© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Marketing Machines Can Make Lousy Movies Financially Successful


Usually, successful businesses sell things people need or at least enjoy. So Steve Henn from our Planet Money podcast was puzzled when he discovered that by one measure the most profitable movie made in the last five years is also widely considered to be one of the worst.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The film is called "The Devil Inside." It's the story of a mother possessed by a demon or demons - it's never really clear - and then what happens when her adult daughter tries to figure out what exactly is going on.


FERNANDA ANDRADE: (As Isabella Rossi) Maria, I'm your daughter.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Here's what I will say about "The Devil Inside." It's super terrible and boring and hateful.

HENN: That Elliott Kalan, one of the co-hosts of The Flop House, a podcast dedicated to reviewing the worst movies Hollywood makes. Kalan and his co-hosts, Dan McCoy and Stuart Wellington, say some movies are so bad, they can kind of be good.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As 911 operator) Ma'am, excuse me, who did you kill?

KALAN: There's a couple different types of bad movies. There's the type that is actually enjoyable to watch for their badness. And there's the type, like "The Devil Inside," where the whole time, you're like, so God has abandoned us?

STUART WELLINGTON: Yeah, you're just counting the hours as your life slips away.

KALAN: You'll be left only with regrets and the taste of ashes.

HENN: "The Devil Inside" cost a million dollars to make. But it grossed 53 million at the U.S. box office, internationally another 48 million. If you judge movies by return on investment, this movie is at the top. That kind of return - it's like buying a used Toyota for 10 grand and selling it for a million dollars. So how is this possible? How could a movie this bad make this much money? Jason Blum is the reigning king of low-budget horror flicks. He didn't produce "The Devil Inside." But for him, understanding its success is simple.

JASON BLUM: For me, "The Devil Inside" worked because the marketing was as good as it was.

HENN: Big movie studios are marketing and distribution machines. Paramount studios' marketing department, its publicity department and its media buying department all got behind this film.

BLUM: Every one of those departments has a hundred or a couple hundred people.

HENN: Trailers advertising the film ran in thousands of theaters for months before its release.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As 911 operator) South Hartford 911, what is your emergency?

HENN: There were TV ads.


EVAN HELMUTH: (As Father David Keane) If you really want to help your mother, you need a better understanding of exorcism.

HENN: Paramount's distribution team negotiated deals with theater chains across the country. "The Devil Inside" didn't just open in New York and Los Angeles. It opened at Albuquerque and Peoria and Kalamazoo. It debuted on more than 2,500 screens across the country. The Studio System, an entertainment data company, estimates Paramount spent $4.9 million promoting this movie. That is five times more than the movie cost to make.

BLUM: It's not even doubling down, right? It's like quintupling down on these small movies.

HENN: That explains why the movie was in so many theaters. But it doesn't explain why people actually liked the film. In fact, they didn't. "The Devil Inside" was so bad, audiences all over the country booed at the end - really.


HENN: That sound you're hearing is a YouTube video of an audience heckling the screen. In the end, quality still mattered - well, kind of. "The Devil Inside" was the most popular movie in America the week it opened. But by the second weekend, word was out. Ticket sales plummeted. And when audiences around America stood up and started booing, the hopes for a "Devil Inside" sequel died a quick and bloodless death. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 21, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jason Blum's last name was mispronounced in this story. The correct pronunciation is "bluhm."
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.