May the Force Be With Your Sequels

In 2015, only two of the top ten highest-grossing movies in the U.S., (according to Box Office Mojo), had advertising budgets that ranked in the top ten. Based on Kantar Media’s Adscope Advance data, Jurassic World and Furious 7 were #9 and #4 when it came to ad spend. Meanwhile, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was by far the top grossing movie of 2015, earning over $750MM domestic box office revenue in just a few short weeks. But while the Force was strong with movie goers it was much weaker when it came to ad spend. In 2015 Disney spent an estimated $29MM advertising Star Wars: The Force Awakens across all media monitored by Kantar Media. This amount of activity ranks Star Wars at just 38th in terms of motion picture advertising budgets for 2015. Why the low advertising budget?

The Force Is Strong In Sequels

First, Star Wars has been able to benefit from massive amounts of earned media exposure, in the form of press and blog mentions as well as social media posts. It also received a huge amount of added promotion through ads that leveraged the Star Wars brand for other types of products. As seen in our recent blog post, the top 10 co-branded advertisers alone spent over $56 million on ads with Star Wars themes last year. This additional co-marketing support helped promote the movie itself while bolstering Disney’s bottom line.

But second, the real force is clearly a strong movie franchise. Indeed, eight of the top ten highest-grossing US movies were either a sequel, remake or plot extension. When Disney bought Star Wars they bought the immense name recognition that came along with the ‘brand’; this afforded them a great deal of savings when it came to promoting the movie itself. When you compare 2015 domestic revenue vs. 2015 advertising dollars significant savings for sequels can be seen across the board in 2015.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens returned $25.4 in domestic revenue for every $1 spent on advertising; Jurassic World fared second-best, returning $15.8 in domestic revenue for every $1 spent on advertising.

Movie Revenue 2015

While studios had a large amount of success promoting sequels the same cannot be said when it comes to promoting original (non-sequel) movies.

Within the top ten motion picture advertising budgets for in 2015 four films had advertising budgets that were within $10MM of their estimated domestic box office revenue; two of those films had an advertising budget that exceeded their domestic box office revenue: Entourage and Run all Night. Excluding the aforementioned sequels Jurassic Word and Furious 7 the clear winners within the top ten advertising budgets were the sequels Mission Impossible Rogue Nation and Mad Max Fury Road as well as the original San Andreas which returned $5, $3 and $4, respectively, in domestic box office revenue for every advertising dollar spent.

Quality still counts

Quality – at least as measured by critical acclaim – is another important driver for box office success. By and large, all of the top ten highest-grossing films were very well received by critics. All of the movies had a Tomatometer (a score developed by Rotten Tomatoes based on national critics’ reviews) score above 55%, and eight had a Tomatometer score above 70%.

Meanwhile, from a critical standpoint movies in the top ten advertising budgets for in 2015 were a mixed bag. Four out of these ten movies had a Tomatometer score below 55%: Entourage and Jupiter Ascending received very low Tomatometer scores, 32% and 26% accordingly, and performed poorly at the box office. The lone exception is Get Hard, which received a 29% Tomatometer score but turned in a respectable $90MM at the box office. Clearly ad budgets alone cannot compensate for a lackluster film in most cases.

Conversely, Warner Brothers, knew they had a gem on their hands with the extremely well reviewed (97% Tomatometer score) Max Mad Fury Road, promoted it heavily and was able to push it into the mainstream with over $150MM in domestic box office revenue. The last movie in the franchise, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, debuted back in 1985, making it a much older franchise than most of the others in the top ten, and the series was never a phenomenon on the level of Star Wars. In this case, savvy promotion combined with a well-executed, familiar premise clearly led to box office success.

However, the combination of good reviews and ad dollars still isn’t always enough. Run all Night was relatively well reviewed by critics, receiving a 61% Tomatometer score, and was well-advertised by the studio, ranking 7th in terms of total advertising budgets for 2015. Yet it posted a domestic box office that was actually lower than its total advertising budget.

While there are many factors that contribute to the overall success of a movie (press support, release time, competitive activity, etc.) from an advertising standpoint the trend is pretty clear: In 2015 studios got a larger return in their advertising investment when promoting sequels. It clearly takes a lot more dollars to create an empire than it does to promote an existing one. 

Star Wars Revenue




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