I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.
The new ultra-low-budget Christian film Fireproof was made on a wing and prayer, but it still managed to take fourth in the box office derby a few weekends ago. It brought in almost $7 million and while that may not seem like a lot in Hollywood terms, it's pretty impressive when you consider that the number one movie that weekend opened on four times the number of screens. Sure Eagle Eye brought in five times as much as Fireproof, but it cost 170 times as much to make.
Fireproof is the story of a firefighter who turns to his faith to save his marriage. It was written and directed by two Christian pastors from Albany, Georgia, with a cast and crew largely made up of volunteers from their church.
With a grassroots marketing campaign targeting churches and other faith-based organizations, their $500,000 film has earned something like $16 million to date.
Now that's a great David and Goliath story in and of itself – tiny Christian movie beats godless Hollywood at its own game. But I bring it up because it's happening at a time when the studio goliath is backing away from making smaller films.
In 1989, a little company called Miramax released a little film called Sex, Lies and Videotape, made by an unknown writer and director named Steven Soderbergh. The movie cost something like three bucks to make and ended up bringing in almost $25 million. What a great business model! Tiny downside risk with serious upside potential. Four years after Sex, Lies & Videotape, Disney bought Miramax and ten years after that every studio had its own specialty division.
But so many players with such relatively deep pockets would alter the indie game Miramax helped created. Hopped up on the goofballs of big box-office returns from a whole bunch of low-cost movies like The Full Monty or The Brothers McMullen, the mini-major studios started to bid up the price of acquiring films. Then they got into actually financing films and not just buying them, and budgets started to bloat – just like what was happening with their bigger studio brothers. And the glut of films overall caused film marketing costs to skyrocket – it was spend, spend, spend or get lost in the shuffle. And while it's fine to throw a bundle of cash at marketing a blockbuster, what do you do with a $5 million movie competing in the same marketplace?
The best way smaller films had to get free exposure also started to go south. Harvey Weinstein of Miramax was a genius at getting Oscar attention for his movies and that translated into box-office bank. But the budgets for Oscar campaigns started to swell with the budgets of the movies themselves, and with diminishing returns. Because when all the movies nominated for Oscars are small, the audience for the Oscar telecast is small.
At some point, the specialty division business model started to break down. The bets were becoming just too big for the returns to justify their existence. And now, a number of the studios have shuttered their indie divisions, saying they'll still continue to handle smaller films, but within their existing structure. Uh huh.
Which brings us back to Fireproof. With all due respect to those who shepherded it from church to screen, its success was not in the filmmaking but in its appeal to a particular group and the great care in which it was marketed to that group.
And there's no reason why the studios couldn't take a hint from the Christians' game plan and go back to the first days of low-cost specialty films. And they should, because there's money there. And they should because the specialty divisions are great places to create relationships with new artists who could go on to make them big bucks. And they should because the films that come out of these divisions could help the studios atone for sins…like The Chipmunks.
I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org. You can podcast this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.