Sunday, April 1, 2012

Horror fans need to stop whining and go see The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD

If you can’t tell by the headline, I’m tired of my fellow horror fans bitching about the sorry state of the genre. Over the past decade, boards have been filled with criticisms about the state of horror, most of it directed at the terrible remakes of classic horror films, and the heavy use by studios of the PG-13 rating. And while exceptions exist (the American version of The Ring was pretty damn scary), I agree that most current horror films are timid, rather stupid, and tend to destroy iconic characters in a misguided attempt to modernize genre classics.

Yet, when a film Piranha 3D delivers everything horror fans claim to want, the film tanks. We could debate the reasons why, but it doesn’t matter. As studios and theater owners are looking to make money, both will be reluctant to try another genre film with an R rating if others underperform when PG-13 horror keeps drawing a bigger audience.

So this summer, I suggest horror fans take the opportunity to assure studios and theater owners that R-rated genre films can be profitable. It’s not hard to do. Just get off your couch, go to your local cinema, pay for a ticket, and see both The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD on opening weekend. Yes, both of them. It might be our best chance to get R-rated horror back into theaters.

First, let’s talk about sending a message to the studios. Your PAID admission will cast a vote for future R-rated horror flicks. Hollywood only pays attention to films that make money and as most horror films don’t require a huge budget, a modest audience can generate a healthy profit for the studios. But just watching the film isn’t enough if you don’t pay the studios to see it. Hollywood executives don’t care what you watch from Redbox or other rental outlets, as you are not fattening their wallet. And we all know what they think of illegal downloading.

Of course, once a few films are successful, the market will be flooded with R-rated horror films, resulting in a decrease in quality and a case of bad movie burnout. This will lead to decreasing revenues and prompt studios moving on to the next hot trend. It happened to slasher genre back in the 80s, as it will happen to the current YA craze. But having R-rated horror films premiering on a regular basis will be fun while it lasts, and might produce some new classics for us to savor during the dry years.

But studio owners aren’t the only ones that will pay attention to a surge in the R-rated horror audience. Theater owners continue to suffer terrific losses as attendance continues to drop. And many are wary of studio promises, as the 3D craze has started to wane, leaving theaters shouldering expensive upgrades for decreasing returns. A larger audience for R-rated horror could generate more money for theater owners and lead to an increased willingness to screen more genre fare.

To see how this could work, we need to discuss how a theater makes money during a film’s theatrical run. Ticket revenue is split between the studio and the theater, but like Vegas, always favors the studio. According to a 2002 report by, studios receives 70 to 80% of total admission revenue during the first weeks of a film’s release, though other articles place the figure as high as 90%. That’s why visiting the concession stand feels like highway robbery, as those snacks account for most of a theater’s income.

Theater owners do get a bigger slice of ticket revenues the longer a film stays in the screen, which fuels the desire for blockbuster films. A big opening weekend increases a studio’s odds of recouping the cost of a film, while theater owners benefit from a film that will continue to draw a crowd weeks after the initial release, when their split of ticket revenues increases.

This sliding scale is the reason the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) is rallying against the idea of early VOD and home market release dates. The sooner a family can see a film from their couch, the less likely they are to visit a theater after a film opens. And, as reported during last year’s Cinemacon, tensions are high between NATO and studios concerning this point. Though theater owners have won several skirmishes, the eventual outcome doesn’t look good for their side.

Also, the split is the reason films don’t get the time to build an audience through word of mouth. Theater owners need to keep the audience coming and are thus unwilling to risk screening a movie that underperforms. And I suspect it’s why major blockbusters occupy several screens in a multiplex on opening weekend, as theater owners are trying to ensure long lines at the concession stand, their main source of revenue.

But Cabin and Piranha 3DD might generate more money for theater owners, as their share of opening week ticket revenue might be higher. While the studios control the sliding scale, I suspect theater owners will get more revenue for several reasons.

First, the studios have less invested in a low budget film. To give you some perspective, the combined budgets for Piranha 3DD and Cabin is about one-fifth the estimated budget for The Avengers. And that doesn’t include advertising or other promotional costs, where I suspect both films have been outspent by a large margin. With less money on the line, the studios don’t need a massive opening weekend, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that theaters get a larger cut of the ticket revenue.

Second, no one has expectations to bring in a large audience. Neither film contains actors with box office drawing power or a build in audience. Okay, Piranha 3DD is a sequel, but to an underperforming film that barely made back its budget. And while Cabin has Joss Whedon’s name behind it, no one really knows if his fan base will go see an R-rated horror film. Studios might use a larger share of the revenues as enticement for theater owners to screen the films.

If the studios increase the revenues theaters receive from opening ticket sales, a sizable audience for Cabin and Piranha 3DD could generate more money for theater owners than a massive blockbuster, especially if concession sales are taken into account. With enough such successes, theater owners might be more willing to screen R-rated horror films, which could open up a market for independent horror films as well. As many of these films are made on a small budget, owners could see increased revenues for opening weekend sales and, if the audience continues to be large enough, theaters might open up more screens for these smaller releases.

So get off the couch and cast a vote for R-rated horror films by seeing The Cabin in the Woods and Piranha 3DD at the theater this summer. Who knows, you might actually enjoy them. But if you stay at home and wait for the torrent file to show up online, or spend money on a VOD source, I don’t want to hear you gripe about the state of horror ever again.

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