The Hollywood Reporter pulled in plenty of eyeballs recently with its headline that Wonder Woman is now the most resilient superhero movie of the last 15 years (meaning it has built off of its opening weekend in ways no superhero movie has since 2002’s Spider-Man). Naturally, I now have to respond with a thinkpiece attempting to place this in the larger context of industry trends and expanding on the lessons the industry needs to learn from this, undoubtedly bending my message around my own personal longing to see more female-led movies. Women, roar, in numbers too big to ignore, and all that.
But, honestly, we have a tendency to overthink these things. Why is Wonder Woman still playing in 3,000 theaters in North America at a time in its theatrical run when other superhero movies would be playing in half that number? The truth is sometimes simpler than we let on. We forget this in the age of media saturation advertising campaigns, but when it comes to producing hits movies the best path is as true now as it was in the pre-blockbuster age: Make something people like, and they’ll tell other people to go see it.
That’s also the most difficult path to take because making a good movie is hard work. So, that’s why Hollywood focuses so much on getting us out on opening weekend because if a movie makes enough in those first 3 days it will end up doing okay for itself even if no one actually seems to like it. This is all dates back to 1989’s Batman, as Tom Shone argued in Blockbuster:
And for a long, long, loooooooooooooooooooong time that’s how Hollywood has operated. They are in the business of manufacturing hits, not simply trying to make good movies which might, if they’re lucky, catch lightning in a bottle like Jaws, Back to the Future or E.T. and seemingly never leave theaters due to the astonishing word of mouth. There’s too much competition for our entertainment dollar to bother with that shit these days, and too many stakeholders to please to simply go forward with a “eh, let’s make a good movie, and hope for the best” mentality. These are now widgets which can be relied on to clear certain financial benchmarks in key fiscal quarters and feed into a global value-chain.
So, if you have to spend hundreds of millions in advertising just to make millions in ticket sale revenue then so be it. That’s the model. That’s why Sony just spent $140+ million to market Homecoming, the biggest advertising spend in franchise history. Every new movie has to be eventivized, things we all go see for a couple of weeks and then forget about until the next eventivized movie distracts us.
It’s not like Wonder Woman is immune to that. Although there was much speculation and criticism of WB’s marketing campaign, the studio has long maintained that it spent just as much in marketing as it would for any other movie of its size, and you could certainly find some Wonder Woman-branded products prior to the film’s release.
WB’s seemingly lackluster marketing campaign likely aided the movie, allowing it to be something more people could discover the old-fashioned way instead of having it shoved down their throat. And 2017 has been the year of the comeback of good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. It’s rarely a 1-to-1 where the best-reviewed movies of the year are also the ones which make the most money, but generally, those movies which have prospered this year have been well-reviewed and well-liked and those that haven’t weren’t (and then, of course, there are those movies like Fate of the Furious which make money no matter what). The box office has more of a meritocracy feel to it than usual. People are rejecting those movies like Transformers 5 whose extreme laziness betrays a barely concealed contempt for the audience, and we keep encountering movies which capture that old lightning in a bottle, leading to supercharged box office runs from the likes of Split, Get Out and now Wonder Woman.
Of course, context matters. You can’t control why people will like your movie. Had Wonder Woman come out a couple of years ago there’s no guarantee it would have done as well (ditto for Get Out). Certain movies arrive at just the right time in history and speak to a national or worldwide need in ways which were almost wholly unintentional, and that’s been Wonder Woman‘s experience, ticking off more progressive checkboxes than any major movie in recent memory and acting as the culmination of multiple societal and industry trends.
Patty Jenkins’ goal during the making of the movie was to simply produce a universally relatable story about an outsider going through just about every facet of the human experience and coming to a message of love. What she produced is not a perfect movie, but it is the perfect movie for right now. Its success should teach the rest of the industry plenty of lessons about female-led/crewed/directed/targeted blockbusters, but it’s also a reminder of a very old truth about movie hitmaking: If you make a good movie the people will come and tell their friends about it.
That doesn’t always happen right away, but certain good movies are lucky enough to find their audiences in theaters and make all the money they deserve to. Wonder Woman is now up to over $750m worldwide, and will soon pass Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to be the second highest-grossing film of the year at the domestic box office. It’s almost as if there had been years upon years of data showing that good, female-led movies were nearly guaranteed to become hits. That can’t be the case, though. What business would have gone on this long ignoring such overwhelming evidence?