Why “The Runaways” flopped, part two

Fans of Joan Jett and The Runaways have endured decades of incredulous stares from people who only think of Joan Jett in terms of “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and have no idea that she has been making music and touring steadily since her first band in 1975. Fans of Kristen Stewart are desperate to prove that Kristen is more than just Bella Swan.

The Runaways movie was a sanctuary for all of us, even with all of its imperfections. But our joy at its creation has been tarnished by watching this rare gem of a film get treated like trash by the people responsible for its success.

I refuse to call The Runaways a failure, because the movie itself was great despite all of the forces working against it. But the box office numbers tell a different story, and, unfortunately, that is how this film will be remembered.

But it didn’t have to be this way. People were excited to see this movie and waited patiently for its release for nearly three years. It was the most-buzzed about movie at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in January. And it took Apparition Entertainment less than three months to unravel everything.

Part one of my analysis of what went wrong with The Runaways focused on the sick way Apparition built our hopes up by promising a wide release and changing their plans at the last minute. They cited poor box office numbers as the reason for the change, but their lazy promotion efforts were the reason the numbers were low to begin with. Welcome to part two.

Someone dropped the ball

I wish I could ask Apparition what they had been thinking, to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Because to me, it looks like they cared more about selling a product than they cared about the story of The Runaways. I know that selling product is their job, and that would have been fine, if they had only understood the product they were trying to sell and who they were trying to sell it to.

I should disclose here that I do not have a degree in marketing, and I have no idea how film promotion works, independent or otherwise. But I have been a fan of something since I could talk and recognize people on TV. I think that qualifies me as an expert on how fans think and how to reach them.

The mystery ingredient: Fans

When you look at the relationship between fans and the art we are linked to, it is perfectly logical to see the fans as consumers and the artists as suppliers. But if that is all you see, you are leaving out the most important variable in this equation: Love. Fans don’t consume art, we love it. We integrate it into ourselves. We reflect it. We amplify it. We make it real, and in return, it makes us feel alive. Love defies logic, and no amount of empirical data will allow you to predict the next cultural phenomenon.

You can’t manufacture an audience, you have to find it. You have to mine us out of the earth like diamonds, or sniff us out like a truffle-seeking pig. We are made for you, and you are made for us. It’s the greatest love story ever told.

Figuring out where to look for an audience, and how to keep their interest when you find them, is an art, not a science. And it takes time and money to pull that off. Time and money that Apparition didn’t have. So instead of finding an audience that was made for The Runaways, they took a shortcut and tried to steal one instead.

I take that back. They didn’t actually try. I believe that Apparition thought that the Twilight fans, who are an enormous force of nature and highly connected to one another, would automatically flock to The Runaways just because Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning were in it. Some of them did, but Apparition put no effort into harnessing the power of those fans and focusing their efforts. Maybe they didn’t know they had to.

All fans DON’T share a brain?!? *GASP!*

If you want to understand a particular audience, you must realize that no audience is ever homogeneous. Accept that as a given, and don’t fight it. We are individuals first and fans second. It is possible for a group of people who all love the same actor or musician to have nothing else in common. Great relationships are forged in fandoms all the time, but it is naive to believe that we all like each other or agree on everything.

I don’t think Apparition, or any corporate entity in charge of selling art, understands this at all. They seem to always fall into the trap of trying to figure us out with numbers and statistics, and the media loves to perpetuate the stereotypes that these numbers generate. But we’re not numbers, we’re people.

The Twilight phenomenon is an excellent example: the books and films have wide appeal across many generations and racial groups. As much as the media wants to reduce the Twilight audience to consisting of only 13-year-old girls, they can’t. I’ll never understand why they insist on denying this. I haven’t seen 13 in more than 20 years. Doesn’t my money count?

Who is the audience for The Runaways?

I first saw The Runaways at the midnight showing on April 9th in Pittsburgh. I preordered my tickets, but I didn’t need to. No one was in line. The theater did not have a Runaways poster on display, and the kids working the concession stand did not know what the movie was about until I told them. It was pretty dismal.

I walked into the theater alone and took my seat near the back. I thought I would at least be able to dance and sing along to the music without disturbing anyone else, but no such luck. Just before the movie started, three more people walked in, and the four of us enjoyed the film.

Poll time. (Go ahead and raise your hands like the dorks I know you are.;) ) How many of you think they were Joan Jett fans? How many of you think they were Kristen Stewart/Twilight fans?

*looks around* You’re all wrong.

They were Motley Crue fans. They’ve loved Joan Jett for years, but they participate in the Motley Crue Street Team, not Joan Jett’s or Kristen Stewart’s.

Cast a wider net

Off the top of my head, I can think of four main categories of people that make up the audience for any given music film:

  1. Diehard fans of the artist(s) in question and the actors in the film,
  2. Other music fans,
  3. People who see a lot of films, and
  4. All other people

Please note that none of these categories have anything to do with gender, race, or age. Traditional demographics insult us and ignore our individuality, so forget them.

I think you need to try to reach people in all of these categories to successfully market a film like The Runaways. These people don’t always hang out with each other, so you’ll need a different approach for each category. Any particular individual, of course, could fall into any combination of these categories, so don’t use them to pigeon-hole people. We hate that.

The Twilight fandom is a good place to start looking, because it’s large enough to likely contain people in each category. But remember when I said that not all diehards share a brain? Just because the river is full of fish doesn’t mean you don’t have to bait the hook.

Let’s look at these categories in more detail and see how Apparition reached, or did not reach, the people in them.

1. Joan Jett, Runaways, and Kristen Stewart fans

You would think that reaching these people would be easy. Just show up on the internet, add water and stir, and presto! Instant fanbase. But the only fans you will reach on the internet are the fans who spend time on the internet. What about the fans who are doctors, who work 36-hour shifts? What about the fans who are lawyers, who spend 18 hours a day writing legal briefs? What about the fans who work all day and take care of their children, or elderly parents, all night?

Not all fans have time to Google and tweet about all of their favorite artists all day long. “Worker bee diehards,” as I like to call them, are really only a small subset of a fandom. They are not more dedicated than the other fans, they just like to express themselves differently. Many fans are content with simply wearing t-shirts, buying cds, and going to concerts. But I have a “shout it from the rooftops” personality. It almost causes me physical pain to NOT talk about Joan Jett to everyone I meet. That’s why the Motley Crue fans I met at the midnight showing identified themselves as such within 15 seconds of meeting me, without being asked. People with enough passion to work on a street team are in promo mode all the time.

Apparition did a good job of finding the worker bee diehards, but they could have found us blindfolded. I refuse to give them credit for that.

Apparition did the requisite website, Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace pages, but they started them too late. The official website was up in December 2009, the Facebook page and Twitter account started in January 2010, and the MySpace page started in February 2010. With an initial release date of March 19, 2010, this was not enough time for anything to go viral.

They should have started the social networking effort in 2009, the day they knew when the first day of filming was going to be, if not sooner. I know that Apparition didn’t get involved until they picked up the distribution in December 2009, but River Road Entertainment, who funded and produced the film, should have started the promotion earlier. (Bill Pohlad runs both companies.) Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace are all free, and they could have had a few interns run them for very little money.

The mechanics of reaching diehards is not your only concern. Once you find them, you have to figure out what you’re going to tell them to make them interested in your project. Diehards are fiercely protective of the artists they love, and they won’t support a movie that disrespects them in any way. The Runaways movie has been controversial among fans, because the film does not tell the whole story of the band. Details were left out or changed to satisfy artistic or legal interests. Fans of Lita Ford, Jackie Fox, and the other band members are angry that those women were not represented in the film. Putting the story in the hands of a first-time film director also made us nervous.

Apparition should have attempted to smooth out this controversy by emphasizing how well the music we all love was taken care of in the film, and not letting the media latch on to confusing words like “biopic” and “parallel narrative.” I also wish that Lita, Jackie, and the other girls had been a bigger part of the movie, but I also understand that it was based on Cherie Currie’s book and naturally focused more on her life. Apparition could have said that the movie was “Based on true events in the lives of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie”. That is true enough and would not have misrepresented their intentions.

Again, Apparition needed more than a couple of weeks to make that happen. Instead, Apparition ignored the controversy and focused all of the advertising on makeup, clothes, sex, and drugs, which only angered segments of the Runaways fandom more.

2. Other music fans

Not only do some Joan Jett fans spend most of their time in other fandoms, like the Motley Crue fans I mentioned earlier, but some people may want to see a good rock and roll movie just because there’s rock and roll in it.

MTV and other music news outlets talked about The Runaways quite a lot, so fans of other bands had some exposure to the film. But Apparition could have done better in this segment, because very little attention was paid to the actual music in any of Apparition’s advertising campaigns.

The only times the promotional efforts ventured into three-dimensional space were when Sephora sold a line of makeup from the film and when Urban Outfitters sold a Runaways-based clothing line. Fashion was a big part of The Runaways, but true music fans don’t care about that exclusively. They want to know about the music and the stories of how it was created. (By the way, I checked those stores’ websites, and seven states don’t have Sephora and fourteen states don’t have Urban Outfitters, so how did Apparition think those promotions were going to support a nationwide film release?)

The t-shirts and posters had nothing to do with music either, and I discuss those in more detail later in this post. But every movie sells t-shirts and posters, so why not try something new?

A simple gray t-shirt that says “The Runaways” on it doesn’t tell anyone anything. But guitar picks, drumsticks, guitar straps, or a small amplifier with The Runaways’ logo on it might clue people into the fact that we’re talking about a band. You could sell that stuff at Guitar Center, with a big display featuring pictures of the girls playing their instruments. They could have paired up with Gibson to advertise the movie and the Joan Jett Gibson Melody Maker at the same time. They could have included a song book with the soundtrack that included guitar tabs for all of the Runaways’ songs.

If Guitar Center is too mainstream for you, stay indie. Partner with independent music stores and list the participating stores on the film’s official website. I’m sure those stores would appreciate the cross-promotion.

I have to admit, I don’t know if Apparition was fully responsible for the film’s merchandising efforts, so maybe Blackheart Records needs to take some of this blame too.

3. People who see a lot of films, and 4. All other people

You can’t see a film if you don’t know it exists.

People who see a lot of films are always in theaters looking at movie posters. I wanted to see The Blair Witch Project because I saw the poster, before all of the hype that eventually came with the film. The story looked creepy, and I remembered it for months. Posters can and do sell movies. But I don’t know what a tagline like “It’s 1975 and they’re about to explode” on the first teaser poster for The Runaways is supposed to sell.

Boom chicka wow wow

If I walked past that poster and didn’t know what the film was about, I would have thought it was porn. There is nothing visually striking about it, other than the sexual connotations, and only diehards familiar with The Runaways’ music will even get the cherry bomb reference.

The second poster was not effective either. It’s just a shot of Kristen and Dakota looking too cool for school in their shades. The amp pasted into the background is barely noticeable, and I didn’t really see it until now.

These girls look like they just knocked over a liquor store.

With a title like “The Runaways”, this poster makes the movie look like a teenaged Thelma and Louise. Would it have killed them to put a musical instrument somewhere in the picture? Or a shot of them sweaty, onstage after a gig, in front of an audience?

And why couldn’t they have had more than one poster? One for Joan/Kristen, and one for Cherie/Dakota?

When posters aren’t enough to convey a message, you need a good trailer, and you need to show it on TV, as often as possible. Aside from the support the film received from television entertainment outlets like ET, and the interviews given by the actors, Joan Jett, and Cherie Currie, Apparition relied almost exclusively on print media and the internet, which are both passive approaches to advertising that depend on people picking up the publication in question and seeing the article or advertisement. Not everyone has time to read.

The trailer for The Runaways was decent, although certain scenes should have been included but weren’t, like watching Joan’s response to hearing that girls don’t play electric guitars. What repressed female can’t identify with that? In Pittsburgh, and I’ve also heard this from fans in other cities, The Runaways trailer was only aired on television during the late night talk shows that featured appearances from the actors in the film. Robert Pattinson’s Remember Me, on the other hand, was advertised heavily on television for weeks before its release, and had a much more impressive showing at the box office. People knew it was in theaters, even if they didn’t want to make out with Rob.

Put your money where your heart is

People like to tell me that The Runaways was an indie film with an indie budget, so I had no right to expect TV ads. Fine. And maybe Apparition didn’t have the money to buy 1,400 prints of the film at once. Fine. So why not just plan a limited release from the start and concentrate your efforts in those cities? If you plan your budget right, with a little creativity, you can do more with less money. Had they advertised the cities showing the film months in advance, diehards like me would have had time to plan trips to see it elsewhere, and we all would have been a lot less angry.

The Runaways is a film about girls who started a band when everybody told them not to. It’s music, it’s sweat, it’s growing up and trying to get noticed. It’s about going through the pain of adolescence and coming through whole on the other side. It’s about letting go of your fears and choosing the kind of person you want to be. It’s about friendship, and loyalty, and following your dreams. These are universal themes that many people can identify with, even those who don’t own a single band t-shirt or poster. Apparition would have reached a larger audience if they had put forth the slightest bit of effort to try and connect with people instead of trying to exploit demographics.

“Apparition” is an actual word in the English language that I won’t be able to say in a sentence without choking for a long time. Bob Berney was smart to leave the company, and if Bill Pohlad wants to continue in the movie distribution business, he should do everyone a favor and change the company’s name to something that doesn’t make us gag.



12 thoughts on “Why “The Runaways” flopped, part two

  1. Pingback: Why “The Runaways” flopped, part one « Born to be Jetthead

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  3. It’s pathetic that the promotion for this film seemed to be more about hair and make-up than it was about music. Particularly when presentation of the Runaways’ music was the movie’s strong suit. It’s almost as though people STILL don’t get it that the Runaways were first and foremost about rock ‘n’ roll.

  4. I think that’s why the price for the DVD and Blu-Ray is so expensive. They’re trying to compensate for the lack of money they raked in for the film. It’s sad, and this film had great potential for the world to see it. I enjoyed it 🙂

  5. I agree 100% that the promotion and distribution for this film was handled poorly. Hollywood – even “Indie” Hollywood is about making money – not quality, no innovative scripts, not interesting narratives – money is the bottom line so it is a wonder to me that the film was even made at all. It is not a wonder that the distribution and promo was short changed…the movie is a niche film, worse than that, it is a tiny niche. The principals involved, JJ, Cherie Curry, and the stars did their part, the bloggers and mags did their part, but money talks and this project simply did not generate interest to bring in cash flow potential.
    The film itself also has some problems – I’m a huge JJ fan and have stuck with her since the beginning but the movie fell short – there was little depth which led to a lot of disappointment in the diehards. This is my review of the film – i think you’ll find it interesting: http://wp.me/pLqX6-5Y

  6. I’d say most of us are in agreement that lack of serious marketing and theater distribution played a bit role in the movie’s lack of attendance. I’m sure Joan made sure she and Cherie will have royalty rights to aftermarket sales as well as ticket sales. Hopefully, they can recoup their loses, whatever they may be.

  7. Apparition, showed their age – they have no understanding of a certain demographic (15-25 anos), That demo/generation, is all about expediency and convenience. We are the generation that has grown up, getting music in an instant, watching movies on our computers, and going to multiplexes. The generation that ‘The Runaways,’ would have made it’s biggest bank on, was WAITING for it to hit the multiplex – waiting for it to go wide. Using the smaller arthouses in big cosmopolitan cities first to gauge how it would do – was miscalculation of epic proportions. Take for example ME. I’m from Michigan. Detroit Rock City. Home of one of Joan’s peers Susie Quatro, and everything musically inclined. There was a HUGE audience in this area for this film. i THOUGHT, Runaways was breaking wide – that is what I was told, what I read, I even had a DATE when I could see it, at my local movie theater. My friends and I could. not. WAIT. Yes, we had heard it was opening in a few hundred theaters first — but we by NO MEANS thought that THAT was a test run that Runaways had to pass, and if it didn’t, that was all she wrote and sang! For instance, I heard it was in a small arthouse theater about 25-30 miles from me. Well, I thought, why go drive 30 minutes when ‘The Runwaways,’ would eventually open in my United Artists theater which literally is right down the street?? So no, I didn’t go to the one little theater in Timbuktu that Apparition was ‘testing’ it in, and neither did my friends and people like us – as we had read all over the web, that the release date was imminent in the multiplexes. Young people are not gonna travel to other cities within a 50-100 mile radius, and one lone arthous theater to see a movie they believe will be breaking wide. So color me shocked and pisssed off, when I learned that Apparition said, ‘Nope,’ that was it. 240 markets, and they closed the curtain. Masses, millions had been waitinh breathlessly, had seen every stage of this film’s development on the web, had seen rehearsals, seen kristen’s transgormation, heard about Dakota’s as well – and we were salivating for this movie, and then…NOTHING. That my friends is called LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE. I’ve never seen anything so incompetent and just fcking CLUELESS. It really is/was a travesty.

    • I was almost going to yell at you for using the “d” word (demographic–I hate that) but then I read the rest. EXCELLENT points!! They PROMISED us a wide release and then took it away! I still feel so cheated. At least Sony put a better picture on the dvd cover. There’s a guitar in it, at least.

  8. I waited and waited for this film to come out. I was just starting to play guitar when The Runaways first came on the scene in the ’70’s. But alas. here in central Connecticut, where there is no art or culture or music, no theater within 50 miles of me was showing it. Nowhere. I was so pissed and bummed about it, but that’s the way it is here. If they had released it here, I’m sure it would have done well. But how can you expect it to do well when you don’t show it?

  9. I LOVE the Runaways. In fact, I believe that girls would be shocked if they saw this movie, because it portrays very closely the real lives of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. I believe if girls saw this movie, then they would be asking themselves what have they been missing. When it really comes down to it, I take The Runaways to a whole new level. It is more about music, and how these girls with guitars are showing other girls, especially teenagers like us that we can do whatever we want and not let ANYONE get in the way. With a guitar or not, girls on the band, especially Joan Jett want girls to have the power and be rebellious and take advantage and truly live their dreams. She made the impossible possible, and I believe if it wasn’t for her, girls wouldn’t be caught dead with an electric guitar. I know this may sound cheesy, but she has definitely significantly had an impact on my life and I believe she probably has and will on many other girls. As for Kristen Stewart, her acting abilities are completely undermined by all of this Twilight hype, and unfortunately because Twilight is SO HUGE, no one really focuses on other rolls she plays. She has great potential to become a huge hit a few years from now. Should be interesting!

  10. I thought it was a great movie. I always liked Joan Jett and The Runaways, the movie gave me a whole new love an appreciation for them. I don’t like that Sandy, Lita and Jackie weren’t very well represented in the film. The fact that they had to make up Robin Robins as their bassist in the film was ridiculous.

    I really wanted to see the movie, but I was only 15 or 16 at the time. Plus I didn’t even know when it came out. I saw a commercial for it maybe once or twice late at night.

    They should make a new Runaways movie that includes all of the girls and the full story. Sadly, that might never happen since they can’t seem to get over whatever conflicts they have between them. The Runaways could inspire so many girls if they could find a way to reach them.

  11. I stumbled onto your blog while I was looking up the Ramones biopic. I liked the article. Passionate and well written. But after seeing how the Runaways movie fared, I’m beginning to wonder if a movie about my favorite bands would be a blessing or a curse.

    I agree with the criticisms regarding the distribution strategy and the R rating. Plus I’m not sure Stewart has proven to be a bankable lead.

    But another point has to be the subject matter. This is not meant as an insult, but the Runaways were just not a huge band in the US. Really Japan was the only place they made an impact. Joan Jett went on to a successful post Runaways career, but not on a massive scale. As a comparison, Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or Joy Division in the UK (Control) had more mainstream appeal. It would be like making a film about Fanny or Suzi Quatro. Maybe with the right marketing strategy, or lead stars (maybe Angelina Jolie) it could have done better. But it was an uphill fight for mainstream appeal. Even a Ramones film, which would likely have greater mainstream appeal, has a limited commercial range (except perhaps in South America).

    In the end you got a movie out of it. That’s an accomplishment.

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