I was reading an article in Variety and came across this sentence: “It’s good for the stars to be in tentpole movies. And [Keanu] Reeves seems to be good casting for the alien Klaatu; he has an ethereal stillness to him that works in the footage…” What exactly is a tentpole movie?
Thanks for that question. I too have read this phrase again and again in the Hollywood trade press and been darn curious about it too. In fact, I read the same article you did, about the upcoming movie The Day The Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves and stopped at the same phrase.
So let’s dig around a bit. Before I do, though, I’m guessing it comes from the circus community and generally means something that holds up the big tent, an act that is so good that the others can be mediocre and the circus still goes on. Seem reasonable?
Okay. Home run on the first Google search! A site called The Double-Tongued Dictionary defines it thusly:
“tent pole — something, such as a commercial undertaking, a story franchise, or a fictional character, that serves as primary support (for a company, television program, etc.), especially a blockbuster movie which compensates for a studio’s flops.”
So I wasn’t too far off, was I?
More interestingly, a research paper [PDF] from Harvard Business School highlights the risk of the entire “tentpole movie” strategy of modern production companies:
Box-Office Performance Will Increasingly Depend on a Small Number of Blockbusters
Studios and distributors hedge their bets by releasing a slate of movies each year. The most promising projects (so-called “tent pole” or “event” movies) will generally receive the most attention. These movies often receive the highest production budgets as well as the highest marketing budgets and, critical to a successful theatrical release, a favorable release date. Because the share of revenues captured by blockbuster movies continues to rise, this appears to be a valid strategy. For example, in 2003, 19 movies generated over $50 million each at the box office (accounting for 22% of the year ‘s total), compared with 14 in 1998. Also, I’ve movies generated over $100 million each in theatrical revenues in 2003 (accounting for 14% of the year ‘s total), compared with two in 1998…”
Very interesting and logical too. If a so-called tentpole movie costs $100 million or more to make and it bombs, well, that’s a huge hit on any organization bottom line, let alone one as risky as a movie production house.
That’s one major reason that there are so many adaptations of non-movie material into movies nowadays (esp. comic books, but novels, TV shows, etc are all fodder for the mill too) along with sequels and remakes: to try and minimize the risk.
Now we both know what a tentpole movie is and why it might not be the smartest strategy for the movie studios. Then again, when it produces some of the wonderful big-budget films we’ve been able to enjoy in the last few years, it’s not such a bad thing either…
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