Why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Isn’t A Runaway Hit

Yeah, that date was real.  It was a fourth push-back date I believe, and there is a teaser poster that mocks the much-delayed film.  In the meantime, Chris Hemsworth became a movie star in Thor, and co-writer Joss Whedon is directing him in the upcoming Avengers.  However, when they set out to make the movie, it was a leap of faith on behalf of UA/MGM, who are now only remembered for their bankruptcy trouble and inability to get enough money together to get it released.  When Lionsgate found it under their wing, they did what they do best, effectively advertise the film, and put it in enough theaters to make a good weekend.  It begs the question, why is everyone so up in arms the film isn’t doing better?  I guess the problem has become found footage movies, which are a PG-13 phenomena, and that PG-13 money difference is all the difference in the world.  Horror bloggers and fans across the country are consistently happy with the film, but they’re all baffled as to how it could do worse than The Three Stooges.  It’s no big mystery, if you examine the facts, not feelings, regarding horror fans.

Horror fans are the most loyal, and here’s the misleading part, vocal, fans in the movie world.  Like fans of metal music, they are a dedicated bunch, and often easy to spot.  They have large collections and mine the internet looking for new movies they haven’t seen.  They have been reading about The Cabin in the Woods for 3 years, and when a date was announced, they got excited and started to tell everyone they know, “See The Cabin in the Woods“.  All well and good, but if we’re comparing to things like Paranormal Activity (the most pointed to film in the articles I read) well, we’re comparing much different things.   Walking out of the movie, I still heard some reactions at the 10:30 pm showing Saturday night.  Note that the smallish theater (120-140 seats) was 2/3 full, but afterward I still heard “I just paid $9 to see that shit?  I can’t believe it.”  It made me smirk, and chuckle to myself, because this crowd was not the intended audience.  These are buzz films, and found footage is a phenomenon among the tech generation, responsible for grosses that don’t typically come with R rated horror films.  The Devil Inside took a steep drop after first weekend word of mouth got out, and it hit a sharp decrease.  Unfortunately for original horror, the positive word of mouth that does get out is from this circle of horror fans, who are really only read by horror fans.  It’s not a bad thing, but at a certain point, it becomes preaching to the choir.  We’re all well aware there are great original ideas out there, Ti West has proven that the last few films, the problem is, the audience for these films, although vocal, is still limited in the grand landscape of cinema options.

This is why Magnet and Magnolia (different branches of the same company) and IFC have been doing so well with genre fare lately, they know their audience is technologically inclined, and they offer a bunch of different ways to watch their films before they hit theaters.  They also know this audience is limited, and a few people might order Outrage on a Friday night having no clue what they’re getting into, but for the most part, they don’t need to advertise a lot, because the films they release are the type that are sought out by their fanbase.  So why did The Cabin in the Woods only pull in $14.9 million its opening weekend?  Because that’s how large the fanbase for that type of film really is.  This week, the film took a 45% drop, despite strong word of mouth.  The problem is, everyone that’s really going to go spend their dollars on a horror movie in theaters has typically done it by the 3rd week, or they’re waiting for video.  It might break the hearts of some nostalgic folk, but economically (especially with a moderate budget of $25 million, plus Lionsgate‘s typical $20 million campaign for wide releases) it would have been easier and more cost effective to release the film on iTunes, Amazon, every VOD outlet that gets Magnet releases, and then put it in 200 theaters across the country in a few weeks.

Horror fans (myself included) like that old theatrical experience, the problem is becoming, there aren’t enough of them able to do so for companies to give them the opportunity in a theater, because it’s often not worth the risk.  Horror movies are bullet proof on home video and VOD rentals, so many companies are making the economic choice to keep options limited.  I order nearly every Magnet Releasing film on demand, to review for the site, and because they’re often the films I anticipate the most.  My taste is perfectly met by their releases, with few disappointments.  They  release films like God Bless America in limited theaters, but where I live, it’s not a place that people will go see an extreme film like that, and although there is a younger crowd that would, it costs a lot of advertising money to get it here, with minimal return.  Even the people that would love the film count on it not being near them, so they don’t seek anything out, only to complain that there is nothing good at the theater.

The days of the theaters being filled with genre specific fare that the horror audience loves are sadly gone.  The personality type that used to go to the theaters to see it now stays home, waiting for video, or ordering VOD from their preferred outlet.  It’s a wonder that more talk isn’t made about the money behind video and VOD platforms.  Everyone analyzes the weekend box office numbers with a microscope, yet rarely are foreign grosses talked about, and sometimes both can easily out-gross the domestic theatrical release.  So with $35 million dollars, the production budget is recouped, and some to go towards Lionsgate‘s advertising and acquisition fees.  Once the movie his VOD and BluRay/DVD, it will gross at least $35 million over the next 3 years, and on paper, the film can be considered a success.

So no, it’s not a Paranormal Activity $100 million opening weekend, nor is it even the $26 million for Rob Zombie‘s Halloween remake, but those films have different crowds.  Horror fans, like most people that fixate on a specific sect of entertainment, want others to share their sophisticated taste.  Unfortunately, the crowds that go to movies in theaters wouldn’t understand or like Before the Mask:  The Return of Leslie Vernon, that’s why it can’t get funding.  I’m confident it will, since they’re going straight to their dedicated fans for support, but unfortunately, it’s still going to be a long road.  I know Scott Glosserman is determined, so it’s only a matter of time before the film happens, but unfortunately, I understand why it’s so tough.

Horror’s built in fanbase makes those home video numbers jump, and a film beloved by the community will ultimately do alright for itself, if it’s smart/funny/gory/crazy enough.  Word of mouth for films like The Taint and A Serbian Film made them hits among the horror community, but no one else.  The simple fact becomes, that limited audience will never grow to levels like it did in the late 70’s and early 80’s, where general audiences were seeing horror films because slashers were a novelty.  The problem is, the new phenomenon, found footage, isn’t to every horror fan’s liking, especially not the more vocal ones, and the trouble is, they just don’t realize that these people are part of their audience.  They might be gawking morons, but when they pay to see Paranormal Activity 4 they are voting with their dollar what they want to see.  Classic horror fans may not like to consider these people true horror fans, but the thing is, they are much larger than the small crowd that aspires to quality with every film.  These are the people watching I Saw the Devil and Martyrs on Blu Ray, neither of which got a wide release in the US, but both of which are continuing to do well on video.

What does all this mean for the future?  One, it means yes, quality films will be few and far between as they always have.  The problem isn’t the films.  Hatchet has done well enough to warrant 2 sequels, yet it didn’t really make much in the few theaters it was released to.  The home video busted the franchise wide open.  Yes, I’m sure more people would have loved to see Hatchet on a big screen, but that’s what the New Beverly Cinema is for.  The safer bet was to put it on DVD, and unfortunately for fans that wanted to see it in theaters, even Hatchet 2 didn’t do as well financially as they had expected.  Now, they were hindered by the unrated nature of the film, limiting their release even further,  but at this point, it’s to be expected.

You might see 50 articles about a movie being pulled from theaters, or not getting the release it was going to, but the problem is, there just aren’t enough of these people to make studios interested, which is the easiest way to get a theatrical release.  More films are doing the roadshow approach, independently booking a tour and going city to city with the movie, like Chillerama and Red State, although those films had established directors behind them.  Independent films can do this, but it’s costly and stressful, even for a successful run.  Money can be made, but it’s not the same as the studio profit because they have advertising deals in place, they just need your content to fill their release schedule.  The industry as a whole is changing, and unfortunately for die hard horror fans, the theatrical experience is changing for horror faster than other genres it seems.

The best way to vote is still with your dollar, but spending it later for home viewing is taking away the option of seeing it in a theater, and I see a lot of people complaining, but I always ask myself, how many of these people are actually driving out of their way to see Hatchet 2?  100?  200?  On 100 screens?  The numbers just don’t compare with the amount of people that are choosing to watch at home under their own time constraints.  The piracy argument is absolute bullshit for the same reason, but that’s another discussion for another day.  The Three Stooges is based on a 75 year old property that has always been beloved, and is rated PG on 1,000 more screens than The Cabin in the Woods, that’s how it has out-grossed a horror movie.  It’s aimed at a wide audience, and despite some critics not liking it, Stooges fans have voiced their support of the film.  To a much bigger audience, no doubt.

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