Why do good people make bad movies?

June 25, 2016

I want to compare four movies that I watched recently.
Keanu: 77% (rotten tomatoes score)
Popstar: 76%
Central Intelligence: 64%
and Finding Dory: 94%

All these movies have people I love and admire.
Key & Peele
The Lonely Island team
The Rock & Kevin Hart
Pixar team

But only one of them, Finding Dory, was great.

All the other movies missed the mark.
I just couldn’t get myself to like the stories even though it had people I liked. Out of the other three, Keanu was probably the best. Popstar, I finished watching simply out of loyalty to Lonely Island. Central Intelligence, I could not finish.

I’m not shitting on anyone and I know making a movie is super hard. I’ve never made one ever and don’t think I could do any better. I’m just curious how and why more movies aren’t great. Meaning, how come more movies don’t get into the 90% and above rotten tomatoes range? Movies are made by large companies with decades of experience making flicks. This should seem easier as time goes on.

Let’s consider them the gold standard.
They make movies that rank well & make money.
(source: wikipedia)

They’ve only been up to bat 17 times in 21 years, and hit home runs 12 times, in terms of high 90% or above ratings.

All their movies though have made tons of money, no losses yet.
Average production budget: $147M
Average worldwide gross: $583M

How they operate:
According to Ed Catmull & John Lasseter, Pixar has some unique practices.

1. They take a long time to make a movie, 4-7 years on average.
2. They go thru many drafts that all suck until it gets good.
3. They have a council of mentors (other veteran pixar filmmakers) who give brutally honest feedback for the person making the movie.
4. They do NOT take mandatory notes from studio executives.
5. They don’t release a movie unless it’s good. If it’s not, they’ll keep rewriting it or in some cases, scrap it.
6. They don’t make that many movies. They’re averaging about 1.5 movies per year.
7. As far as I know, they DON’T test their movies in front of audiences. They have the same Steve Jobs & Henry Ford philosophy that it’s not the customers job to tell them what to make.
8. New filmmakers get practice & audience feedback by making small shorts that appear before a big release.
9. They also really care and want to make great movies.

In his book Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull talks about folks nearly killing themselves in the process of making one of their movies. I think one guy accidentally left his baby locked in a car in a hot parking lot because he was so stressed out about meeting deadlines. Baby ended up being fine.

Disney Animation:
When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were put in charge of revamping the declining Disney animation studios.

They brought over the Pixar process to Disney.
Movie directors no longer had to accept mandatory notes from corporate executives. They enacted the same peer review system (consisting of other film makers) with non-mandatory notes. Removed a lot of bureaucracy.

Now they’re starting to make hits again. Most recent megahit, Zootopia is rated 98%. So that means, their process of making great movies is learnable.

Same goes for Marvel & Star Wars franchises, also owned by Disney. They all tend to make highly rated + high earning movies.

Why do good people make bad movies?
The conclusion I came to why bad movies exist is this:
A. They don’t care about ranking high
B. They don’t know how to rank high

There are 4 scenarios on how a movie can do:
1. Bad rating, bad money
2. Bad rating, good money
3. Good rating, bad money
4. Good rating, good money

No one wants to lose money, so scenarios 1 & 3 are deadly, especially #3 because a lot more time and effort goes to waste.

In terms of making good money, we can assume getting a good rating is exponentially harder than settling for a bad rating. If you can make money without trying hard, why not?

Central Intelligence ($50M budget, $56M gross so far) seems like a movie that fell into category 2: bad rating + good money. It’s estimated to gross $155M by the end of its run. I believe they got a bad rating because they don’t care enough to rank it high. They know they’ll make money regardless. CI was produced by Warner Bros., who are scheduled to release a total of 17 movies in 2016. Compared with Pixar, who’ve only released 17 movies in 21 years.

It was as if they worked backwards with the movie.
They had two popular stars that wanted to work together, so they got some writers to make a story for them to be in. It’s not that they purposely wanted to make a badly rated movie, they just didn’t want to kill themselves trying to make a good one. Plus both Dwayne Johnson & Kevin Hart are starring in tons of movies, so they don’t have time to wait around two to four years while the writers finish polishing things up.

Keanu ($15M budget, $20.5M gross, Warner Bros.) did pretty well. 37% return on investment, though they may have hoped for $60-80M gross. There’s an awesome movie in there, maybe could’ve done better by using the pixar method of rewriting until greatness & peer review by other comedy filmmakers. This movie seemed like it was made mainly for their own enjoyment and the audience gets to come along for the ride.

Popstar ($20M budget, $9M gross, Apatow/Lonely Island/Universal) falls under category 1: bad rating + bad money. I think they wanted to rank high but probably didn’t have the money, time, or know-how to do it. Or something else went wrong. Lonely Island’s only other movie was back in 2007. Hot Rod (40%, $25M budget, $14M gross) also fared poorly.

It’s probably unfair to compare live action with animation movies. And to compare G rated family movies with R rated comedies.

Some top rated R comedies (that I liked) for comparison:
Bridesmaids (90%, $32.5M budget, $288M gross)
Superbad (88%, $20M budget, $169.9M gross)
The 40 yr old Virgin (85%, $26M budget, $177M gross)
& Knocked up (90%, $30M budget, $219M gross)
– all via Apatow Productions.
So, Popstar should’ve done better! (unless Lonely Island had final say over Judd)

Ok, fuck me, I’ve become obsessed with this topic. I’ve already done 2-3 updates to the freaking post and still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the matter.

Are r rated comedies a different beast than g rated animation when it comes to high ratings? Meaning, high ratings are good for G movies but not good for R movies? Better the rating, less money? Is that possible?

I took the top 17 highest worldwide grossing R comedies and ran a correlation in excel.

Movies selected: Hangover 2 (highest movie, 33% RT Score, 80M budget, 587M gross), Ted, Hangover, There’s Something About Mary, 22 Jump Street, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Bridesmaids, American Pie 2, Wedding Crashers, Scary Movie, Neighbors, We’re the Millers, American Pie, The Heat, Lethal Weapon 2, Knocked Up.

Rating to gross: -0.28
Budget to gross: 0.66

From this small data set, it looks like there’s a slight negative correlation between high ratings and high money. And a positive correlation between a high budget and high money.

Maybe the best thing to do would be to take all r rated comedies and figure out if there’s a correlation. I’m way too lazy to do that.

Update again:
Ok, I did more.
I have no idea why but I couldn’t help myself.

I took 23 R rated comedies released in 2015 and ran a correlation.
Rating to gross: 0.13
Budget to gross: 0.76

The highest grossing R comedy released in 2015 was
Spy (93%, $65M budget, $233M gross)

2nd highest grossing:
Ted 2 (46%, $68M budget, $217M gross)

Good rating seems to have no real effect on the movie making money. A higher budget does.

Maybe this has to do with the idea of R rating.
Rated R means it’s not a movie for everyone. Under 17 not allowed without an adult. Contains some adult situations (sex, violence, language).

R rated comedy means it’s not funny for everyone. It’s going to be more cruder, violent, sexual.

So maybe the rotten tomatoes rating does not apply to R comedies because critics are watching a movie likely not intended for them. It’s like having a sheltered food critic from Idaho taste a spicy curry dish flown in from Mumbai. It’s not going to be a pleasant experience going in or out.

A higher budget helps with gross because they can hire bigger stars & spend more on the marketing.

Update once more:
Out of curiosity, ran a 2015 correlation for domestic gross, rather than worldwide. Since rotten tomatoes critics are aimed at domestic audiences.

rating to gross: 0.13
budget to gross: 0.64

On a side note, I just realized that movie budget figures listed on BoxOfficeMojo/Wikipedia don’t include advertising costs. For example, Get Hard (2015) has a production budget listed at $40M at BoxOfficeMojo, and a marketing ad budget of $44.5M as listed by Variety. This is a never-ending mystery.

Creativity, Inc – Ed Catmull, book

Pixar Movies – wikipedia
Pixar q&a
Walt Disney Animation Movies – wiki

Keanu – wiki
Popstar – wiki
Central Intelligence – wiki
Finding Dory – wiki
Long Range Forecast Central Intelligence
Comedy Movies 2015