Why Jem and the Holograms bombed… and why it didn’t deserve to
Usually, when it comes to the box office, the big story on Monday is those movies that far exceed expectations, breaking box office records and showcasing how alive and thriving the theatrical moviegoing experience is.
And then there’s the case of Jem and the Holograms.
Universal Pictures attempted to bring another Hasbro property to the screen after 2012’s Battleship and 2014’s Ouija, and let’s just say that it didn’t quite go as planned.
Co-produced by Blumhouse Productions with Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun and directed by Jon Chu, who not only directed two Bieber docs but also the Hasbro Studios sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the movie opened in 2,413 theaters on Friday and after making less than $40,000 in previews on Thursday, it was obvious the movie wasn’t going to do very well. In fact, it ended up with $1.3 million for the weekend with a per-theater average of $539 per theater.
Let’s get some perspective on that number. If we figure that “Jem” screened in each of those theaters six times a day over three days, that’s less than $30 per screening, which is about the price of three or four tickets based on average ticket price. (In New York City, that’s basically the cost of two tickets.) Considering such a low number, there’s a good possibility there were screenings of Jem and the Holograms playing to completely empty theaters. I mean, no one wanted to see this movie or more likely, few people even knew that it existed.
Now mind you, this isn’t the case of a movie of a big superstar failing to bring in an audience, like for instance Bill Murray appearing in a badly misguided political comedy that had absolute no appeal to mass audiences. No, this was a once hot ‘80s property finally making its way to the big screen with a number of smart people behind the production and marketing of said movie. Heck, Blumhouse Productions may prove to be one of the most profitable production houses this year with movies made for miniscule production budgets that are often recouped opening weekend.
The first problem was calling the movie “Jem and the Holograms” in the first place. It immediately set-up expectations from everyone who saw, remembered, and in some cases, even loved, the original cartoon from Hasbro and Marvel. Jem and the Holograms is actually more of a rags-to-riches story like a modern A Star Is Born or (okay, this is a bad example) Mariah Carey’s Glitter in that it shows a talented singer being discovered and experiencing fame. That was mixed with a lot of fun explorations into how the internet contributes to fame and a mystery involving the lead character trying to solve a riddle left by her late father, which ended up creating quite a heart-warming subplot. The movie also had a great positive message for young women that they should ultimately be themselves, no matter how different they feel from others.
I’ve never seen the original cartoon and without knowing it and having certain expectations, I thought Jem and the Holograms was a perfectly fine, fun movie for girls and actually a pretty decent experience for mothers and daughters to experience together, so why didn’t Universal try to get the Mommy bloggers on board to help promote the movie? It’s an enormous network with a huge influence and the studios that have thrived, especially when it comes to family films, have made an effort to reach out to this internet sub-community to get them behind their movies.
That’s not to say that Universal isn’t good with family films, because they have the whole “Despicable Me” franchise and their other animated collaborations with Illumination Entertainment, and they really should know how to market this movie as a family film.
Instead, they hid it, basically not showing it to critics until it’s too late for any positive reviews to make a difference while also putting them on defense that the movie must be terrible for the studio to wait so long to show it to them. And when you have critics expecting a movie to be bad, you’re more than likely going to get bad reviews because they’re going in expecting a clunker. (There’s also the matter of most film critics these days being 30- to 60-year-old males, who aren’t the target audience for a movie like this, regardless if they were fans of the original show or not.)
It almost feels as if Universal maybe just doesn’t give a crap anymore. I mean, they’re having one of their best years in their 100-year plus history, having grossed billions of dollars worldwide even before the summer was over, and they still have a bunch of movies coming out later this year.
Even so, has anyone seen anything for the upcoming Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt movie By the Sea, coming out November 13? These are two of the biggest stars on the planet and them appearing in a movie together is huge, even if it’s just a small relationship drama. So far? Nothing. The Tom Hardy movie Legend was originally supposed to come out in early October and then right after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (and already opened in the UK), Universal pushed it back. Theoretically, both of these movies could be in the awards conversation, but instead they’re focusing on Steve Jobs and rightfully so, because it’s a great movie, one of the best of the year. But even THAT bombed this past weekend with just $7 million despite a lot of attention in select cities. (Don’t even get me STARTED on Crimson Peak if you know what’s good for ya.)
Universal has made so much money this year that surely they could throw some of it into promoting Jem and the Holograms. A few weeks before it opened, I Emailed my contact at Universal and asked if the movie was still coming out because I had literally seen nothing about it. Apparently, there was a junket but I don’t remember seeing any interviews or promotion or anything about this movie in the past few weeks. (I saw my very first television commercial on Thursday.)
Aubrey Peeples is really good in the movie and I’ve interviewed Stefanie Scott (for Insidious Chapter 3), so I know they would have been good for interviews, and Ryan Guzman should be a good draw for the film’s target audience of teen and tween girls. Oh and did anyone even mention the fact that the great Molly Ringwald of Pretty in Pink/16 Candles fame makes a return to the big screen in the movie? And Juliette Lewis is also quite funny as Jem’s A*R person, and who wouldn’t want to get them on their talk show to talk about the movie? It just seems like a lot of laziness in terms of marketing and publicity, and I guess Blumhouse was more focused on their latest and hopefully last “Paranormal Activity” to jump in and help out.
Jem and the Holograms only cost $5 million to make and with Universal spending little money to promote it, it should make that money back eventually, probably overseas, but having a movie open that badly is just plain embarrassing and even a studio that’s been doing as well as Universal has, doesn’t really have an excuse for fumbling this one as badly as it did. (I mean, the studio put more effort into promoting Seventh Son earlier this year and that got dumped on them by Legendary after sitting on the shelf for years!)
So what do we learn from this weekend? Quite a bit, actually, but the first thing is that if you name a movie after a popular property, then you have to do everything you can to create something that will appeal to that property’s fanbase. And if you’re not going to bother making a movie that will appeal to them, then you need to make sure to promote the movie enough to the audience that it would appeal to: young girls, so that they want to see it.
One thing I’ve learned writing about the box office for so long is that if there is no awareness, there is no business. People don’t go to see movies they don’t know about, so if the studio doesn’t put money and an effort into marketing and promoting the movie and making the general populace aware that the movie is opening, that movie doesn’t have a chance. If they then release it into thousands of theaters across the country expecting the name alone to get people to see it, then they’re basically going to end up with the empty theaters that Jem and the Holograms got… but probably didn’t deserve.