When you’ve been working in the film business for a while, you develop an in-built turkey radar. It’s not always easy to detect a hit, but more often than not you can sense a flop coming from a mile away.
Sure, there are sleeper hits and movies which unexpectedly bomb, but follow these sure-fire signs of an incoming movie flop and you too will have earned the right to be all smug.
Bad (or no) buzz
Unfortunately, ‘buzz’ is one of the hardest things to obtain in production of a movie. It’s an invaluable resource if you happen to stumble upon it, but it’s unquantifiable and almost impossible to obtain falsely. Good buzz can make a movie but bad buzz can sink a film before it’s even launched. A recent tactic deployed by studios to manufacture good buzz is holding early screenings with less discerning audiences, and telling them to tweet their opinions.
Read more: Dark Phoenix could lose £98m
Even worse is no buzz. If it’s week of release, and no-one is talking about a blockbuster’s big launch, then you know it’s in trouble.
See: Mortal Engines, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Solo: A Star Wars Story
Official reviews held back until day of release
One of the great privileges of working in the press is the opportunity to see films early, before release, and for free. Studios lay on free screenings of their films for critics and press ahead of release under the tacit agreement that critics don’t publish their official reviews before a pre-agreed time and date - otherwise known in the industry as an embargo.
If the embargo lifts very close to release date or, in some cases, the actual day of release, you can guarantee the film is going be slated by critics. It’s presumably a bid by the studios to avoid “bad buzz” ahead of release, and secure a strong opening weekend, by keeping the agnostics on side until the last possible moment.
See: Hellboy, X-Men: Dark Phoenix
There are no press screenings
It’s a trick favoured by makers of low-budget horror films, faith-based films and hashed out sequels: refuse to screen the movie for critics in the hope that they won’t bother seeing the film at all, saving the studio from a review that’s likely to be scathing. This routine has been rumbled by many critics, so often distributors will arrange one solitary screening – but at a godless hour on a Monday morning.
Conversely, some studios go the opposite direction and coddle the critics in the hope they’ll go easy – so if you read tweets from a critic raving about the free pizza at their screening, don’t get your hopes up for the movie. If a film holds its premiere in a dreamy international location with press flown in first class... expect the worst.
See: Slenderman, Fifty Shades Freed, Hellboy
First, we must learn the difference between 'reshoots’ and 'pick-ups’. Pick-ups require select cast members to return to the set after shooting has locked to film brief inserts – perhaps snippets of exposition, or long shots to give a scene a sense of geography. Nothing essential, basically.
Read more: Why Dark Phoenix reshot its ending
Reshoots, on the other hand, generally require cast and crew get back on the horse to film entirely new scenes, usually to replace existing ones. It’s short-hand for 'We didn’t think this through’.
See: Fantastic Four, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Justice League. World War Z is a rare exception.
This is a particularly bad problem for sequels. The best strategy for releasing sequels to hit films is to get working on them as soon as the original starts making bank. Put the release date on the calendar, and whatever you do - don’t miss it.
The longer a film takes to come, the more its buzz starts to dissipate. Dark Phoenix missed its original release date of November 2018 by eight whole months. Regardless of its finished quality, if it had arrived in cinemas closer to X-Men: Apocalypse, the previous X-Men film, it probably would have enticed more agnostic fans to head to the cinema on opening weekend. It doesn’t bode well for 2020’s The New Mutants which will miss its original release date by a full two years.
January release date
If a blockbuster with a great cast and a huge budget is released in January or even worse, has its release date moved to January, then chances are the studios are burying it. It’s even termed “dump month” by Hollywood - the time of the year when they assume the public visit the cinema less and don’t have as much disposable income. January releases are also usually too late for Oscar consideration.
September (because it follows the lucrative ‘summer movie season’) is also a “dump month".
See: Welcome To Marwen (January 2019), The Front Runner (January 2019), The Predator (September, 2018)
From the producers of...
This is classic “clutching at straws” marketing. Producing a film is a monumental task with a lot of moving parts and it takes a lot to get a film into cinemas, that is indisputable. We mean no disrespect to all the hardworking producers out there, working hard to make a living.
Read more: Mortal Engines is the biggest flop of 2018
However producing a film is about lining up the best talent to make the picture, and making sure the money is in place so everyone gets paid on time. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee a level of quality, and it definitely shouldn’t be used in marketing. All this says - more often than not - is that the studio doesn’t have the confidence in its finished product to let it speak for itself.
See: Mortal Engines, Alita: Battle Angel
The trailer gives away far too much
If a studio knows it has a film that’s not likely to make too much of a splash, they’re more likely to leave it all on the floor when it comes to the marketing campaign. This means packing the trailers full of action sequences and juicy titbits in the hope that potential viewers will be suitably tantalised – even if it means they’ll be disappointed when they realise they’ve already seen all the good bits.
See: The Predator, Terminator Genisys
Quotes and star ratings attributed to… no one
It’s the desperate calling card of the movie no one loves – the final plea of a film that’ll do anything to get your attention. “Five stars – a masterpiece!” broadcasts the quote on the poster, except… it doesn’t tell you who said it. Possibly because no one actually did.
The DVD cover for famous Danny Dyer flop Run For Your Wife had two sets of four stars placed conveniently next to the title that were presumably just decoration, while a glowing poster quote was attributed not to The Guardian or Sight & Sound but a mysterious “Media Journalist”, who understandably asked to be left anonymous.
See: Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Gotti