Do you remember this ad from about eight years ago?
It was widely praised at the time for being an uplifting message promoting self-esteem and body positivity, and consumers who watched it enthusiastically responded that they wanted to see more ads like it from the beauty industry. It wasn’t just Dove, either – market researcher Ben Barry conducted a study for Elle Canada in 2012 where the women surveyed expressed much higher interest in a product when the models advertising them reflected their own waist size, age, and appearance. Of course! Women don’t want to be constantly compared to unreasonable standards of beauty; they want inclusivity! They want diversity! They want brands to assure them they’re beautiful just the way they are!
There’s just one small problem: none of that is true. Every single beauty industry marketing campaign that attempted to promote more “realistic”-looking models and an “expanded” standard of beauty has failed, without exception. As it turns out, there’s a difference between what consumers say they want and what the subjective, illogical parts of their brain tell them they should spend their money on. The purpose of advertising is not affirmation, it’s about convincing you that you’re missing something crucial in your life and only their product will fill that need. “You’re beautiful just the way you are!” as it turns out, doesn’t convince their target demographic to spend money on expensive face cleansers quite as effectively as “Buy this and you too can look like Adriana Lima, you frumpy cow.”
What does any of this have to do with movies, you may wonder? Well, as Caillou Pettis reported last Sunday, Halloween Kills topped the box office last week, despite being the second installment of the third (or maybe fourth?) rebooted timeline of a slasher franchise that has been ongoing for over four decades, and despite the fact that it was available to stream on Peacock from the comfort of your home, and despite mostly middling-to-negative reviews (our own Joey Magidson was far more positive on it than most, and his review still settled on “it’s fine, I guess”). Meanwhile, The Last Duel, a much better-reviewed historical epic from legendary director Ridley Scott that was being positioned as a major contender for Oscars, bombed spectacularly last weekend, taking in less than $5 million against a nine-figure budget.
But how could this be possible?! Surveys of moviegoers repeatedly show a decisive majority of them are sick of sequels and reboots and brand-name franchises dominating the multiplexes, instead of more sophisticated, original adult dramas they’re clamoring for! Because, just like with beauty products and body positivity, what moviegoers say they want is not the same thing as what they are actually willing to spend money and time on in a theater.
It’s called “social desirability bias,” a psychological phenomenon that motivates people to lie – sometimes subconsciously, sometimes not – about their beliefs, habits, and desires based on what they think they should say to come off more respectable among their peers. Women don’t want to publicly admit their insecurities about their looks and men don’t want to tell people how they fantasize about being rugged manly badasses with big muscles working in steel mills, but every skincare line and pickup truck manufacturer will tell you that’s exactly what convinces customers to part with their money.
“But The Last Duel was being compared to Rashomon! You know, that classic Japanese film that the average person definitely totally has seen! And it was a serious R-rated film about pervasive societal misogyny and sexual assault (with not one, but two rape scenes), subjects most people want to risk going to a theater during an ongoing pandemic to be reminded of over the course of two-and-a-half hours, all based around an obscure historical event in France 635 years ago! Oh, wait… now that I’m saying it out loud…”
To be clear, I don’t come at any of this from a point of condescension. I sympathize. Life is hard right now. The news is filled with depressing reminders of death, mass hysterias, global upheaval, and frustrating political gridlock. It’s mentally-taxing enough just to get through the day, let alone putting yourself through the emotional ringer for a harrowing drama you believe you should want to see more of, instead of the newest Marvel franchise breadcrumb with the same predictable-but-widely-appealing story and action beats that Kevin Feige has nailed down to a science at this point.
“Ah, but what about Squid Game?” says the strawman I invented in my head for the purposes of this article, “That’s not only an original, boundary-pushing series for adults, but one that’s not even in English, and it’s the #1 Netflix show worldwide!” This is true, but it also doesn’t refute the failure of virtually any original movie to draw in upwards of $30 million in theaters this year; it’s instead a sign of what and where consumers for certain types of stories are willing to be.
Original stories for adults can still find an audience… if they make it as easy as possible for those adults to see them in this day and age. Squid Game can be accessed instantly from your Netflix menu. You don’t have to make a plan to see it at a certain time at a place with wildly overpriced snacks that demands you to sit quietly in a possibly COVID-contaminated public space and engage with the movie and only the movie you paid to see at that time. You can check out Squid Game on your own time, watch it at your own pace, and bail on it if it’s too weird or violent or heavy for you. Would The Last Duel have performed better if it was available on Netflix or HBO Max or Amazon Prime? I have no idea; streaming services are notoriously cagey about how they determine what’s popular on their platforms. But I do know with near-absolute certainty that more people would have at least considered it less “demanding” if they could stream it instantly at no extra cost beyond their monthly subscription.
Which is where the entertainment industry is headed. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this decade sees the Academy Awards adopt previously-unimaginably flexible eligibility rules for streaming platforms, or if the Emmys start to overtake the Oscars in the public eye as “the” prestigious entertainment awards ceremony, or possibly both, in response to this growing divide between audiences for adult-oriented films and audiences for noisy fluff based on stuff we’re already familiar with. I don’t like it any more than you do, but consumer trends are undeniable – people are only going to risk their personal safety and buy a ticket and a $20 bucket of stale popcorn for an experience where they know with absolute certainty how it’s going to make them feel ahead of time. Michael Myers is stalking and killing people in a suburb; whaddya need, a road map? Everyone knows what they’re getting there. Oh, but something something mob mentality and the nature of violence so we can reassure ourselves on social media that it’s actually a sophisticated entry in this franchise about a masked stabby guy. Otherwise, most adults these days will stay home and maybe take a risk with a Giallo-inspired weird gruesome horror movie about a diabolical tumor or a South Korean dark comedy series about a dystopian game show with deadly penalties if their friends on Twitter keep telling them they’re missing out if they don’t. Welcome to our brave new world of entertainment.
As for why Halloween Kills did so well in theaters when it was available for streaming on Peacock, that’s because Peacock sucks. Go buy a face cleanser from Dove, Peacock.