What The Data Says: Producing Low-Budget Family Films
In previous articles in this series, we’ve looked at what it takes for an independent film in a particular budget range or genre to “break out” – in other words, earn enough from the box office, video, TV and ancillaries to make a substantial profit for its investors.
In this article, we look at the performance of independent family films, and what it takes for them to be successful.
The Animated Takeover of Family Films
The first lesson we learned about family films is that they don’t break out in the same way as some of the other films we’ve looked at before.
To understand why this is, take a look at the chart below, which 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.
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 help 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.
Some genres are defined by their content (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 the few 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.
This means that those looking to create films in the Family genre need ensure they are focused on how their audience will perceive their work. As we’ve seen above, successful Family films are not just defined by their lack of negative content, but by the inclusion of family themes, such as roles models, religious messages and, of course, dogs.
The 2015 to 2018 group in the first chart goes up to 24th July 2018.
About the Authors
Stephen Follows is a writer, producer and film industry analyst. His film research has been featured in the New York Times, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Evening Standard, Newsweek, The News Statesman, AV Club and Indiewire. He acted as an industry consultant and guest on the BBC Radio 4 series The Business of Film, which topped the iTunes podcast chart, and has consulted for a wide variety of clients, including the Smithsonian in Washington. In addition to film analytics, Stephen is an award-winning writer-producer and runs a production company based in Ealing Studios, London.
Bruce Nash is founder and President of Nash Information Services, LLC, the premier provider of movie industry data and research services and operator of The Numbers, a web site that provides box office and video sales tracking, and daily industry news. Mr. Nash founded the company in 1997 and it now serves approximately 1,000 clients, from the major studios to first-time independent filmmakers. Mr. Nash provides regular commentary and analysis for media outlets, including the L.A. Times, the New York Times, Variety, the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, and CBS News. Mr. Nash is the official adjudicator of movie records for the Guinness Book of Records. To learn more about his company’s services, visit Nash Information Services.
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Copyright © 2018 Stephen Follows and Bruce Nash. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.