Trek Into Darkness or Tenet to have earth-shattering reveals as opposed to ‘pretty much what you’d expect’ narratives. I think the obsession over spoilers is a mostly-online thing.”
Robbie Collin, chief critic at the Daily Telegraph adds that “we have to be careful about muddling causality and correlation” when it comes to audience motivation: “Are people going to see films because they’re worried about encountering spoilers, or is it simply that the most popular films right now are ones that tend to have spoilable elements?”
The continued week-on-week success of No Way Home suggests that moviegoers are far less swayed by the threat of story leaks. “If Black Panther 2 came out tomorrow, it would do pretty well at the box office and I don’t think it would have anything to do with spoilers,” says Franklin Leonard, film and TV producer, and founder of The Blacklist. He and Collin both agree that the pandemic still has a considerable influence on moviegoing habits, as do the costs associated with a cinema trip. According to the most recent Cinema UK stats, the average annual spending per head in 2005 was £12.93, but in 2019 that figure increased to £18.72.
“The threshold that moviemakers and movie distributors need to meet in order to draw people out of their homes to pay the money, beverage and snack costs to go see a movie in the theatre has steadily been increasing – it just went way higher during Covid,” Leonard says. “Smaller, more intimate dramas have a much harder time communicating that value in a marketing campaign, whereas what you’re selling in a large blockbuster is much more easily sold in a 30-second trailer.”
“Most of these movies – their sales pitch, the selling, the marketing don’t reach that threshold, and as a consequence, people aren’t going to see them in theatres,” he adds.
No Way Home’s multi-million-pound marketing push (double the amount of Eternals’ campaign budget) was bolstered by the efforts of two major studios, Marvel and Sony, and took advantage of the MCU trend of teasing future instalments to intrigue audiences enough to come back and see where these heroes’ journeys would go next. But the familiarity of stories, characters and even songs failed to persuade audiences to turn up for blockbuster filmmaker Steven Spielberg and his nostalgic retelling of the iconic 1961 musical West Side Story. It boasted a young, hot and diverse cast, recognisable show tunes, Rita Moreno (!), great reviews and one of Hollywood’s most revered directors at the helm but has so far only managed to earn £33.1 million worldwide against a £73.6 million budget.
“Older adults, perhaps with kids who need babysitting, and for whom enforced isolation might cause untold havoc, having a simple night out is much more expensive and complicated than it was in 2019,” Collin says. “So a film like West Side Story, whose core audience is going to be older families and older couples, is floundering.”
It’s a more convincing reason than Ridley Scott’s for his Rashomon-inspired rape drama The Last Duel flopping. He chose to blame younger “audiences who were brought up on these fucking cell phones,” rather than the more likely explanation that it was the combination of poor marketing, narrower theatrical distribution, dark subject matter and his older target audience preferring to wait to stream it at home. Even with good reviews, The Last Duel was swiftly moved on to Disney+ whereas the middling reviews for House of Gucci (which Scott also directed) haven’t prevented a relatively strong box office turnout.
“I think the power of the individual critic as a marketing tool is definitely waning,” says Collin. “Look at how quick studios are to trumpet good Rotten Tomatoes [audience] scores. Look at how Sony deliberately showed Ghostbusters: Afterlife to Ghostbusters-friendly outlets a good month or so before anyone else saw it, in order to secure a favourable RT rating. It sat on 86 per cent for weeks, then slid down to 62 per cent when more critics saw it in the week before release.”
Certain distributors might be able to game the system to make their mediocre films seem good but, across the board, the writing has been on the wall for a long time about moviegoing habits, especially with so many streaming services providing original home entertainment and increasingly diverse films of varying quality. “There’s no ‘normal service’ to return to,” says Leonard. “The industry still hasn’t grappled with the reality that the pandemic changed everything. It accelerated a lot of the things that were already happening and for the first time since, I suppose, [the creation of] television, it’s hitting the film industry particularly hard.”
Sarah Virani, Marketing and Partnerships Manager at Regent Street Cinema, says the speed with which films now transition from screen to stream has been hugely challenging: “Over the last 18 months, consumer behaviour has veered towards streaming platforms, making it harder for both distributors and cinemas to get the necessary cut-through to engage audiences.”
London’s oldest cinema has had some success in enticing moviegoers for the release of Wes Anderson’s latest ornate offering by “providing unique, memorable experiences” to go with the film. “The pop-up exhibition for The French Dispatch, which showcased original sets, props, costumes and artwork, is a fantastic example of how distributors can use experiential marketing tactics, alongside traditional media spend, to create these memorable experiences,” Virani says. “We were able to successfully capitalise on the buzz around the film and Regent Street Cinema had the largest box office increase of The French Dispatch during the second weekend, ranking in the top 20 UK and Irish cinemas. As an independent, solo-screen cinema – we couldn’t have asked for more.”
As the Covid threat, hopefully, subsides, moviegoing numbers should substantially improve but the film industry will need to accept that some evolving habits have calcified. That there isn’t just one thing to blame for one film’s reduced footfall and another’s box office success, rather several variables that all need to be accepted rather than ignored. “Despite claims otherwise, the people who were running Hollywood pre-pandemic weren’t running it particularly well,” says Leonard. “They’ve done a terrible job on diversity, which costs them billions of dollars annually that they don’t acknowledge, and they were doing a terrible job on technology, which, same. So unsurprisingly, when all of these changes swept in like a tidal wave over the last three years, they got crushed.”
Franchise filmmaking with “spoilable elements” is certainly not going away anytime soon but as the relative successes of House of Gucci and M. Night Shyamalan’s low-budget flick Old show, neither is unique storytelling. The industry just needs to try a little harder to connect these distinctive films with their target audiences more persuasively, especially post-pandemic.
“Originality is one of the things that you can offer a consumer that will draw them out of the home, adds Leonard. Spoiler alert: “If that originality is executed in an exceptional manner.”