Don't Follow the Money, Follow the Context

Lauren Kornick

Analysis, Film Industry, Audiences

April 28, 2023

Don't Follow the Money, Follow the Context

What defines success? Is it a magic number of consumers, a place ahead of your competitors, or a certain percentage of support? A result that’s successful for one group can also describe failure for another group. So how can someone define success in their own lane? One word: Context. Context explains goals, actions, behaviors, results, outcomes and more for your target audience plan along with your competitors.

How does context define goals and victory? One example is the adaptive entertainment industry. With headlines boasting record-breaking opening weekends, millions of dollars in grossing, and number-one box office placements, everything can appear to be a winner, but context can show what actual success looks like from week to week at the box office. Not all big-numbered blockbusters are successes, and not all successes are billion-dollar blockbusters, so one must be aware of the relevant context when striving for success in the industry.

Battle of the Blockbusters

Blockbusters and franchises dominate the theater business, with headlines about box-office performances “breaking records” or “earning millions” appearing almost every week. However, not all big-budget movies are created equally, with some big-budget movies smashing record after record thanks to capturing more of the possible general audience while others fizzle after release despite still grossing millions.

For instance, films like Top Gun: Maverick and Marvel’s latest movie, Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania both have grossed hundreds of millions or in Maverick’s case over a billion, dollars. Both films are sequels from established IPs expecting to ride the coattails of their preceding films to cover their huge $170-$200 million production budgets and multiple years of work.

To succeed, each film would need to capture as large a share of the general audience as possible, including audiences of multiple ages, ethnicities, locations, and more to become the four-quadrant film needed to cross the hurdle to break even, much less turn a profit. Both films won their opening weekends and broke records, but additional context reveals important details regarding each film’s “success.”

Top Gun: Maverick broke records for a Memorial Day opening with a $160.5 million opening domestically and a global opening of $300 million, against a production budget of $170 million. It later went on to gross $1.5 billion worldwide to become the 12th highest-grossing film of all time along with receiving nominations at the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and more.

Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania, on the other hand, became the third-best opening for Presidents Day weekend and the best opening for the Ant-Man franchise at $120 million for the 4-day weekend domestically and about $240 million globally, against a production budget of $200 million. It later went on to gross around $475 million worldwide, the smallest gross in the Ant-Man franchise. With the industry rule-of-thumb of needing 2.5 times a production budget for a blockbuster’s success, the context in the numbers reveals different outcomes for these franchises behind the millions of dollars reported in headlines.

What could explain the discrepancy? Like current blockbusters, each film was front-loaded at the box-office, grossing a high proportion of their totals in the first weekend alone, but the key behind a true blockbuster success is its longevity with audiences. To achieve longevity, a blockbuster must appeal to a wide net of people and rank favorably among the audience.

Here, a clear divide appears: Quantumania’s opening weekend skewed young and male, with 65% of the audience being male and 64% aged 18-34, while Maverick was able to close the gap significantly, skewing only slightly male and only slightly older, with 58% of the audience being male and 55% over 35. Quantumania was able to successfully ethnically diversify its audience (34% Caucasian, 31% Latino and Hispanic, 17% Black, and 12% Asian), but Maverick was able to compensate by overperforming with older moviegoers and moviegoers outside the northeast. And word of mouth still holds sway for audiences, with the Cinemascores (polling of opening-day audiences asking to grade the film they had seen) during each opening weekend foretelling each film’s fate: Quantumania receiving a rare Marvel franchise “B” (below film industry average) while Maverick received a rare “A+.”.

Blockbusters have huge goals to achieve beyond breaking arbitrary records. They have to strategically appeal to the largest amount of audience possible and turn out as many regular and nonregular moviegoers as possible, while also retaining good word of mouth for repeat viewings and longevity in their theatrical run. Even underperforming slightly in some categories can spell danger even for films that still gross hundreds of millions. But can films succeed without that four-quadrant, big-budget, universally-appealing approach?

A Scream at the Box Office

Surprising to some, the horror genre is an interesting context for success in film. Although this genre will not break monetary records like franchises or big-budget action movies, horror films on average have a faster turnaround time along with a much smaller budget, creating a different path to victory than one might think. Instead of needing high review ratings for a four-quadrant market, these films thrive on their younger audiences and viral marketing campaigns. Their smaller costs allow for a more targeted, smaller goal for success compared to big-budget blockbusters.

For instance, the first quarter of this year alone had success for both a returning horror property and the start of a new horror franchise. In January, Blumhouse Productions released M3gan, a horror movie with new intellectual property with a production budget of only $12 million, that went on to gross $95 million domestically and $177 million worldwide.

In March, the latest installment of the Scream franchise, Scream VI released only about one year after the previous film for a production budget of about $35 million, went on to gross over $100 million domestically along with having the highest opening weekend of the franchise at $44 million.

How do these kinds of movies achieve success? Quality helps, but even the quality hurdle is smaller for horror movies. For Cinemascores, M3gan received a B while Scream VI received a B+. However, for horror, scores of B or higher are actually a good sign for word of mouth, rewatches, and digital purchases, as horror movies typically score lower than other films at an average of C+. A focused marketing campaign to the social media crowd seems to be a necessity as well, with both films boasting a huge social media reach and each engaging in viral marketing stunts following Paramount’s previously successful horror movie from the previous year Smile.

And who is the audience here for this marketing campaign? Rather than marketing movies to everywhere to all and any potential moviegoers with a pulse, marketers have to find actively online young adults who are interested in the thrill of horror movies. In part thanks to successful marketing campaigns, each film captured that targeted audience, with 62% of M3gan’s opening weekend audience being 18-34 while Scream VI’s opening weekend audience was 71% 18-34.

The horror genre is not appealing to all, but its target audience is still large enough to generate significant success. With its smaller hurdles to success and strategically targeted marketing, horror films can repeat success and even create small franchises of their own.

Mid-budget Success can be Everything Everywhere All at Once

Engaging the social media-savvy fans of horror is not the only key to success in a franchise-driven world. Mid-budget movies are still able to carve out their own, albeit small, corner of box office success. Many of these movies are able to find great success on streaming or digital, whether debuting exclusively on streaming or post-theatrical release. However, some are still able to match their production budgets or more or even become box-office hits.

For instance, the awards-winner genre film Everything Everywhere All at Once grossed $135 million worldwide from an under $30 million production budget, while faith-based films like Jesus Revolution are also finding an audience, with Jesus Revolution currently at a $51 million grossing against a $15 million budget.

Each film has a radically different audience, but each film mobilized its audience thanks to its specific audience and audience trends in the industry. Everything Everywhere All at Once mobilized the arthouse film fans, created a strong and consistent audience base with strong word of mouth during its expanded limited release run that was able to ride the wave of positive press and awards season to notable box office success, similar to the critical and financial success of 2019’s best picture Parasite. On the other side, Jesus Revolution mobilized a faith-based crowd, many consisting of non-regular moviegoers while riding the wave of Fathom Events’ faith-based juggernaut The Chosen, also starring Jonathan Roumie.

The key for a mid or small-budget film to achieve financial success is getting the right audience at the right time. The right audience for these films may not even include regular moviegoers but instead an underserved market that feels motivated enough to turn out for a specific film. From women over 35 flocking to see Book Club to its over $100 million worldwide gross to Asian Americans supporting Crazy Rich Asians to its $175 million domestic gross to a niche fan base supporting and promoting Everything Everywhere All at Once to make it a financially and critically successful hit, the mix of a quality film with the perfectly connected audience creates success beyond blockbusters.

Beyond the Silver Screen

Ultimately, one doesn’t need millions of dollars or customers or supporters to achieve success. Instead, companies and brands need to figure out their own context in the market and what success looks like in that context. Customized plans, targets, and messages become key to individualized success for different players in the same industry game. Beyond the film industry, many industries can benefit from understanding their audience and especially benefit from targeted marketing. As discussed in our March podcast episode, industries like healthcare or travel need to understand and adapt to their consumer base and then know who to talk to and how.

For instance, in a healthcare industry experiencing a broad consumer base but diminishing budgets for marketing, healthcare centers need to be specific and how and who they are going after, like horror movies and mid-budget movies working to breakeven at the box office. Instead of going to a broad general audience like a blockbuster, healthcare systems, such as a previous client of Causeway, can create a funnel of modeled audiences of likely customers.



Context is king to success in both defining success and making a path to success. One has to understand the industry that they are in and what success looks like beyond flashy high dollar amounts or headlines like for big-budget movies. A company should also understand where its audience is and how to reach them with its message at the right time, just as the current successful horror films have. Lastly, a company should look to mobilizing previously untapped consumers who are willing and able to interact with your brand, like some previous mid-budget movies have done recently to success.

Want to start looking for your context, your audiences, and your path to success? Contact us to get started!