Pacific Rim (2013)

Posted on February 5, 2014

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I’ve talked extensively the last few weeks about story structure and uses for action scenes (in movies). This week, I want to talk a bit about business, and how understanding genres and demographics can increase the success of a project, or explain why the project doesn’t do well.

Synopsis

There’s a portal to another dimension in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Giant monsters, that we dub Kaiju, invade. We build giant walking tanks called Jaegers to fight them.

That’s it. That’s the whole synopsis.

Short Version

Loved it.

Long Version

Pacific Rim cost just under $200 million US (estimated) to make. It made about one-third of that over its opening weekend, but did very well overseas.

Don’t get me wrong. Some great films have underperformed at the box office, including Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Financial performance is not the only measure of a film.

There are, however, basically two ways to get sequels made. The first is earning double (or more) than the budget over opening weekend. The other is to have someone powerful pin involvement in the project on sequels getting made. Which, I’m pretty sure, is how The Expendables 2 got the green light.

Generally speaking, I have enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s work. In particular, I liked The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, Mimic, and Hellboy. Hellboy 2 and Blade 2 were pretty good, as was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I know a lot of people loved Pan’s Labyrinth. I thought it was okay. I’m looking forward to The Strain TV series.

I say all that to give you an idea of my familiarity with his work. That way, when I say that del Toro tends to make movies that he would want to watch, you’ll understand that I speak from some expertise. The result of that is that he tends to make idiosyncratic movies that are not sculpted by business interest to draw the largest audience possible.

Marketing was not able to make up for this and sell the movie with anything other than special effects and action. That’s too bad. There are some solid emotional stories told here. There’s a father-daughter relationship between Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). There’s a love story between Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako. Raleigh has an emotional story arc dealing with his brother’s death. There’s a father-son story between Herc Hansen (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky). Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) has a strong character growth story.

So Guillermo del Toro and his co-writer, Travis Beacham, packed the story with human emotion. They worked from a primal motivation (survive/don’t get eaten). They made sure every character had a story arc. Between all the characters, there were at least nine things in Act 1 that needed to be made right in Act 3. In short, they checked off all the boxes.

So why wasn’t it more successful?

In 2013, we were just coming out of a long economic recession. We are all broke, our savings have been eaten up or were lost on the stock market, the rich are terrified that the masses will rise up and eat them, and many people are angry that the financiers whose risk-taking ruined the economy went unpunished in the US.

So it may have been a bit difficult to sell Pacific Rim to us, a heroic movie in which the bravery of individuals could save the world.

Another reason it may not have done well is that it is too late. The most coveted demographic group in Hollywood is 18-24 year old males. Most of them have never seen a kaiju movie, unless it was the 1998 Godzilla, with Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno, or was a recording of an old MST3K episode making fun of Gamera. They wouldn’t have seen enough Japanese giant monster movies to understand the pacing of Pacific Rim, or the visual gags that run throughout.

Part of why I loved Pacific Rim was because my wife and I love all those old Japanese monster movies. We’re looking forward to watching King Kong versus Godzilla on TV this weekend. So we understood the story-telling conventions and the visuals, and really enjoyed the result.

For example, there’s a scene in Pacific Rim where a bunch of helicopters carry a Jaeger to a battle area. It’s completely ridiculous and inefficient, and exactly the kind of thing done in Godzilla movies. It was perfect, but unless you’re a fan, it made no sense.

Why would males 18-24 go see Pacific Rim? Granted, there are some young people in the cast, but unless you watch FX or BBCA, you don’t know Charlie Hunnam, Charlie Day, or Burn Gorman.

There are women in the cast, but while there is love, there is no sex. Like it or not, sex sells, and there’s no denying that humans in that age range generally have a strong interest in sex.

Don’t get me wrong, okay? I’m not being ageist or sexist here. I’m just trying to figure out what would draw young men to the movies. The Fast and Furious franchise is pretty much a sausage-fest, but the women who are in the franchise are passionately in love with their men. Passion brings people to the movies, and Pacific Rim is a bit short on that.

Which reminds me – the other thing that gets young hetero men into movie theaters is young women. I don’t mean on screen. I mean in the theater seat next to the representative of the coveted demographic.

Unless the women are geeky about giant monster movies, they have no reason to come see this. Granted, Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba are hot right now, but they share screen time with a lot of other people, and they keep their shirts on.

Despite the solid storytelling that goes on, the marketing sold the special effects. In that sense, the low box office is a solid win. It says that special effects alone will not open a movie. You have to get the audience involved in the human story of your movie. Whether they realize it or not, young men respond to that. Young women do, too, and that solidifies your hold on the young men. It’s not rocket surgery. Hopefully someone in Hollywood is paying attention.

Conclusion

Pacific Rim grossed over $400 million US, worldwide, within three months of opening. Studios would normally need to see over double the film’s budget over the opening weekend to greenlight a sequel.

Guillermo del Toro has said that Legendary, the studio, greenlit a script for Pacific Rim 2. The next step is for him (writer and director), Travis Beacham, and Legendary to agree on a budget. PR2 might never happen, but we can cross our fingers and hope that it does.

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Posted in: Movies