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Could Serenity have at least made $5 million in its opening weekend with a better marketing plan? After all, the film had the Oscar-winning Interstellar team of Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway on screen, and it opened in 2,561 theaters. That's not an indie release. However, distributor Aviron Pictures defended holding back advertising money and promotion plans after bad reviews rolled in from both critics and early viewers. Here is Aviron's defense when accused of not honoring the publicity agreement:
We had the best intentions for Serenity. We were excited for the opportunity to release this uniquely original movie and work with such a stellar cast and talented filmmakers. As much as we love this film and still hope it finds its audience, we tested and retested the film — with audiences and critics alike — and sadly, the data demonstrated that the film was not going to be able to perform at our initial expectations, so we adjusted our budget and marketing tactics accordingly. Regardless of the spend, it’s next to impossible for an adult-skewing drama to overcome a 23% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a D+ CinemaScore. To have spent more would have been irresponsible to our capital partners and wouldn’t have made prudent business sense for an independent distributor. We have enormous respect and admiration for the talent and all the hard work they put into the film and wish the box office results were better.
So their argument is, even before the low Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores rolled in, and the opening night moviegoers gave Serenity a D+, they tested the film and saw this result coming. Sure, Venom also had a 29% Rotten Tomatoes score, but that's a superhero film, not an adult drama. In their view, spending more money to promote the film would be throwing good money after bad. They wanted to mitigate the damage. Essentially, they gave it up as a lost cause.
To the Serenity team, that doesn't fly. According to Deadline, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and their reps are furious at Aviron for not backing the film, as they agreed, and for how they handled the promotion circuit. Their side argues that only about nine TV spots aired for the film, and in obscure locations, and not during timeslots that would've helped create awareness for Serenity.
The A-list stars were prepared to do a full promotional campaign and junket, with as many late-night and daytime appearances as possible. But, sources told Deadline, the night before Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway were set to get on a plane for the L.A. junket, Aviron told them they wouldn't be spending more promotion money.
It's not like there was no promotion -- both Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey have done some interviews to promote the film, and (in just one example) Hathaway was recently on Ellen. Hathaway is also on the new cover of People magazine. But how much of that was connected to Aviron and its agreement?
Since the film opened in so many theaters, it does seem like more TV spots would've at least helped get the famous stars' faces in front of more potential viewers. It could've made more than $4.4 million in its opening weekend. It was a slow weekend for every film, but not that slow.
They could've tried something like Replicas did. That Keanu Reeves film also got lousy reviews, but before it even opened, they marketed that 93% of Rotten Tomatoes users wanted to see the movie. It didn't give the film a big box office opening, by any stretch, but at least they found a creative angle. If Serenity did anything like that, the ads never made it in front of my eyeballs.
And there were definitely marketing angles to be found with Serenity, even beyond the star-studded cast. They could've tried to sell the controversy over the twist ending. Get some curiosity going. Get more stars on TV to talk about why they signed on, what drew them to the high-concept project, why they stand by something that takes big chances and isn't another superhero/sequel, etc. etc. etc. It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but that's what the Serenity team is doing now.
Anne Hathaway took to Instagram to defend the film, saying she still stood by it. Ironically, the film is now getting a lot of attention because of the bad reviews and now because of the lack of additional advertising. Maybe Serenity will be a cult classic someday, but that time has yet to come. If you're curious about it, Serenity is still playing in theaters as one of the many films on screens in this busy and competitive 2019 movie season.