Peter Berg on KCRW’s The Business

Director Peter Berg on the set of his latest film Battleship.

One of the movie podcasts that I listen to is KCRW’s The Business. It’s predominantly an interview show where host Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter interviews actors, directors, producers, and creators “about the business of show business. It goes beyond the glitz and glamour to the who, what, why and how of making movies and TV.” In honor of RIMPAC 2012 starting last week, I wanted to look at a recent episode of The Business where director Peter Berg was on the show and talked about some of the fallout on his latest film Battleship.

Battleship as you may recall, did not do well here in the United States and currently has only brought in about $63 million. However, Battleship’s silver lining is that it made $239 million overseas for a combined total of about $300 million. Not bad, though not great when you consider the budget for Battleship was $209 million.

Number crunching aside, what I found really interesting about Berg’s interview is how calculating and “assembly-line” like making Hollywood blockbusters are. Schedules are locked in, release dates are locked in, and everything along the way needs to contribute in some way to making sure the film comes out on time. If not, money could be lost on a film as millions of dollars are at stake.

“We sunk your Battleship.” No, not The Avengers . . . aliens.

Though Berg never shies away from the fact that Battleship did have its share of problems and obstacles that needed to be overcome, his major conceit is that the film had a bad release date:

Battleship did under perform domestically, but none of us saw the nuclear bomb that Avengers was going to be . . . if you look at the history of the Marvel films, if you look at Iron Man you look at Thor, if you go talk to the people that predict it the people in Hollywood who, all they do is study tracking, read the tea leaves; everyone thought, everyone in the business thought that Avengers would open to $80 million, maybe $85, would drop off 65% second weekend, another 60% the third weekend so that we felt by the time that the third weekend came . . . [Avengers didn’t follow that and just went] up and up and up. And then it opens to the largest weekend in film, north of $200 million, and its third weekend when we come out it makes $62 million dollars.

While being beaten down by The Avengers is exactly what happened, there are definitely other reasons why Battleship didn’t do too well–first and foremost being, the movie was about frigging aliens. Getting people to buy in to an adaptation of a board game such as Battleship was definitely a big enough challenge to begin with, but when it was announced that the antagonists of the film were aliens . . . that in my opinion, turned the movie from something curious, into something preposterous (and not in a good way). As much as I liked the film (3.5/5 stars, Red Band Redux), it definitely was no Avengers killer–something that a better movie would have been able to do.

Peter Berg with lead actor Taylor Kitsch.

Putting the premise of the movie aside, I do think Berg is onto something when he talks about releasing the film internationally three weeks before its domestic debut, especially in China where he thinks some money was left on the table:

The poor box office we incurred domestically from my mind was primarily the result of a bad release schedule. If you look, we made quite a bit of money internationally, it would have made a lot more, it underperformed by about $40 million in China because nobody realized James Cameron was bringing Titanic 3D a week before us. That was a monster hit. When I was in China doing press for Battleship Chinese journalists were crazy looking at me like “Titanic 3D?” Titanic 3D . . . that’s an issue? “Oh yes.” [The Chinese] never got to see it the first time, they’re crazy about 3D films; so if we had come out and there were a lot of reasons why we couldn’t pull it ahead domestically; but if we had come out 3 weeks ahead of Avengers [in the US like we did internationally] it would have been a different story.

On why Battleship couldn’t follow it’s international release strategy:

It gets really complicated. We had so many [commercial] tie-ins with companies like Subway, Coke, Cisco; they had all committed a ton of money, they had a media strategy that was tied in to a release date that was three weeks after Avengers; and it just became a real pain in the but to move it.

As always, marketing seems to always play a big role in movies . . . sometimes to the detriment of a film. But would a different release date (something before Avengers in April or a few weeks later in June) have helped? Maybe, but it’s really hard to say. For whatever reason, Americans do tend to frequent the cineplex more in summer than other time of the year so unless you have a surefire hit (à la The Hunger Games), releasing before summer is a calculated risk. On the other side of that if you release later in summer, you still have to contend with the other summer movies.

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The scariest part of the interview though, came when Berg was asked about what he thought was going on with studio blockbusters that have been running into problems as of late and have been pushing their release dates back (GI Joe: Retaliation, World War Z):

I think there’s a lot of pressure on studios to take these big swings and have these big contacts and have home runs. And it’s not easy to make these films. And it’s not easy when you’re locked in to a release date and you’ve got a film that is going to be seen–all of [these big budget films] have huge visual effects components. And the reality is when you make these films the visual effects aren’t coming in till the very–sometimes, you’d be shocked at how last minute, maybe a week before a release you’re still sliding shots in, completed shots in. You don’t have the luxury of really knowing what you have often times till it’s too late.

He then goes on to talk about how with smaller films, dramas with just a few actors, a reshoot could cost just a couple of days for maybe $40,000 whereas a visual effect shot for something like Battleship could cost a couple of millions of dollars and take weeks to months to redo.

All scary thoughts when there’s a movie you want to see that’s not finished till the week before it comes out. And even then, just the decision to go with footage that you have–even though it may not be great footage or what’s best for your film; that’s gotta be tough for any filmmaker to swallow. For these big Hollywood movies though, that’s life. You have to make the release date or loose millions of dollars.

If you do have some time, I really encourage you to listen to the podcast to hear Berg talk about more in detail about the film. A lot of it might sound like he’s defending his film, but there are some good nuggets in there that are interesting to hear. You can find out more about KCRW’s The Business here and download this specific podcast episode here.

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