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September 3, 2018

Three ways to increase your chances of success when making a family film

Four times a year, the American Film Market asks Bruce Nash and I to crunch the numbers on a topic relevant to the segment of their audience that are low budget producers.  In the past, we’ve looked at topics such as what types of independent films make the most money, patterns among breakout hits at different budget ranges ($3m to $10m, $10m to $20m and $20m to $50m), what VOD audiences watch, and which movies travel best.

This year, they have asked us to focus on four different genres and look at what producers can do to increases their chances of financial success.

First up – family films.

The genre classification ‘family’ is an interesting one.  Some genres are defined by their content (such as Comedy), some by their setting (such as Western), some by their production method (such as Animation) while others are defined by their audience (such as Family). This means that the shape of a film in the family genre is slightly nebulous.  Certainly, they are all likely to receive a G or PG rating from the MPAA, and few are likely to be documentaries (notwithstanding exceptions such as March of the Penguins).  But even this narrowing down still includes numerous films which we would not regard as “family films”, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

The main result of this genre classification is that producers of family films need to focus on how audiences will perceive their work.

The animated takeover of family films

The first place to start when discussing the family genre is to look at how radically it has changed over the past few decades.

The chart below shows the proportion of G- and PG-rated films earning more than $10 million at the box office (adjusted for inflation) that were either purely live action or substantially animated. As you can see, there has been a strong shift away from live-action and towards animation.

Note: The 2015 to 2018 group goes up to 24th July 2018

Back in the early 1990s, roughly 80%-90% of family films were purely live action—think Home Alone, Hook, and The Adventures of Huck Finn. The exceptions were primarily big-budget Disney animated films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

With the arrival of new computer technology in the late 1990s, and particularly from 2000 onwards, the landscape for family films changed dramatically. Digitally-animated films like Toy Story and its sequels and hybrids of computer animation and live action such as the Harry Potter and Alvin and the Chipmunks movies have come to dominate the market. Since 2010, the majority of family films to make over $10 million at the box office have been at least partially animated.

The problem this creates for independent family films is that it’s increasingly difficult to have a breakout success with mainstream audiences. The animated and animation/live-action hybrids that made over $10 million at the domestic box office (inflation adjusted) in The Numbers database have an average budget of $98 million and $96 million respectively, compared to an average budget of $35 million for live-action films meeting the same criteria.

In short, it’s the big-budget studio tentpoles that are reaching mass market family audiences, and there’s limited scope for lower-budget films to compete with them directly.

So, does this mean doom and gloom for the indie family film business? It turns out the answer to that question is an emphatic ‘No!’ Instead, successful producers in the family film business have carefully targeted their films at specific audiences.

In the following sections, we highlight the ones that stand out in the data.

1. Faith-based films

The first group of films to stand out was in the faith-based market.

Films such as Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, War Room, and The Case for Christ were all highly profitable, according to our analysis of their performance across all platforms. While these films weren’t necessarily targeted directly at families, they are family-friendly and aim to bring families together for a shared viewing experience.

What’s notable about the best-performing of these films is their direct calls to faith. While some faith-based films use religious themes as part of a broader story, the really successful ones are unabashedly religious: less about drawing in non-Christians, and more about serving an existing market that craves religious content.

2. Man’s best friend

Dogs are a staple of family films, and films with dogs in leading roles have a few advantages from the perspective of the independent producer:

  • First, other animal favourites (think dolphins, penguins, and elephants) are much more expensive to film in an ethical fashion.
  • Second, dogs can be trained to perform.
  • And third, for all the cat videos on the internet, dogs tend to be a little more cinematic in their adventures.

It is therefore no surprise that, along with series like Air Bud, we see The Dog Who Saved Christmas, A Dog Named Christmas, and Cool Dog among the profitable family films.

That doesn’t rule out other movies involving animals, so long as they can be made at a reasonable budget: horses are another perennial favourite and have many of the same advantages as their canine pals.

3. Positive messages

If your film has neither gods nor dogs, what can you do to increase your chances of success?  The answer lies in the content of the script.

To further investigate, we looked for a broader set of data on family-friendly movies and dug into the popularity of films tracked by Common Sense Media.  Their reviewers assign each film a series of scores, out of five.  For example, Adventure Planet scores four out of five for Educational Value, five for Postive Messages and four for Positive Role Models & Representations.

Across all the 1,823 family movies that Common Sense Media reviewed, there is a strong correlation between high levels of positive educational messages and the overall IMDb audience score (which we’re using as a proxy for how popular the movie is).

The reverse is true when looking at levels of bad language and ‘sexy stuff’.  Obviously, the levels of child-unfriendly content are very minimal, and so to illustrate the point, the axis on the charts below only show up to one out of five, but the scale is the same five-point scale used for the previous three charts.

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One Response

  1. Carl Schoenfeld September 3, 2018 at 11:07 am #

    Thank you, Stephen, for an insightful article kicking us out of the summer slumber. This may be worthy of debate as your conclusion, that there is ‘limited scope for lower-budget films to compete with [studio tentpoles] somewhat challenges Screen Daily’s exploration of green shoots, asking if ‘Europe [can] measure up to the powerfully resourced US studio brands and capture the family market?’ http://bit.ly/2PtsjVJ There Geoffrey MacNab concludes that in animation (note the conflation of genre and production technology, as you discuss): ‘For now, though, demand still clearly outstrips supply’.

    Perhaps the emerging sector of independent animation, including those Not in the English language, may deserve more thorough investigation?

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