Thursday, November 10, 2016

BOX OFFICE: Gant Rule in 2016

A definition of 'the Gant Rule'; testing it out with the summer 2016 UK/US box office; why is this so profoundly significant for understanding the British cinema market; how satirical cartoon Curtisland illustrates this; why does it not always work (including Bridget Jones example).

I was surprised just now to find that 'the Gant Rule' doesn't bring up many relevant hits ... until the phrase 'box office' is added to the search.

Lets have a fresh look at this...

Box office analyst Charles Gant (who has a weekly Guardian column, but whose writing appears in many other publications worldwide) has long argued that a typical transatlantic hit (a success in both the UK and US markets) will make ten times as much in the US ($ figures) as in the UK (unadjusted £ figures).

In short, for a UK/US hit, UK £box office x10 roughly = US $box office
*it is highly advisable to put such terms in '' to help denote them as technical terms; the media world is so vast and complex, no single examiner will be familiar with every conceivable term

Is he right? Usually, yes!

I have blogged on this a few times...
Use the Gant Rule tag to find previous posts - or simply make your own comparisons with films' UK/US box office!

 Captain America: Civil War + The Secret Life of Pets examples
Using figures from his ScreenDaily column, Gant looked at the 2016 summer box office on both sides of the Atlantic. Jump straight to the number one hit and you'll see a prime example of the Gant Rule in effect: Captain America: Civil War took £37m in the UK and $407m in the US. That's precisely x11 the UK figure - pretty accurate forecasting there!

Lets take another example: The Secret Life of Pets: £33m v $327m, almost exactly x10!

I would argue that if you don't grasp the Gant Rule you can't understand the central dynamics of the British film industry.

The production choices made by the UK's most commercially successful film production company, Working Title, are heavily influenced by this huge disparity in typical potential box office.

They may be a British company (albeit majority owned by NBC-Universal, the US big six conglomerate giant) making mostly British films (they have made high profile 'American' movies such as the $100m tentpole flick Green Zone), but they usually do so with one eye on the American market. That impacts on their decision making on...
  • BUDGET - usually not only higher than other UK rivals but actually higher than almost any film will make back from the UK box office in any given year. That means they MUST gain international distribution to turn a profit, especially in the world's leading film market (China looks set to seize that crown, but it remains the US for now)

Mullan + Colman, great actors but lacking star appeal
  • CAST - very few British stars have significant international appeal; to 'open a movie' (ie, to lead a successful marketing campaign) in international markets spanning Asian, non-English European, South American etc territories requires American, A-list stars. As they can often demand salaries of $20m or more (and/or negotiate a share of box office take: 'points'), usually that means a significant budget. Hugh Grant will have received a higher payment from some of his WT films than the entire budget of most Warp productions, with Rene Zellweger, an American star, banking more again. Thus we get the English Bridget Jones played by Texan Zellweger. Compare that to the cast listing of This is England or Tyrannosaur!

A typical Warp working-class protagonist
  • CHARACTERS - Social class and regional identity are key; just look at the very different fates of the very, very similar films Mickybo and Me and Son of Rambow: the one with working-class Northern Irish characters (and thus accents) failed to get a wide UK release, never mind internationally. That was a flop for WT2, WT's former low budget arm, and it helps explain why they largely stopped making movies like their debut production, My Beautiful Laundrette, with two unknown leads and a working-class skinhead as co-lead. Although his time is passing, Hugh Grant (maybe now Eddie Redmayne?) is emblematic of the WT approach: posh (middle- or upper-class), white, southern English - a familiar stereotype not just to international audiences but also UK audiences. Compare Grant's stuttering southern English fop with Peter Mullan's fierce lead in Tyrannosaur!
  • SETTING + REPRESENTATION - WT set most of their British films in London and/or the Southern England countryside. Northerners, Midlanders and Celts (Scots, N. Irish, Welsh) tend to be represented (if at all) as a joke: Spike in Notting Hill, the indicpherable Scottish matron in Wild Child. Just look at the opening of BJD: quaint English village, red telephone box, detached houses with beautifully tended gardens ... cutting to her London pad. The Midlands movies of Shane Meadows present a very different country; the very title of This is England is like an angry riposte to the Richard Curtis vision.

  • GENRE - WT have worked in many genres, but rom-coms, heritage/costume/period dramas, children's, and war/action movies are amongst their most notable genres, all with solid box office credentials. Warp, by contrast, whilst also dipping into many genres, generally include at least an element of social realism in their output (and have produced a lot of low budget horrors).

A short way of summing all this up is to simply watch the BBC satirical cartoon (from Monkey Dust), Curtisland (NB: features a suggestive ending).

You can find it here.

In a nutshell: localisation.

I have addressed this point before, using the Bridget Jones franchise and others as examples; below I'll focus on the current BJBaby and 2015 Legend films as examples, both from Working Title.
Gant is primarily thinking of US-produced hits.

If you look again at the top 20 summer 2016 UK box office listing ... you'll see that those 20 hits are all at least in part US productions. Such is the utter dominance of the big six that most major hits in the UK market, in common with almost every other global cinema market, are American in origin. Some countries, such as France and China (the UK did until free market zealot Thatcher binned it in the 80s), operate quotas, limiting the number or proportion of US films in cinemas and/or setting a minimum requirement for domestic productions (linked to language in many cases).

Without a quota system, the US big six dominate foreign markets such as Britain's.

Even here we do see exceptions. Currently, the third Bridget Jones franchise flick is the biggest hit of 2016 in the UK, and has broken the record for the biggest rom-com ever here (only if figures are non-inflation adjusted). It has enjoyed relative global success:
Bridget Jones’s Baby remains the no 1 film across the world for the second week running, making $21.9m from 47 territories. This is despite its continued disappointing run in the US, which accounted for just $4.5m, and where it retained fourth place. In the UK it has currently taken nearly $30m, just shy of its entire production budget.
The budget is sufficiently high by UK standards to demand international success. It is also just below the level ($35m) at which WT have to seek formal permission from parent company NBC-U to produce a film project.

Compare the UK and US returns, which are sharply contrasting:
Catherine Shoard's US box office analysis, quoted below
Bridget Jones’s Baby experienced a difficult labour in the US this weekend, taking just $8m and landing third in the charts, despite a wide release. But across the Atlantic, the birth of the third movie in the series was far smoother, with the movie opening at No 1 in 24 countries and making $30m from 38 territories, including $11m in the UK.

That figure marks a best-ever weekend total for Working Title, the studio behind the film, as well as a record take for a romantic comedy. Australia followed with $4.2m; the film also made nearly half that figure in Spain.

The film has already made back its $35m budget; plans for another sequel look yet more secure.
The franchise has consistently over-performed in the UK compared to the US. If the movie switched location from London to the US, so ditching the Texan lead's English accent, its a fairly safe bet that the Gant Rule would be back in business. As it is, BJB is sufficiently localised to be much more warmly received at the UK box office, a trend visible from the opening of the original film, with its turkey curry reference that bewildered Miramax's American test screening audience.
The BoxOfficeMojo figures above indicate a shift from the norm for US-backed hits; 50% domestic (ie, US market/box office) share was typical until about a decade ago - now, with the rise of China especially, thats 40% and falling fast, but still usually the dominant single entry. In this case, with wide international distribution through its conglomerate parent company (so, vertical integration), you can see that the UK market is the dominant one:

Only 4 territories show 8-figure returns:
  • Australia $13m
  • France $14m
  • US $24m
  • UK $60m
Legend is another great counter-example, also a Working Title. The problem for WT here was not just a UK setting, but more specifically the working-class characters and accents:
Like BJB, Legend (2015) gained wide international distribution, but 3/4 of its global take came from the UK box office ($28m of $41m). It lacked American stars to give it true crossover potential, and the accent, plus the historical characters lack of global familiarity (unlike the Elizabeth franchise; kings and queens are an easy win) proved box office cyanide as opposed to gold dust.

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