When Is a Film a Success?

Numbers, Ratings, Impact... Heart?

“Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended. They’re not even made to be instantly liked. They’re just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them.”

Everyone loves The Shawshank Redemption, right?

Released in 1994, the film was showered with critical praise and nominated for seven Academy Awards. Today, it’s #1 on IMDB’s “Top Rated Movies” chart and has made The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. But it flopped at the box office.

The Shawshank Redemption realized $28 million in theatres, just barely breaking even against its $25 million budget.

The Shawshank Redemption | Columbia Pictures, 1994

Box Office Bombs

How about Orson Welle’s groundbreaking Citizen Kane? You can’t study filmmaking without referencing this 1941 classic, widely considered to be one of the best and most influential movies in history. Yet RKO Pictures lost roughly $160,000 on the picture, a not inconsiderable amount at the time.

The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Brazil, even David Fincher’s Fight Club… all of them tanked upon release. Some of my favorite films, including Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, also failed to find their footing in the cinema.

More recently, the highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049 – director Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – debuted to a tepid $32 million domestically. Its staggering $155 million budget was offset by a worldwide haul of $252 million, but the modest difference is a failure by blockbuster terms.

Incidentally, the original Blade Runner bombed, too.


Why did some films now loved by critics and audiences alike first flounder financially?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but there are many plausible theories. Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption, suspects that people didn’t want to see prestige actors in a downer of a movie. Citizen Kane’s dark subject matter and unique narrative style were compounded by William Randolph Hearst’s ban of the film in all of his newspapers and radio networks across the country. Brazil was re-edited and released to little fanfare, the ending of Fight Club was spoiled on national television, and when Blade Runner came out in 1982, theatres were already saturated with genre movies.

However, most interesting to me – and, perhaps, most relevant to indie filmmakers today, for reasons we’ll discuss – is the speculation surrounding Blade Runner 2049’s poor performance.

“It had the best [reviews] of my life,” Villeneuve shared. “I never had a movie welcomed like that… The thing I think is that, it was maybe because people were not familiar enough with the universe. And the fact the movie’s long.“ Even Ridley Scott agreed – “I would have taken out half an hour,” he said in an interview.

In other words, it’s possible that the popularity of the original was over-estimated. From a financial standpoint, greenlighting a big-budget sequel to a slow-burning, cerebral cult classic was a risky move. What I personally found to be a mesmerizing tone poem that meditates on what it means to be human, mainstream audiences found to be a boring, over-indulgent slog.

Warcraft | Universal Pictures, 2016

The Global Box Office Game: Can You Make a Movie Everybody Likes?

By and large, traditional Hollywood has become a risk-averse, franchise-driven machine.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, Star Wars, a plethora of sequelsStudio dollars are thrown at presold concepts as budgets continue to skyrocket, ballooned especially by the cost of promotion. While theatre attendance drops in the United States and rises around Asia, Russia, and Latin America, executives are looking for films with global appeal. Remember Warcraft? Described as “a dour mess”, the film tanked domestically. But it raked in $276 million overseas – $220 million of which came from China!

Hollywood is churning out more globally-minded films like Warcraft. As Consequence of Sound reports:

To use China as the most obvious case study, a number of major American releases have gone out of their way to not just present an American film to Chinese audiences, but to actively target them at Chinese audiences. Independence Day: Resurgence devotes an entire subplot to an ace pilot played by the popular actress Angelababy. Transformers: Age of Extinction sets its entire final act in Hong Kong and is rife with cameos from domestic stars and Chinese product placements… Iron Man 3 even went as far as shooting extra scenes for exclusive inclusion in the Chinese release.

Harmony Korine, director of Spring Breakers, pretty much sums it up: “Hollywood is run by accountants at this point.”

Granted, studios like Miramax and Fox Searchlight reinvented Hollywood in the 1990s by championing new directors and independent films, but the bubble burst around 2008, due in part to the economic downturn and widespread consolidation. And so we are where we are today, bludgeoned by big-budget, feverishly-advertised mainstream movies that are purpose-built to play in multiple markets. Rarely does Hollywood finance more nuanced, niche projects these days.

Why should it? The tentpole attractions are paying the bills.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a Hollywood blockbuster. Wonder Woman was one of my favorite films of 2017! It’s just disappointing when “the accountants” finance a franchise because it’s a franchise, with little regard for quality and to the exclusion of more idiosyncratic creative visions.

Of course, we as moviegoers are at least partly to blame for the current state of affairs. We vote with our wallets, and more of us voted for, say, the muddled mess of Suicide Squad than the thoughtful lyricism of Blade Runner 2049.

Blade Runner 2049 | Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing, 2017

Which is one reason why indie filmmakers and film lovers should be grateful for some of the disruptive forces in the industry today. For example, independent distribution company A24 is picking up and even producing more offbeat, bolder fare, including Moonlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. “I think what they’ve understood is there’s a sufficient number of people out there who want more challenging or different material,” director Alex Garland shared.

Streaming services, too, are helping to change the entertainment landscape. For example, Netflix – an internet-first company that’s upending the traditional Release Windows System – is behind Dee Rees’ recent acclaimed film Mudbound. In 2016, Amazon Studios distributed Manchester by the Sea, which went on to win two Academy Awards. Both companies are styling themselves as destinations for auteurs and already have a roster of content to prove it.

Consequently, there are alternative distribution avenues – and audiences – for films that don’t heed the current Hollywood formula. “With the exception of Star Wars, more people on Netflix watched Beasts of No Nation [a low-budget indie film and the company’s first feature] than any other movie in the world,” Ted Sarandos recently revealed.

In other words, independent distribution companies, streaming services, and internet platforms more generally are picking up Hollywood’s slack, keeping niche content alive. It’s an exciting, if turbulent, time.

Moonlight | A24, 2016

Good Films by Real Filmmakers

All of this leaves me wondering: what makes a movie “successful”? Is success determined by box office performance and home video sales? Critical reviews and social media chatter? Longterm cultural impact?

What’s the metric?

I found a possible answer in conversation with my girlfriend. We were debating what to watch, and I was trying to convince her to give Mother or A Ghost Story or The Red Turtle or something like that a chance – you know, arthouse cinema. But she wanted to watch How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (again). I hadn’t seen it, so I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes and said it had scored a 42%. She didn’t care. I asked her why not. “Because,” she said, “I like it.”

This got me thinking. Perhaps success has nothing to do with numbers and ratings. Maybe it’s more about individual “taste”.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese lends further perspective, reflecting on how cinema has changed in the past two decades. His insights are sobering. “When I was young, box office reports were confined to industry journals“, he writes. “Now, I’m afraid that they’ve become … everything”:

Box office is the undercurrent in almost all discussions of cinema, and frequently it’s more than just an undercurrent. The brutal judgmentalism that has made opening-weekend grosses into a bloodthirsty spectator sport seems to have encouraged an even more brutal approach to film reviewing. I’m talking about market research firms like Cinemascore, which started in the late ’70s, and online “aggregators” like Rotten Tomatoes, which have absolutely nothing to do with real film criticism. They rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack, a restaurant in a Zagat’s guide, or a household appliance in Consumer Reports. They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of film. The filmmaker is reduced to a content manufacturer and the viewer to an unadventurous consumer.


Good films by real filmmakers aren’t made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended. They’re not even made to be instantly liked. They’re just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them. And as anyone familiar with the history of movies knows all too well, there is a very long list of titles – The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo and Point Blank, to name just a few – that were rejected on first release and went on to become classics.

In an ideal world, a “real filmmaker” would make the movie that they want – nay, need – to see. That movie would resonate with people who share their individual taste. Thus, it naturally would find an audience, and (assuming that the budget’s proportional to the size of the audience) it would make money.

But we don’t live in an ideal world.

As Scorsese suggests, there is a difference between the movie business and “the creation or the intelligent viewing of film.” Not every movie is “a good film by a real filmmaker.” The industry sometimes prioritizes financial considerations over creative ones – artificially reverse engineering hits, producing for the zeitgeist, dumbing down, playing it safe – which can result in movies that are at best mediocre and at worst messy, misguided, and cynical. Even “real filmmakers” sometimes misfire.

Perhaps a film is a success when, quite simply, it connects with you in some way – when it inspires, challenges, entertains you. In my experience and as Scorsese suggests, movies have the best chance of doing this when they’re uniquely and sincerely made, whether inside or outside of the traditional studio system, regardless of budget.

Remember Harmony Korine’s summation? “Hollywood is run by accountants,” he said. But he continues: “And so anytime you speak with someone who’s not a pure accountant, is not a pencil pusher? It’s exciting. They had heart to them.”

So have heart! As an independent filmmaker, it’s what will distinguish you. Your passion and your vision, expressed uniquely and with a mastery of the craft, will guide the way.

 Michael Koehler, with

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