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The Behavioural Economics of Blockbusters

Updated: May 19, 2023

By Aadesh Gupta, Economics Correspondent


The commercialisation of cinema is an issue that’s been debated several times, often by filmmakers themselves, who argue that Hollywood’s generic franchise entries continue to crowd out more meaningful works. But applying the concepts of behavioural economics reveals how film industries have confined themselves to a cycle of “irrational” consumption and avaricious marketing.


A recent example that comes to mind is the latest Fantastic Beasts sequel, which earned a global box office of over $400 million and ranks in the top ten biggest films of 2022. On the other hand, independent filmmaker Robert Eggers’ third directorial endeavour, The Northman, only brought in $69 million (IMDb, 2022).


Sure, another addition to the Harry Potter film franchise is undoubtedly going to attract more attention than an independent filmmaker’s Viking rendition of Hamlet. Eggers’ attempt to infuse his arthouse sensibilities into a blockbuster format simply can’t overcome the herding behaviour and habit formation of modern audiences. Moviegoing based solely on pop culture trends has become firmly ingrained in our social norms.


As a result of this urge towards familiar films and away from those that are seemingly strange, studios and movie theatre chains allocate budgets, advertising and screenings accordingly, which exacerbates the initial problem. In this case, my local Odeon handed almost all IMAX screenings to Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore and left The Northman with just half as many total screenings.


The manner in which these films are advertised can also affect the existing consumer biases. Poster design is one of the more overlooked areas in film, though its role in framing has a substantial impact.


Notice the three posters below. The two on the left are for The Northman and the one on the right is for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The far-left poster is stylistically minimalist compared to the others. Its crisp imagery is simple yet gripping. The other two posters employ the “floating heads” format, something big franchises use excessively. Muted colours have now replaced what was once sharp and enticing.

Poster Comparison – Sources: IMDb


To see The Northman abandon its potential for effective marketing and take on the most unremarkable trope in film poster design is dispiriting. Studios continue to approve such poster designs because the franchise name alone will bring the masses to the cinemas. The Northman doesn’t have this luxury. So this example is frustrating, because it demonstrates a clear attempt to abide by market trends which resulted in consumers ignoring the film.


Is this behaviour surprising? Not at all. Though it is indicative of the film industry’s current state.


To reduce films down to products using behavioural economics appears ironic when this article argues against such notions. Yet big studios do exactly that by functioning to maximise profits as opposed to advancing cinema as an art form.


However, cinephiles would agree that there are many commendable blockbusters. Newly released Top Gun: Maverick, having been praised by both audiences and critics alike, placed at the top of the 2022 worldwide box office with over $1.4 billion.


In spite of Tom Cruise’s stardom, to surpass the likes of Titanic, Infinity War and Black Panther at the domestic box office as a legacy sequel released 36 years after its predecessor is a staggering feat (IMDb, n.d.). Even Marvel’s Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, with all its tiresome fan speculation, was effortlessly outperformed.


Marvel has received plentiful criticism lately and rightly so. Their practice of churning out several films and shows in a short period of time suffocates the creativity within each one. VFX workers have also complained about the stress and underpayment that this money-grubbing methodology brings about (Asensi, 2022). The poor CGI and dull colour grading in Marvel’s films is not so shocking then. To overcome this apparent lack of ingenuity, Marvel brazenly utilises cameos and multiverse concepts as a gimmick to maintain their vast fan base.


A comparison between films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Top Gun: Maverick may at first seem futile, since both are big budget mainstream blockbusters structured using a standard formula for writing, filmmaking and marketing. However, Maverick’s riveting pace, practical action and strong emotional payoff sets it apart, allowing the audience to experience a true spectacle that’s not entirely metatextual like Marvel’s recent entries.


Of course, a certain degree of success is inevitable for a Top Gun sequel, but through positive reception and word of mouth, the regularity of film consumption has been momentarily shaken.


It’s also important to note that modern audiences are less familiar with the original Top Gun and the rest of 80s cinema. Hence, through Maverick’s popularity, the predecessor also garnered a sudden rise in viewership on streaming services (Spangler, 2022).


Top Gun: Maverick is not a deviation from behavioural economics conventions, but rather an extension of them. Consumers have noticed popularity shifts from one trend to another and reacted accordingly, so they don’t fall behind on what’s currently fashionable. There’s no radical change in Hollywood’s holistic structure, but Maverick’s startling success is perhaps a sign that audiences are growing tired of Marvel’s (and other franchises’) throwaway fast-food cinema.


With countless blockbusters releasing each year, consumers may start to paradoxically disrelish the excess of their choice, resulting in decision fatigue. Despite this, the likes of Marvel will probably continue to reign over the industry, but the revival of hope that certain blockbusters occasionally bring is reinvigorating. Artistic expression will still conflict with popular entertainment, but somewhere behind all of Hollywood’s plasticised productions, there still exists a desire for a cinema experience that’s genuinely moving and memorable.


 

References


IMDb, 2022. 2022 Worldwide Box Office. [Online] Available at: https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/world/?ref_=bo_nb_hm_tab [Accessed 26 September 2022].

IMDb, n.d. Top Lifetime Grosses. [Online] Available at: https://www.boxofficemojo.com/chart/top_lifetime_gross/ [Accessed 26 September 2022].

Spangler, T., 2022. Tom Cruise’s Original ‘Top Gun’ Blasts to Top of This Week’s Streaming Charts. [Online] Available at: https://variety.com/2022/digital/news/top-gun-ranking-most-popular-streaming-title-1235284305/ [Accessed 26 September 2022].

Asensi, R., 2022. Visual Effects Artists Complain About Marvel's Working Conditions. [Online] Available at: https://comicyears.com/pop-culture/visual-effects-artists/ [Accessed 31 January 2023].

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