The surprise box-office boom for the cartoon "Despicable Me" is making it clear again to Hollywood this summer that family films are the most likely to be top-grossing films. "Toy Story 3" is No. 1 for 2010, not only among the critics, but among the people as well. "Despicable Me" already has broken into the top 10 box-office hits for the year to date with almost $130 million in ticket sales.
It happens over and over again. And still the "executives" are caught off guard. It shouldn't be that hard to figure out. Nobody needs a graphing calculator. Bring out the whole family, and you bring out a bigger audience. It's summertime, and the kids are bored. If the whole family doesn't go, the driving-age teenager gets assigned to take the young ones to the movies, sometimes more than once.
(Memo to Hollywood: Really, truly, this is how it works.)
And yet, The Hollywood Reporter finds the movie market gurus slightly embarrassed at what they call the "family stampede." Family films have well outpaced pre-release projections repeatedly since May, and the studio bosses are puzzled over why these movies "outperform" their guesses.
"The simplest answer is that the tracking doesn't include the young kids themselves," Disney distribution boss Chuck Viane said.
"It's just harder to get a handle on what kids are thinking," another brilliant marketer guessed. "Tracking surveys are based on what people express in phone and Internet surveys, and you're not going to find the young kids that way." Pre-release tracking surveys focus on parents. "The nag factor is what drives those kind of movies," a studio executive tartly declared. "The parents might be less inclined than the kids to see a picture, but then the kids pester the parents, and the rest is history."
So why don't the studio bosses start factoring in the possibility of a "nag factor" from young children wanting to go to the movies with parents who demand quality for their children, and make some movies accordingly? No million-dollar marketing exec has thought of that yet?
"There can be a disconnect in tracking sometimes about how far a picture will reach across all audiences," said Sony distribution president Rory Bruer, whose gone-to-China remake of "The Karate Kid" debuted last month with a much-better-than expected $55.7 million. "There's no doubt that word-of-mouth is important in that aspect." Maybe the studio underestimated the affinity of parents for the first version of the film, released back in 1984. It's well on its way to grossing $200 million.
Sometimes, pre-tracking surveys are wrong the other way, overestimating turnout. Last fall, pre-release surveys suggested the Michael Jackson tribute film "This Is It" could ring up "$40 million or more" on its first weekend. The actual figure was a lot less: $23 million.
"Despicable Me" is a great example of the "out-performed expectations" story line. The Universal cartoon with the inept bald-headed villain who learns to love and parent three young girls grossed $56.4 million in its opening weekend, although the "experts" expected a much lower $30 million to $35 million weekend.
"People think it was a whole host of things contributing to the big opening," one executive told the Hollywood Reporter. "You had some fresh-looking characters, funny trailers and a huge boost from running those trailers with other hit family films over the past several weeks." Surveys had suggested "tepid" interest from consumers.
Anyone watching NBC or Universal's cable channels were subjected to repeated on-screen promos during their favorite shows. NBC also ran a 30-minute "behind the scenes" infomercial on the opening night of the film, since Friday night TV in the summertime isn't a hot spot for advertisers.
Only one R-rated movie has grossed more than $100 million this year, the Leonardo DiCaprio horror flick "Shutter Island." It has just been squeezed out of the top ten by "Despicable Me." Three movies have grossed more than $300 million to top the 2010 list: "Toy Story 3" (a daring G), "Alice in Wonderland" (PG) and "Iron Man 2" (PG-13). Three more movies have grossed more than $200 million: "Twilight: The Eclipse Saga" (PG-13) and the family cartoons "Shrek Forever After" (PG) and "How to Train Your Dragon" (PG).
Why can't greedy Hollywood just look at the math and put their money where the American public's eyes want to go?
Here's what should follow: more respect from the movie awards shows for these animated films. "Toy Story 3" drew rave reviews across the board. The St. Petersburg Times said it "isn't merely the best movie of the summer -- even with summer just kicking in -- but an immediate candidate for best of the year." Don't bet the mortgage.