How to Read a Hollywood Release (Remix): Part I

Three years ago, I wrote a series of articles I called “How to Read a Hollywood Release.” They were one of the first sets of articles I thought up when I decided to start the blog. The idea was based on something I learned just by paying attention to every single movie that came out over the years. (I’m someone who watches and tracks everything. Just look at my Year in Reviews. And I’m one of those people who is able to remember random shit. I remember what year things came out, what month. Things like that. I am essentially a walking IMDB. This allows me to make connections, because that’s how my brain works. It just does that.)

In paying attention to when movies came out, I noticed a bunch of trends and patterns. And when I actually started the blog and wrote up the my first Film Release Calendar, guessing in January how I’d rate the films when I saw them later in the year, I realized it was very easy to quickly and accurately gauge what the quality of a movie is (and by that I mean both actual quality and what you’d rate it) based almost solely on its release date.

Now, that doesn’t sound impressive when you first hear it, and after I wrote the articles (and promptly forgot about them), I didn’t even think it was all that impressive. But now, after three years of Film Release Calendars (including one where I actually referred to my rubric to prove its usefulness), I find that I use my How to Read a Hollywood Release system all the time, conscious or not. This thing continues to work.

So I felt it was a good time to repost it, and share it once more with people who might not know just how well it actually works.

The real reason these articles are being reposted is because of Colin (friend and co-contributor to the blog, specifically with Fun with Franchises. His blog is Fuck yeah, promotion!). He remembered the articles and went back and read them on his own, and then emailed me saying, “You remember those articles you wrote way back when? They actually work.” So he’s the main reason this is happening.

Another reason the articles are being reposted is because now, people actually read this blog. (What I had in total views when those articles went up is what I get now on a good day.) So the fact that this time, these articles might actually reach some people, and the fact that it’s one of those things that — it’s so simple, and works so well, and no one is turned onto how well this works, that I think people will see this and go, “Wow, that’s actually a good system.” And then you’ll find yourself starting to use the system all the time, because in a way, you use it already. Which is exactly my point. How am I the person that wrote this down? It’s so simple that you’d think someone would have put it into words by this point.

I was in a tough spot with this, because I wanted to rerun the articles, but I didn’t want to just rerun them. So I figured I’ll rerun them, and pause from time to time to update them and make them more detailed and deal with certain nuances that I maybe didn’t get into last time. For me, the important thing here is to get them out there — because they are very helpful and useful, and my goal in life is to find ways to make things easier for myself and others — and to update the system to account for the passage of time. At least for Part I. The other parts, I’ll tell you how we’re going to do that when we get to them.

Today’s gonna be simple, since I’m just rerunning part one. I spent a lot of time setting this thing up, mostly due to my complete hatred of academic and journalistic writing (get to the point, make the point, support the point, etc. Fuck that. I’m doing shit my way). So the entire first part is a very long-winded set up that I just love. I could have gotten into the meat and potatoes today, but then it wouldn’t have my style. Plus, I seen everything but Jesus no way ain’t got nothin’ else but time. (That actually wasn’t much better the second time.)

So here’s my rerun of part one of “How to Read a Hollywood Release” (the REMIX):

“Who wants to spend $15 for no reason? Now, because of this handy guide, by knowing nothing more than a film’s release date, you can automatically gauge the quality of that film.

See that? Leading with the pertinent information. I hate it. I feel like a tool. As such, I’m now going to spend paragraphs telling you nothing that has to do with my main point. Because fuck everyone else.

My point here, though (which I won’t actually be getting to for a while), is that as long as you know a film’s release date, you know – barebones – everything you need to know about that film in order to, within a very accurate range, gauge the quality of that film. Of course, there are anomalies, but whatever. There are rules to every exception. Also, I say barebones because, knowing a few more choice details about the film can help you to more accurately place it. It’s like gender before race and all that other stuff. Since it being a movie means we’re dealing with human. This is that first dot that separates it from the other dots before we add sparkles and shit. My theory — the Bedazzler of film judgment.

Just knowing a film comes out in October isn’t enough. It is, but it also isn’t. It depends on your level of interest, really. Or the month in question. What I’m ultimately going to do here is provide you a very simple little rubric to accurately gauge the quality of the film in question in four very simple steps. Ultimately being – well, simple. I’m actually kind of amazed at that part myself.

It’s a nice skill to have handy. Not so much a skill as — knowledge. I’m about to drop knowledge on you. It’s not really science. Science is something we dropped on Japan during World War II — twice. I’m about to drop the knowledge bomb on you. Its side effects are knowing more. So, much better than radiation.

This is my gift to you. Showing you how to read a Hollywood release. It’s not quite a Porsche and not quite herpes. You knew what you were getting when we started this relationship.

After following my rubric, you will know, within a pretty accurate range, the quality of the film you’re using it for, which then feeds into the difference between what it’s alleged quality is, how much money it’s probably going to make, and what the studio’s expectations are the film (as in, how much they think it’s going to make), and what they think the quality is. It’s a very useful tool to have. And, like a lot of things I teach, is something that can make you seem smart in the right situation. And, probably, is something that most other people don’t (or don’t care to) talk about. Because people are either boring, stupid, or unwilling to say what we’re all thinking. I’m at least one of those three things. And in my way of thinking, if you’re one of them, you’re most certainly not another. And very usually are the third thing.

I’m pretty funny, right?

The other most important thing to take out of that section — there is a rubric that allows you to accurately gauge the quality of a movie based solely on its release date. This then allows you to take any other piece of information you have about a film and figure out other bits of information, such as:

A) What the studio wants you to think about the film (it’s “alleged quality”)

B) How much money it’s going to make.

C) What the studio’s expectations are for the film are.

D) What the studio thinks the quality of the film is.

And since we live in an age where there is an abundance of information about every movie, should you choose to look, you can figure out all this stuff just by looking at a film’s IMDB page. Which I get into with this next part:

Normally when you hear about a movie — pre-trailer or post-trailer — the first things you hear about it are its star and its genre. Like, “Hey, you hear about the Coen brothers western with Jeff Bridges?” Of course, there’s source material in that example, so, most people would cite the fact that it’s a True Grit “remake,” but I’m assuming an intelligence level of the average American — not much. This is when you find out about something that’s coming out — which in this day and age you do seven different times. That is, when the studio announces they’re making it, then, when the studio casts the star and/or director, which may be included in step one or again when they recast (because most films are routinely announced five to seven years in advance now), then, when they start shooting and pick a release date — all of this is at least two or more years before the actual movie comes out, if it’s big enough — then, when they release a teaser trailer, then, when they release the actual trailer — that’s five — then, when they start doing press for the movie, which for simplicity’s sake I’ll include the billboards and shit as well as the interviews and TV spots (which, most of that starts at least six months in advance, and even up to three months afterward), and finally when the blitz of advertisement happens in the two weeks before it comes out. My rubric is useful any time after step two. As long as the film has a release date and is in post-production (i.e. almost certain to come out on the actual date it’s advertised), then you can gauge it.

Let’s stop for a moment to point out — I’m completely right here. Nowadays, if a movie is big enough, you will hear about it at least seven times before it comes out.

The seven times, as I stated up there, are:

1) When the studio announces the film.

(This typically includes a logline.)

2) When the studio casts the star and/or director*^

(* Step 2 may be included in step one.)

(^ There may also be an additional step here when the studio announces a recast role or a new director. Since many movies are announced up to five years before they actually come up, if they do actually come out. For example: Gravity was originally announced with Alfonso Cuaron directing, Sandra Bullock starring, and Robert Downey Jr. in the Clooney role. Then Downey pulled out and Clooney stepped in. This was an additional step, since you heard about the Downey casting, and then they announced the role was recast, due to “scheduling conflicts,” my favorite Hollywood euphemism next to “exhaustion and dehydration.”)

3) When they pick a release date and start shooting.

(After further consideration, I’d say these two are definitely now two separate steps.)

(Also, all of this is still happening routinely at least two years before a movie actually comes out.)

4) When they release a teaser trailer.

(Normally a teaser poster is released before this. Also, the bigger the movie, the earlier the teaser is released. Nowadays, the huge movies will often have teasers released while they’re still shooting.)

5) When they release an actual trailer.

(This is the one that tells you every single beat of the film and every little thing to expect. Wouldn’t want to leave any surprises in store for the viewer. Why would that be important?)

6) When they start doing press for a movie — billboards, interviews (print and visual), TV spots, etc.

(This generally happens from about six months out — movie sites routinely post set interviews and set visits and previews and all that — up to three months after the film comes out. So many times will I see a Vanity Fair piece or some in-depth piece about an actor that was written while they were promoting a movie that’s been out for a few months.)

7. During the blitz of promotion in the weeks leading up to the film’s release.

So, after consideration, I’d say it’s now eight times.

Let’s put it to an example:

1) Disney announces they’re going to make Star Wars, Episode VII.

2) Disney announces that J.J. Abrams is going to direct.

    • They then announce a writer, Michael Arndt.
    • Later, they announce that he’s off and Lawrence Kasdan is on.
    • They announce speculation that about a dozen actors are going to be cast. None of them are. (The bigger the film, the more minute this step gets.)

3) They announce a May, 2015 release date.

    • They later change the date to December, 2015. (This is all in 2013.)

4) They start shooting. (This hasn’t happened yet.)

(And hell, as I write this, they only just cast a villain in the movie.)

5) A teaser trailer will be released. (If they start shooting in April, a teaser will be out by the end of the year.)

6) A real trailer will be released. (Probably early 2015. Maybe Super Bowl is my guess. It’ll be a big deal.)

7) Press, articles, interviews will start for the film over the summer.

8) Starting Thanksgiving, they will inundate everyone with promotion for the film.

Now, all this is just to illustrate just how much information we routinely have about a movie before it comes out. What I’m saying is — all you really need is a release date. Sure, all this other stuff helps you fine-tune it, but all you really need is the date it’s going to come out, and you have all you need to know.

Knowing about who’s in it and what the trailer looks like is more an alternate path to mine. That’s a path you follow anyway. Mine is more of something you do alongside of it. Sometimes all it takes is a trailer. Or, in my case, a star and a title. Samuel Jackson in a movie called Snakes on a Plane? Done. Nicolas Cage in anything? Done. However, for anything else, and even for films you know you’re going to see, you can use my rubric as a way to measure the film’s quality. Keep in mind, I’m talking solely of quality, and maybe whether or not you decide to see it, and not what you’ll think of it. We all go see shitty movies knowing they’re gonna be shitty, but we (sometimes) enjoy them anyway. My rubric does not factor in personal taste. X-factors are some of my favorite things, and I love things that fuck with rules indiscriminately and without logic, so my rule is merely a gauge of objective quality of film. And a way to judge whether or not you really want to plunk down $40 to go see it.

Nobody wants to spend a ridiculous amount of money to buy a ticket for a film that ends up sucking. Especially when you knew it might and wanted it not to. It’s okay if you’re willing and it ends up sucking and you’re like, “Yeah. That’s a shame.” I’m talking about when you aren’t sure about whether or not you want to go see something and don’t want to go if its gonna suck. You want as many pieces of information at your disposal as possible. And in the cases where my rubric is most applicable, critics are not the final say. Usually they are.

It’s some potential Oscar movie they’ve been talking about for months and months, and you think it’s gonna suck but everyone else thinks it’ll be the best movie of the year, and then the critics get a hold of it and tear it apart like a white girl in a lion’s den — then you feel better. You think, “Wow, now I don’t actually have to go see it.” In other cases, it’s not so crystal clear. It’s some action movie that comes out in March. And you’re not sure if it’ll be entertaining or not, but you know, when the critics get it they’re gonna give it bad reviews out of necessity. And then they do. The reviews are middling at best and unclear as to what the quality of the film really is. So, now what? Do you still go or not? You think you might like it even though the critics didn’t, but there weren’t enough good reviews to sway you. Do you still want to plunk down $85 to go to the theater and see the movie?

And that’s where my rubric comes in. After using it, and then basing what the trailer looked like and who’s in it, you’ll know if you’re going to it or not, who you’re going with, and whether or not you’ll be in an altered state of consciousness for it. You’ll know whether or not you’re gonna spend that $198 or save it for something more worth the time — like a happy ending. And that’s what it is, my rubric. It’s about judging a movie by its cover charge.

Well that didn’t give us any new information. Let’s continue.

Though, actually, I guess the one thing we can take out of there is the fact that the system does not involve personal taste, and that personal taste is something that works concurrent to the system, which is something I’ll get into more later on.

What I’m going to do, is use last year’s film calendar (Wikipedia’s (year) in film is my go-to release calendar) to show how my method — which I haven’t even told you yet. See, how interesting I am that I can keep you reading this long without actually saying anything? — can be an accurate way to gauge a film’s quality.

(Wide releases only. The waters are too murky to get into the limited releases. There, there be sharks).

The criteria for pre-judging a film (after all, Hollywood is based on prejudice, one way or another. And that’s only a small shot at Disney racism), go as follows:

1.            The month it is released.

2.            What it is up against.

3.            If it was pushed or not.

4.            Its genre/Awards potential. Past or present tense.

And that’s without even going by what it’s about and who’s in it. That’s all ancillary. That’s your final go-to. That’s usually what you end on — “Well, Matt Damon is in it, so at the very least I’ll see it for him.” This is more like, “Yeah, Robin Williams is in it, but, he’s really hit or miss. And the trailer sucked. But I still think it could be good. Or at the very least entertaining.” And then you’re like, “Well, it’s out in March, which means it’ll probably not be good but could be. At least it’s not February or January. It’s up against an animated kids movie, which means they’re looking to get an older audience, and it means it might actually be a bit more raunchy than the trailer suggests. It wasn’t pushed, so it’s a straight March release. (Mike note: I’ll tell you what that implies later.) And it’s almost certainly not winning any awards, so — probably not. I’d rather not spend $430 to go see this movie.” Also, just to make things easier — you don’t always need to use this rubric. It’s fun, but, if you watch a trailer for a Robin Williams movie and see the set up with standard stupid bad slapstick gags — like License to Wed — you pretty much know it’s going to suck without all this doing. But, if you take the rubric and apply it to films that have already come out, you’ll find that it’s scarily accurate at judging quality. (Note: Not what you think about it. Objective quality.)

All right, so now we’re at the heart of the matter.

I just gave you a very long set of things you figure out, all of which seem very complicated on paper, but once we see it in practice, will be very, very simple.

My rubric, once again, is this:

1) You have a film’s release date (and potentially other information about the film. See: those eight things up there).

2) You look at:

  • What films are also coming out that day.
  • If the film was pushed from an original date, or that was always the date it was intended to be released.
  • If it has (or had, depending on the previous step) any awards potential, and/or what genre it is.

3) With this, you will be able to figure out:

  • What the studio wants you to think about the film (it’s “alleged quality”)
  • How much money it’s going to make.
  • What the studio’s expectations are for the film are.
  • What the studio thinks the quality of the film is.
  • And, most importantly, what the actual quality of the film most likely is going to be.

This, my friends, is why I’m so good at guessing what I’m going to think about movies in January even though most of them won’t come out for up to 12 months. It’s a simple science. Know thyself, and know this system. That’s all you need to know.

One thing I’d amend from that section — the indie thing does hold true, but it also is slightly easier to guess now, given that certain indies do tend to come out during certain times. Though, by and large, it is difficult, given the different set of platform releases indies routinely get. A really good indie might come out in April in three theaters and also on VOD, and it won’t be held to the same standards as wide releases. So, for the most part, we’ll continue to leave indies out of this.

Now, let’s get back to the original article, because I will illustrate how to take the system and use it.

(Though I will say, I ended up getting unnecessarily complicated here. I ran before we could crawl at points. Which is just my tendency. I have a hard time teaching people when something is just second nature to me. It feels like when you’re trying to define a word and the only definition you can think of is the word itself.)

Let’s start with #1. The most basic way to gauge a film is its release date. Example:

Transformers 3 is being released in July. July is typically your month of big-budget, tentpole franchises. Conversely, The Fighter was released on December 10th. What gets released that time? Oscar films. Very simple. Right? Right. Left right left. Up. Freeze missile.

That’s literally as simple as it gets. Know what gets released at certain times. We all know this instinctively. It’s come to a point, as I’ll explain in the subsequent parts, that most of this happens completely subconsciously now. Whether through studio influence or not, we are subconsciously conditioned to assume certain things about a film based solely on its release date.

Now, of course the simple release date judgment is not a hard and fast rule. Because:

Sometimes a film may appear to defy its release date. That’s when you use #2 and #3. Also important to point out is that there are some franchises that defy release date. Both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises have discovered the pre-Thanksgiving November release date. Normally November is your month for Oscar films and films placed specifically to take the weekend and absorb all the money that isn’t being made by those low-budget Oscar films. What was out in theaters the same week as No Country for Old Men? Beowulf.

A film like Harry Potter is destined to make money no matter when it is released. And quality is never subjective to release date in these cases. Franchises generally have their own mark of quality in relation to other films within the franchise. However, because Potter and Twilight have been passing that week in November back and forth the past few years, it’s starting to become recognized as a good week for films of that sort, so, like every new thing in Hollywood, it’s soon to be absorbed and become part of the machine.

This is unnecessarily complicated for an introduction. This is also based on the 2007-2010 years, which are a distant memory at this point. It’s structurally sound, but let’s skip this part for now. It’ll make a lot more sense later on, once everyone has the system down.

That (for now) anomaly out of the way, we move to #2. If a film doesn’t seem to make sense being released in a certain month, its often helpful to look at what it is going up against. A good example is the one I used earlier, Beowulf. A big CG movie such as that would seem out of place in November. Yet, epic German poems aren’t exactly the kind of source material that scream “Summer release” (clearly that distinction falls onto Hasbro toys and Will Smith). Plus, knowing that weekend (and adjacent weekends as well) will be filled with smaller films looking to get Oscar attention allows a, I’m not going to say bad film, but more of a, film out of its place, to make more money than if it were released during the month it would seem best fit.

Still getting complicated, but the logic is 100% true. Don’t believe me? Know what got released the second week of November last year? Thor.

Anyway, we dealt with a release date, and then what the film is up against. (Though not really enough for my taste. But don’t worry. We’ll have lots of time to workshop this until you’re all pros. There are five more articles to go this week.)

Now we’re getting into if a film was pushed or not.

Number 3. Sometimes a film is pushed due to traffic, quality, or just sheer, “we think it’ll make more money at this other date.” Example 1: The Princess and the Frog was originally scheduled to be released Thanksgiving Day 2009. However, three weeks before Thanksgiving, A Christmas Carol was making lots of money at the box office, 2012 opened huge, Twilight was to be released the next weekend, and some little film called The Blind Side was starting to make waves around town. Not to mention the fact that Thanksgiving Day was populated with other films like Ninja Assassin and Old Dogs. Despite the fact that the film was a Disney animated (classical 2D, hand-drawn animation, no less), there was no way that film would have done as well is it were released alongside all those other films. Let’s also not forget the charges of racism that had plagued the film from the beginning (Disney thought they were going ahead of the curve (they must have thought it was 1967) by having their first black princess – then they went and set the film in New Orleans, made every character a racial stereotype, and threw in a Cajun voodoo priestess for good measure. And that, my friends, is Hollywood, which, while being totally true, also hurt the films potential box office potential. Who’s going to take their child to see a racist film before hearing that it’s actually pretty good and got good reviews?). So they pushed it to December and gradually increased the theater count to allow word of mouth to negate bad buzz. That’s traffic (and to a lesser extent, quality).

Now — quality. My favorite example of the bunch. This is where the examples most include one of my favorite actors, Nicolas Cage. Nic Cage films get pushed more often than nuns do in grade school jokes. They’re all for varying reasons, but let’s stick to the quality one, since that’s what I’m talking about right now. This example will be the just-released Season of the Witch. The film was meant to be released last April. Secondary reasons to this film being pushed were, as I like to call it, a symptom known as “too much Cage.” For me, there can never be enough Cage. I support anything the man has ever done, and with the exception of Bangkok Dangerous, I’ve actually liked all of the live-action films he’s released in the past decade (by liked, I mean, at least 3 stars on Netflix). However, not everyone shares my pro-Cageness.

Now I’m about to go on a really long tangent about Nicolas Cage movies.

This is what’s known as “the best part.”

A funny side story. A fellow film major at Wesleyan went up to Jeanine (that’s Jeanine Basinger, head of the film department. If you know me, you know Jeanine) and asked, “How come I have such a soft spot for Nicolas Cage?” And without missing a beat, Jeanine said, “That’s because your soft spot,” pointing to his head, “is in here.”

I won’t get further into why people don’t like the Cage, because it boggles my mind like, well, Cranium, but “too much Cage” meant that, after a half-year that included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Kick-Ass, three Cage films in four months was just too much awesome for the American public. Also, the film was terrible. (And amazing!)

I say the film was terrible because – well, let’s pause to say, the film was about Cage as a medieval knight transporting a suspected witch, who is thought to be the source of the black plague, to be killed, and over the course of the journey, the witch slowly starts killing everyone involved in the journey. Awesome, right? I know. That alone should tell you where this film would normally be released. However, they sent the film in for not just one round, but two rounds of reshoots. Reshoots generally mean structural problems, story problems, and just plain, “this film is worse than we thought. And we weren’t expecting much.” So the reshoots, along with it not having a release date before finally being slapped with a January one mean, huge quality issues. (Side note: He also fights a CGI demon in the third act. It’s fucking chaos.) One small note before moving on, the date also means that we now have four Cage films set to be released in 2011, two of which coming before March 1st (Drive Angry being the other one). I believe I speak for everyone when I say, goody gumdrops.

Seriously, though. That demon looked like a turd. It was hilarious.

Number three of number two (ya follow?) the, “We’ll make more money if we release it this other time.” My example for this, Shutter Island. Shutter Island was supposed to be released October 2009. It was pushed to February 2010. Paramount says this was because they had Oscar campaigns going for Up in the Air, The Lovely Bones and Star Trek. Two of them failed to make Best Picture nominations (only one of them deserved to), though Star Trek did well with tech noms, and won Best Makeup – why, I have no idea – and Up in the Air peaked way too early and lost the only award it was thought to have in the bag (Adapted Screenplay — though we’re all pretty sure it has something to do with racism). So, on an awards level, it’s a questionable decision. It just missed out on a Best Picture nomination last year, when the card was stacked with great films. It would have been a shoo-in last year, when the nominees sucked. However, financially, it was a genius decision. It was the biggest opening of both Marty and Leo’s career. It made $128 million and almost outgrossed The Departed. So if a film like Shutter Island is released in February, where it appears to be a mark of low quality, it helps to look at the fact that it was pushed from October, making it a moneymaking decision and not a quality one. Plus the film was great.

Hey, remember when Monuments Men did the same thing?

Remember when I kept saying how well this system works?

Of course, Monuments Men didn’t set the world on fire, but I bet it wouldn’t have made that much money had they released it two months earlier. This way it ended up respectably forgotten, rather than tarred and feathered in a public forum and left for dead with its testicles on the pavement.

It’s like running a film through filters, and each filter peels back a layer and reveals the film’s true nature. Some films just don’t have that many layers. One understands why Leap Year was released in January without thinking very much (which, that’s exactly what they want out of you). Likewise 27 Dresses, and (god help us) Bride Wars.

Before I go (I will never get over how I have all this mobility on the web. I can come, go, break the space-time continuum, write to you both in the present and in the past at the same time, all in the space of writing), I want to provide a month-by-month rubric that generally serves as a broad tool for gauging what types of films are released during what time. This will hopefully help you when you see a film getting released and are deciding whether or not to see it in theaters. And it may keep you from asking my opinion on things. You can figure it out yourself, Summer Sanders. You can apply this formula and know, pretty much off the top of your head what I think about this movie (before I see it). Of course, the better you know me, the better you can alter the formula to account for basic human error (as in, “Oh, but it’s a Cage film, so Mike is actually excited about it,” or, “Well, he does like westerns, so even though it’s out in January he’ll see it,” or, “Sure it’s an Oscar film, but its starring Aniston, and he hates that cunt.” I prefer to think of this as human success. Error only implies deviation, which, makes sense for the culture we live in).

But enough about the forumla, let’s get to what we’ve all been waiting for — me pushing the actual analysis of the months until tomorrow.

What, did you really think you were getting this all in one day?

Well, actually, you might have — but then I went and started the article like a standard newspaper writer, which then necessitated that I immediately stray away from that and fuck over my audience as much as possible. Which, might actually make me more like a newspaper man. Whatever. Either way, starting tomorrow, I go through January through June. Because that’ll be enough writing as it is. And you’ll know how to judge a movie that comes out in the first half of the year. And judging is fun.

– – – – –

I ended the article with a picture of Judge Dredd, because he is the law. And judging is fun.

Just so you know, I hadn’t looked at these articles since I wrote them until I pulled them out of the closet for the 2012 Film Release Calendar. And then I promptly forgot about them once again. So I’m reading through these as I go along. This is all pretty new to me in that — I don’t remember what I wrote at all. But just reading some of that again, I see some of the same things I bring up all the time in this. Which tells me that these are pretty universal examples.

But anyway, I think the real thing here is — there’s a lot of information to process in these articles, but honestly, once you read them, it all becomes really compressed and really simple to follow very quickly. It’s like when you learned the quadratic formula, and you spent a week just getting it down, and by the time you were in B.C. calc, that was just one step of six you used to solve an equation, and it was just secondhand — negative b plus or minus the square root of b-squared minus four-a-c over two-a.

Today is just us learning the formula. Then we’re gonna spend the rest of the week using it in examples, and then at the end, I’m going to leave us all with the 2014 film release calendar as a sort of worksheet, so you can use the How to Read a Hollywood Release system on your own to see just how well it works.

The point is to use the formula to get what will end up being a pretty accurate representation of the quality of the film. I can guarantee that the release date estimate will be within one star of the final result. Of course, however, the system is meant to be used alongside your own knowledge of your own personal taste. Regardless of what month it is, if I see a horror movie, I don’t care what the quality of it is going to be, I know I won’t like it that much. Because I know me. Same for a Tyler Perry movie. I see that and I know I won’t see it. Unlike hard formulas, this one actually does work with the variable of personal taste.

I go through a lot of movies every year in January, and come the end of the year, I’m running somewhere between a 67-70% average of guessing them correctly. And I must have something of a less than 5% ratio (if that) of being more than a single star off with my ratings. And that’s because of two things — I follow this system, and I know myself really well. That’s all it is. For me, this is just what I use to just know what I’m in for with certain movies. And like I said up there, for most people, it’s just gonna be about, “Is this movie worth seeing and paying for?” But it works. Now I’m at the point where I don’t even need to explain things. I can just rattle off a rating the way John Hurt could rattle off everything about the wands he was handed in Harry Potter.

If you really want to know if a movie is worth seeing or not, run it through this formula:

For example — Lawless. From 2012. When it was announced, I was all in for it. John Hillcoat, who made The Proposition (a movie I love), and The Road (a movie I admired very much), written by Nick Cave (who also wrote The Proposition) with Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman. I was crazy excited for it. It was coming out in April, which I know to be one of those months where there are some hidden gems. But then they pushed it to late August, which is typically a dead one for good movies. Pushing something to late August (as we’ll see in a few days) means you have serious doubts about a film’s quality and it’s ability to catch on with audiences and make money. I wasn’t so deterred, but I was definitely more wary. And then as we got closer, the trailer wasn’t all that spectacular, and the reviews weren’t so hot, and no one was really talking about it the way a film with its pedigree ought to be talked about. So I pretty much knew it wouldn’t be as good as I was expecting, and as such didn’t pay to see it. And when I eventually did see it, I felt vindicated, because I would have thought the film a waste of my $15.

Now, the caveat there is — disappointed doesn’t mean it was a bad movie. By any stretch. I liked Lawless. It’s just my expectations wanted it to be better than it was, and based on the talent, it should have been better than it was. Or at least more engaging than it was. So in that sense, it was disappointing, even though I’d have taken it over a vast majority of 2012 films. So this has to be taken in context.

That’s the setup to all this. The rubric is still — if you want to make the world a better place gauge the quality of a film in the most general sense, take a look at yourself and make a change in order to guess what you’d rate it eight months in advance, decide whether or not to go see it, or just gauge how good it’s going to be before you start thinking, “Gee, you think this has a shot at some Oscars?” — follow these steps:

1) Look at its release date.

We’ll pick a random example from last year: Oz the Great and Powerful.

All right, so you hear about this movie when they announce it. You already know — and this is probably another step that’s sort of a pre-#1 or something you do post-list. Looking at who made it and who’s in it. Though I guess you can do it at any point, and it’s more an ancillary step to help you decide. So I guess this is something I’ll add afterward, but for now, let’s use it for #1 — you know Sam Raimi is directing it and it’s starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis. And, depending on when this is, you may have seen a poster, you may know they’re shooting the first act in black-and-white out of homage to the original, and you may have seen a trailer. This is all ancillary stuff that changes your eventual opinion about it.

So let’s say you know all of that. You saw that trailer like I did and went, “Wow, that looks really good and will probably look pretty terrific.” Then you go, “Is this gonna be a seriously good movie? What can I expect the quality of this movie to be?” Because you don’t know. It could be a big, classy production looking for Oscars, or it could be a shitty piece of entertainment that tarnishes (temporarily, since you can’t do any lasting damage to it) the legacy of a masterpiece that’ll just look good and nothing more. So how do you know?

You look at the release date.

It came out March 8th. What do we know about March? (I’m getting into the articles a bit, but it’s all right. It’s a fluid thing. You’ll pick it up as you go along. That’s the point.) We know March is a month that holds a lot of variables. It mixes genres, and it mixes quality, too. You don’t expect a film released in March to automatically be an awful piece of shit the way you expect a February movie to be one. You also know that, while you might get a few 4 star movies in March, here or there, generally the March films are not that great. At most, they’ll be solid 3.5s, and if something is a 4 star movie, it’s 4 stars bordering on a bit too mainstream, and one you’re not quite sold on as a 4-star movie, but you went with it anyway. (My example of that last year was The Hunger Games. That’s not a 4 star movie in the way Arbitrage was a 4-star movie for me, but in its own way, it was 4 stars. Still, it’s a March 4 stars and not an October 4 stars. But as Roger Ebert taught us, the stars are relative to the rating and not to the other films that got that rating.)

So there’s that.

Also, what we know about the release date, which I guess should end up being a 1a to this whole thing — you also, having the specific release date of this movie, can use that to gauge both quality and what the studio thinks about it/is trying to have it be/what they expect to make from it.

So, March 8th. First or second weekend in March, depending on how the calendar falls. Here are the films that have come out in that same weekend since 2007 (by the way, this rubric is really only helpful for the past five years or so. Things are constantly changing, so you have to keep updating and keep current, since in Hollywood, three years ago is forever): 2012: John Carter. 2011: Battle: Los Angeles. 2010: Alice in Wonderland. 2009: Watchmen. 2008: 10,000 B.C. 2007: 300.

This is the one part of this system that makes me certain that it works. Because look at all those movies. Do I even need to mention how similar they all are? Sure, you might like one better than another (Watchmen was in my top ten for 2009, whereas Battle: Los Angeles barely missed my Unforgivables list for 2011), but ultimately — they’re big budget movies that made a lot of money, where the studios wanted to make a lot of money (though not necessarily with 300, I think. I think in the article I mention that 300 actually started this trend and that before it, these types of movies weren’t released in March like that. Once the first one makes money, then they put stuff there expecting to make money. And you can see it).

The other thing about that list — Watchmen was a 5-star movie to me, but a lot of people didn’t like that movie at all, and I’ll even admit, when I watched it the first time, there were parts I was audibly laughing at. But the rest of them — 300 is 3.5 stars with a bump for being really awesome at times. The rest are 3 stars, maybe, at best. They’re not good movies. The last two years specifically, John Carter and Alice in Wonderland — they spent so much money on those movies and they weren’t good at all. But they ended up getting okay ratings from me because the amount of money put into them does make them watchable. It’s just the fact that they weren’t spectacular that made them so bad. For all that money, you should be able to tell a good story. So that leads you into the expectation that Oz the Great and Powerful is going to be like that as well. It’s going to be a movie that’s 3.5 stars at best, and if it does go to 4 stars (and even if it’s at 3.5 stars), the extra bit is probably because of the visuals. There’s a chance it might just be a flat 3 stars and make you go, “What the fuck were they doing?” The one thing that makes me lean positive there, though, is that they’ve had this release date for a while. John Carter was pushed there. So that told us a lot. Alice in Wonderland, though, did also have that date for a while. Which really tells me that I’m looking at a 3 star film in 4 star visuals. That’s what I’m expecting based on this release date. (And was I wrong?)

Also, let me state — you can be wrong here. You could guess 3 stars and it could be a really good movie and be a solid 4-star movie. I’m just saying — when you look at all this stuff… most of the time… most of the time the facts* (* trends) don’t lie. I’d rather side with what I know to usually be the case than my own personal hunches, since a lot of the time, when I go with my own personal hunches, they end up fucking me over. For example: Oz the Great and Powerful. Based solely on the teaser poster, and the trailer, I’d have said, “3.5 stars, maybe 4.” My love of The Wizard of Oz would have factored greatly into that rating. However, I know the date, and I know what usually comes out on that date, and what usually is the quality of those movies, so I said, “Let me err on the side of caution and assume it’ll only be 3 with the possibility to bump up to 3.5 on some really strong visuals.” And what did I get? a 2 star story with 4 star visuals, and a flat 3 star movie. Of course, I could have been wrong there. I could have either guessed wrong by going higher than it ended up being, or I could have actually been wrong and assumed it sucked and then ended up actually really liking it. There’s nothing wrong with guessing incorrectly. What I’m saying is — the system generally helps you be more correct, and it allows you to also see which films defy that system. (Which, honestly, aren’t many. And a lot of that defying comes down to personal preference more than anything else. I’m pretty sure objectively you’re not going to see a movie that’s a consensus 5-star movie come out on Valentine’s Day. You’re just not going to see it happen.)

So that’s 1. But we can continue, if we need to. That’s the beauty of this system. If you don’t have enough information out of step 1, you keep going.

2) Look at what it’s up against

Oz the Great and Powerful was up against Dead Man Down, with Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, directed by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original trilogy) guy, as well as Emperor, with Tommy Lee Jones as General MacArthur, in limited release. So basically that tells me everyone knew and expected the movie to make a shitload of money, and no one bothered to schedule against it. Dead Man Down is there because its box office prospects were limited to begin with and because it’s counter-programming against Oz. Kids are going to see Oz. Only adults are going to Dead Man Down. Simply knowing the date and what the other films are against it, I know that Dead Man Down is a generic three-star action movie (that maybe has the potential to be 3.5 if it has flair), that Oz the Great and Powerful is a movie that will look great and not be that great overall, that Oz will make a shit ton of money — easily over $50-60 million for its opening weekend (it made $79 million), that Dead Man Down will make, at most, $15 million its opening weekend (it only made $5 million), that the studio knew Oz was just an okay movie that would still make a lot of money (otherwise, if it was good, it wouldn’t be in March), that the studio knew Dead Man Down‘s prospects were limited, which is why they counter-programmed it where they did, and that the studio knew Dead Man Down was just a pretty good movie whose main audience was going to come in the ancillary markets rather than theatrically. And I figured all that shit out simply by looking at a release calendar and an IMDB page.

Anyway, let’s continue with Oz the Great and Powerful:

3) Look at if it got pushed or not

This one really only helps if you’ve paid attention to stuff. Most people aren’t gonna pay attention to whether or not something got pushed. But when it comes down to it, this can be helpful if you still can’t get a read on a film. Oz the Great and Powerful wasn’t pushed. But John Carter was. So right there, that’s a piece of information you have about John Carter. And you can do research, and see why it’s pushed. But for something like that — you know. Remember when the G.I. Joe sequel was pushed from a late June release to March? There was a reason for that. When a film with that budget gets pushed from the prime moneymaking date to the early spring, you know it’s a quality issue. But with Oz — no push, so this step is a blank.

4) Look at its genre/awards potential (in the past and present sense)

This is more of a genre thing than an Oscar thing. The Oscar thing is more — if something seems like it’s positioned in the prime of the Oscar season and then gets pushed to a non-Oscar season (The Great Gatsby), that might affect what you think the quality is/what the quality actually is. (And, based on what we know now — how much money it’s going to make. But we’ll get into that case later on.)

The genre here also isn’t so helpful, since with Oz, it’s that fantasy/big-budget thing that the last few March films released that same weekend have been. But for a film you can’t get a handle on, you might be able to go, “Well, it’s a horror movie. The horror movies that get released in the first week of January are always shitty horror movies.” The genre helps you see what other movies of that genre are typically released that time so you can compare quality. Odds are, if a lot of shitty movies of the same genre are released that same weekend/month every year, chances are it’s probably more likely to be that than something else.

There are also some ancillary things that can help you further perfect what you figure the quality is going to be. The first is personal taste. You look at all that and go, “Well, I expect it to be better than John Carter, given that I like the source material better… but I’m not really a fan of Sam Raimi… or James Franco… but it looks good, and I tend to rate visuals a little higher if they’re really nice…” and you do things like that to whittle down what you expect the quality is/what you think you’re going to rate it.

The other thing you can use, should you choose, is what studio is putting it out. If you’re one of those people who knows studios and what they put out each year (and I’m not talking Disney, or Pixar, or even Marvel. Everybody fucking knows those movies. I’m talking Sony, or DreamWorks, or Fox Searchlight — that stuff), you can use the studio putting it out to help decide what you think it’s gonna be. For example, if I see a 20th Century Fox animated film, I can pretty much guess that it’s gonna be a piece of shit, since all they do is make broad, pandering, pop culture referencing animated movies with as many celebrities as possible. (Don’t believe me? Ice Age, Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Rio, Turbo.) None of them are good. That’s something that helps me on top of this list. The more stuff you have at your disposal, the more accurately you can gauge something. (P.S. Mr. Peabody & Sherman comes out this weekend. Just FYI, totally unrelated of course. Not at all hinting anything about that movie. They’re just distributing though. DreamWorks is technically responsible for that. They’re more hit and miss with their films.)

Oh, and another thing to take into account, that I’ve sort of been dancing around but never put an official label on, that I guess could be a #5 — see if that director or studio has a stamp on that date. That is to say — the original release date for Shutter Island was the same weekend The Departed came out. Or, last year, Side Effects came out right around when Haywire came out in 2011. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but sometimes they’ll just put a director’s next movie out the same time their last movie came out. It’s just one of those subtle things. And of course, with a studio — Disney/Marvel now owns May Day until they don’t have a blockbuster to put out (pretty sure the one year they didn’t own it was when Star Trek jumped in there). I guess it’s more like another addendum to #1 more than anything.

So that’s everything. In case you’re not too overwhelmed, what I’m going to do now is post the system one last time, and then, starting tomorrow, we’re going to go, month by month through the year, and analyze every single weekend. We’re going to look, week by week, at what comes out that weekend, and come up with general ideas of what usually gets released during that time each year. And by doing this, when we get to the end of it all, and I post this year’s release calendar, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

Here’s the system:

How to Read a Hollywood Release

Given: A film’s release date (x).

And potentially also:

    • A logline.
    • The film’s star(s), director, writer, producer, and/or studio.
    • A poster and/or trailer (teaser or official).
    • Reviews, word of mouth, etc.

Taking x, and looking at:

  1. What other films are coming out the same weekend as x.
  2. If was pushed from a previous release date, or was always scheduled for that date.
  3. What genre is, and if it has (or had) any awards potential.

You will be able to figure out:

  • What the film’s “alleged” quality is.
    • (Alleged meaning, what the studio wants you to expect from the film.)
  • How much money the film is going to make.
  • How much money the studio expects it to make.
  • What the studio thinks the quality of the film is going to be.

And using that along with your own personal experiences and personal taste, you will, very quickly and accurately, be able to guess the actual objective quality of the film (objective being — what the majority opinion of the movie is), as well as what you are most likely going to think of it, within a single star. (This being based on my five star system, with half-star increments.)

Have you got it? I hope so, because tomorrow, we start putting this into practice.

Onward, Christian Slater.

One response

  1. This is a fantastic read. Nice observation about hearing about a “big” movie at least seven times before it comes out. I’m starting to notice the pattern now. I’ve been thinking about Hollywood release dates lately (after reading a book about blockbusters) and have been wondering: why doesn’t a studio release a “big” movie in the traditionally terrible months of January and February? There would be no competition, so presumably the film could sweep a decent box office. And Nic Cage is gold in everything he’s in.

    March 10, 2014 at 8:52 pm

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