You'd be hard-pressed to think of a less fun place to spend this past Monday morning than the executive suites of Warner Brothers Pictures. Last weekend the studio's Jack the Giant Slayer became Hollywood's latest high-profile misfire, earning a dismal $27 million on a budget reportedly in the neighborhood of $200 million, before marketing expenses.
Sooner or later, into the life of every entertainment executive some flops must fall. But coping with failure in a productive, healthy way is not an automatic instinct in a town where schadenfreude and finger-pointing are more popular than the Super Bowl — for every show-business executive must eventually face the day when he or she has to take the long walk down the studio corridor after their weekend disaster.
We spoke with three who have known those halls and witnessed many walks of shame close up, to find out what it is like in a studio's executive suite in the days after a very bad loss. The picture that emerges is of a town not generally geared toward learning from failure, but where that can, eventually, in fact occur.
Executives A and B, who spoke on condition of anonymity, have each worked in and around multiple studios in their decades of entertainment experience. Mike Medavoy was a cofounder of Orion Pictures and chairman of TriStar Pictures. He serves today as the CEO of Phoenix Pictures.
BuzzFeed: The flop game has changed in recent years thanks to tracking — the advance numbers every studio receives indicating public awareness of and enthusiasm for an upcoming release. Thanks to tracking, the flop game begins long before opening weekend.
Executive A: Because of tracking, everyone knows well in advance what's going to happen. As you approach the release, there is a lot of ass covering. The head of the studio doesn't want the head of the company to read in the paper for the first time that a disaster is coming up, so he's prepping him: what we're doing, how we're changing the campaign…
Mike Medavoy: The only thing tracking teaches you is that you're headed in the wrong direction, so you can make marketing changes. But If you're headed in the wrong direction and the other film opening that weekend is going to beat you 20 to 1 — if, say, you've made a bad decision to open on that date and the film isn't working — then there's nothing you can do. You just brace for the train wreck.
The Silent Treatment
BuzzFeed: What do your colleagues say to you the Monday after a big flop?
Mike Medavoy: I don't know that anyone gives you a condolence call. I think most people would rather hide under the bed than have to deal with it. They just hope the following week there's something else in the pipeline that can wipe this away.
Executive A: I remember one time we came back the Monday after a big flop and nobody talked about it. There was no analysis of what we can do better, what we could do different. We had our Monday meeting, and, the crazy thing in the room was, no one spoke about it.
Executive B: At a studio you get a lot of positive feedback on a hit. They call the first grosses into you 10 a.m. the first day a movie comes out. "Hey, man, we're doing better than this or that, it's got all kinds of potential to break out with this audience." But instead, when you have a flop, you get nothing. It's radio silence. You'll have made a movie with the same people who you generally talk to five times over the weekend and you'll realize you haven't talked to them since Monday.
Walk of Shame
Executive B: I can remember incredibly clearly one Monday morning, seeing two guys who worked on a film together [after the movie flopped]. It was the first time they'd seen each other, and they both just sort of looked away. It was an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable moment. But you can't avoid hearing about the flops now. It used to be just a story or two in the trades. Now with the web, it's crazy the number of stories out there every time a movie tanks.
Mike Medavoy: It gets harder when the stakes are higher. If you make a hundred million [dollar] movie that goes bust and the company can't afford that, then you're the guy who has to be worried. My feeling is that everybody has their own mechanism of protecting themselves against hate. Some have a terrible time, and some feel as though there's a better day coming along the way. Those who are really looking long-term are asking, "Is this going to cost me my job?" And then what they should be doing is figuring out "How do I learn from this?"
Executive A: If there's a crime and the community is outraged, the police feel incredible pressure to produce a culprit. And if some shady looking kid had been seen hanging around the park where a murder happened, no one is going to be looking too hard at the case when the cops turn him over. For any movie to do well or not, a whole bunch of variables have to work: you have to luck out with your release date – you don't want to come out right after Harry Potter. Are you marketing to the right audience, spending enough? Spending in the right places?
There are so many different elements, but that's at odds with everybody's desire to have a quick pithy reason why something didn't work. It's in everyone's interest for the finger to be pointed at one culprit. After John Carter flopped, all the daggers at Disney pointed at [marketing executive] MT Carney, who was new to the studio and didn't have a lot of friends there, as if the decision to change the film's name was a 90 million dollar error. Once a person is stuck holding the bag, you can feel the room backing away.
Mike Medavoy: I've seen both kinds of reactions. Sometimes people learn from their mistakes and try to understand. Some people, if something doesn't work, they just get angry at everyone around. And that's their prerogative.
Equipped for Failure
Executive A: I know of one place where I saw them go through a major flop, and they very quickly said, OK, what's next, and were ready to move on and not dwell in the sense of failure. This was a place with enough stability in the executive branch that people weren't afraid that one movie would cause the management to fire everyone. At another studio, things were so volatile, there were so many regime changes that you felt one bad movie could result in something drastic happening.
The Search for Meaning
Mike Medavoy: I think once you made a decision to make a movie, you're basically stuck with that decision. You can rationalize anything, but at the end of the day, somebody takes the lesson that comes out of this. And that to me is the major issue. Everybody reacts to their misfortunes and problems in different ways, and everyone tries to learn from the experience. And if you're smart, you look at what really matters and the big lessons, otherwise you can go around saying, westerns don't work, musicals doing work, movies about a guy who uses a movie to get people out of Iran doesn't work, a movie about boxing doesn't work.
Executive B: There's a reason it's called Monday Morning Quarterbacking. You try not to, but you start fighting the next war based on the last war. You say, we can't make PG-13 movies, or whatever explanation you've got for why you failed. But that fades as time goes on.
Mike Medavoy: What did you learn? Are you walking away smarter? At the end of the day you've got a lot of people who are depending on these decisions, and a lot of people who are in part responsible for the decision to make the movie, the amount of money they spend, the money the movie makes.