Thursday, May 22, 2014

And “Justice” for All?

The netwaves are all abuzz about yesterday’s reveal of the official title for the new Batman/Superman movie (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). My initial reaction is pedantic: the ‘v’ abbreviation for ‘versus’ is misused here, as its typical usage is for court cases (such as Brown v Board of Education), not combat. The standard for combat sports, which is probably the closest real-world analogue to this, is ‘vs’ (with or without a period). But that’s a supremely pedantic complaint—I just had to get it out of my system. :-)

More interesting is the speculation on the significance of the title. Mark Hughes posted over at Forbes about it, and while most of his comments are reasonable, this two-paragraph tidbit sticks out:

But the main title, Batman v Superman, is very important, and fans who are currently upset and complaining about the supposed implications of the order of names are not looking deeply enough at the matter, nor considering the true implications. Put simply, Batman is the one who is confrontational and instigates the battle in this story, and so he’s the one who is “versus” Superman here, not the other way around. It may seem like a minor distinction to some readers, but it’s really not. The ordering of those names says a lot about the nature of the story, and Batman is the antagonist and as the aggressor it makes perfect sense to name him first in this sort of title.  
That said, it is of course also true that putting Batman’s name first in the title serves certain marketing choices related to the simple fact of Batman’s popularity with the public at large. That said, keep in mind that having Batman’s name in the title anywhere, and having him appear in the film, is already accomplishing 99.99% of that purpose, so putting his name first won’t frankly go that much farther in adding to the buzz and hype surrounding him. It’s simply much more relevant in relation to his status in the story as the one instigating the confrontation. And the subtitle Dawn of Justice signifies the point that despite their initial differences brought about due to Batman’s antagonism toward Superman, in the end this is establishing the basis of their ultimate partnership, which thus subtle [sic] makes the point that Batman’s initial opposition to Superman will give way to support.
We have now crossed the line from reasonable opinion into fanwanking. There is no information available currently about the film, including Hughes’ own interview with director Zack Snyder, that supports this depth of analysis of a mere six words. The only element of these two paragraphs that has any degree of objective basis is the fact that having “Batman” in the title does the bulk of the film’s marketing right off the bat—but that’s Marketing 101. The rest of it is the same kind of BS that English majors get taught how to generate. (I can say that authoritatively, since I was at one point an English education major.) Wank, wank, wank.

(Not that his expectation of how the conflict is likely to play out is off base—it’s well-known among Justice League fans that Batman has a plan for taking down any fellow JL member, including Supes, if he feels he needs to. That’s just the kind of character he is.)

More significant is the shared release date for BvS and Captain America 3 of May 6, 2016, confirmed back in April. Prior to that announcement, the date was already on Marvel’s calendar for a Phase 3 release, but that could have been almost any Phase 3 title (except Ant-Man, which is confirmed for July 15, 2015). But now, the explosive success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, coupled with Robert Downey Jr. being contracted for two more Avengers films but no additional Iron Man titles after Iron Man 3, has catapulted the Star-Spangled Man into being Marvel’s number two MCU franchise, behind only the Avengers themselves, prompting Marvel’s bold move. There had been speculation that Warner Bros. would subsequently reschedule their film, and some expected that to be part of this announcement, but it didn't happen.

As I see it, keeping those two films on the same opening weekend is an inexcusably stupid move for both studios, and it doesn’t matter who picked the date first—both will lose. All that you need to conclude that is a basic understanding of movie-going habits, plus a little math.

Let’s accept the following as probably true: the average movie-goer sees only one film in a theater during a given weekend. (That’s not the same as saying the average movie-goer sees a film per week, by the way, since most people don’t go to the movies every single weekend.) There isn’t much hard data out there on this, but informal anecdotal surveys support the assumption. With both films opening the same date, targeting the same audience, it’s likely that most people who see one during opening weekend will not see the other during opening weekend.

If the two films opened on separate weekends, without a major competitor opening at the same time, each would be potentially able to maximize opening weekend audience—for each weekend, that film would be likely to be that weekend’s one film for the average movie-goer in the target audience. Opening without major competition gives each film its best shot at the highest possible opening weekend audience.

There is no support for the belief that having a similar film released on the same date will increase audience for either film—it doesn’t make anyone want to see the film if they didn’t want to previously. Typically, you get the opposite effect: because of that one-film-in-a-weekend principle, at least one of the films will almost certainly have fewer people see it opening weekend than otherwise would have, and it’s probable that both will. And once opening weekend has passed, the odds of a particular movie-goer seeing your film in a given weekend drop, especially in a packed summer schedule.

Even if the same total number of people see the film over its full run as would have if it opened alone, the studio still takes in less money from them than it would have if they had seen it opening weekend. The percent of ticket revenue that the theater pays back to the studio is highest during opening weekend, and typically drops by a set amount for each week past opening. So the studio may get, for example, 90% of the take for a film on opening weekend but only 80% on the second weekend, 70% on the third, and so on. The actual amount varies by studio, theater, and film.

(By the way, this system is an excellent reason to wait to see a film until after opening weekend if you want to help support a locally-owned theater, since the theater keeps more of the money the longer it’s been since opening. What makes this a difficult habit to get into is that most locally-owned theaters have a very small number of screens and so can’t often keep a particular film more than one or two weeks, meaning they’re stuck paying the highest percentage back to the studio on almost every ticket. It's no wonder that multimegaplexes keep growing and taking over the market—more screens means you can keep films around longer without giving up new releases, which ultimately means the theater averages more income per showing. At some point in the future, I may write up a breakdown of exactly how that works.)

By placing two big tentpoles head-to-head, the studios are each gambling that the other guy’s film will be the one that suffers. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal—after all, they’re still making a bundle, right?—but let’s reframe it in more personal terms. Suppose you are offered a lottery ticket for $50. The ticket has multiple levels of payout, including the possibility of winning nothing at all. The highest possible payout is $50—the same amount you would be paying for the ticket. Would you buy this lottery ticket?

If you have the slightest amount of intelligence, your answer will almost certainly be, “No.” You cannot win more money from this lottery ticket than you pay to get it, but you can definitely lose some or all of that amount. You have no potential gain, only potential loss. It’s a bet with no possible benefit to you. And yet, movie studios continually make what boils down to that exact same bet. There are no winners in this bet—everybody loses.

It’s debatable as to who leapt into this particular breach first—the date was already tagged for something in MCU Phase 3 when Warner Bros. pushed BvS to that date, but Marvel didn’t announce it would be CA3 until after the Warner Bros. announcement—but it’s Warner’s turn to blink. While it’s a bad bet for either studio, Marvel is on slightly solider ground, given their impressive track record for MCU releases going all the way back to the first Iron Man. (The closest thing to a flop in the MCU so far is the TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has had mediocre ratings since its premiere last fall but still managed to get renewed for a second season. All the theatrical MCU releases to date have been top grossers.)
This film is a big gamble for Warner Bros. anyway—Man of Steel didn’t do as well as they’d expected, and this is the first live-action Batman film without Christopher Nolan at the helm since Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin debacle—so they have much more to lose. If they have any hope of reaching a DC equivalent to the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, they need to being doing everything they can to maximize the chances of BvS doing well. And that means moving BvS to a different opening date.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Just Another Geek

Welcome! After several false starts, incomplete attempts, and near-disasters, Just Another Geek Who Talks Too Much is finally open for business for real. I've had some occasional test posts appear and disappear from here over the last few months as I've been trying to get things running (and trying to avoid having to use Blogger—an endeavor I have abandoned for the time being), but as of now, we are rolling!

So who am I? I'm Mark D. McKean, multimedia ├╝bergeek. Movies, television, books, music, science, high-tech, computers, Internet, history…if a person can geek out about it, there's a good chance I have at least a passing interest. My biggest geekeries are science fiction and fantasy, contemporary rock music, movies of all kinds, puzzlesmithery, and recreational mathematics, but there are few arenas touched by popular culture that I won't reference here at some point. The only things I'm actively avoiding here are religion and politics, except where they directly affect something geeky I'm talking about. If you want to get more of that, you'll need to visit one of my other sites, Ninety Degrees Widdershins and I Can Has Think?, both of which I intend to have operational within the next few days.

Aside from being an inveterate, incurable geek, I'm also heavily involved in running the Marcon Fantasy & Science Fiction Convention, held in Columbus, Ohio every year. Which happens to be part of why Just Another Geek has taken so long to get running: I help run Marcon's Programming Committee, and this year's convention starts in just a few days (May 9–11, to be specific). Needless to say, I've been busy getting things ready. Not only am I part of the Programming Team, I'm also going to be part of several panels and programs during the convention, including discussions about the film version of Ender's Game, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files book series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and J.J. Abrams' destruction of the Star Trek universe; a dramatized "trial" of Captain John J. Sheridan of the TV show Babylon 5; and my favorite event, the 13th Annual Buffy Sing-Along (which I started at Marcon 37 in 2002, the first Marcon after the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode "Once More, With Feeling" first aired in November 2001, and added a full cast to two years later), where I'll be playing the role of Spike for the six straight year.

So if you're going to be at Marcon, look for me and say hi! And stay tuned here for more geekiness…