Note: There are mild spoilers toward the end of the article; you have been warned.
Stop. I know that people are going to look at the revenues of District 9 and say “Hey, District 9 isn’t an insane hit like Avatar,” to which my response would be “What do you consider a hit?” A hit, in my opinion, is a movie that is seen by a wide number of audiences and makes a substantial profit. And that’s what District 9 did. It called in large audiences and made a respectable amount of money (200 million dollars), but it did so on a comparatively small budget. Movies like Avatar and Lord of the Rings are great movies with large budgets upwards of 200 million dollars (in my opinion Avatar probably cost closer to 400 million). No one really knows how much those movies cost because Hollywood is very uptight about revealing budgets, but let’s just assume, for the moment, that both of those movies cost around 250 million dollars. District 9’s budget is still a little fuzzy, like any movie, but estimates are only around 30 million dollars. See the difference? The movie grossed almost 7 times what it cost to make it. That is a profitable film and in my opinion a hit. But now we get to the real meat of the article: how did it become a hit?
District 9 was a movie set up to fail. It had a less than stellar budget, a cast of no-names, a rookie director, and it sparked controversy in Johannesburg (the city the film takes place in). The only thing truly going for the movie was that Peter Jackson produced it. Nobody really followed or was looking forward to it, there wasn’t that much news for it — then the first trailer came out and everything changed. The trailer showed almost nothing. A couple of shots dragged together to show aliens and a few action set pieces. It told people almost nothing about the film, but it drove audiences’ curiosity to the tipping point. District 9’s success can be almost wholly credited to its marketing team; without them the movie would have flown under the radar.
In a perfect world, great movies would be successful just for being great, but that’s not how it is. The movie business is a dog-eat-dog world, and the biggest battlefield is marketing. The studios want their movies to look better than anyone else’s so they make trailers to show off their goods.Unfortunately, trailers can be very deceiving. They can make good movies look bad and vice versa. Take, for example, How to Train Your Dragon, possibly my favorite non-Pixar modern animated film. Its marketing campaign consisted of trailers showing mostly comedy and “kiddy stuff,” and the marketers failed to show the emotional depth in the film. Luckily, it did make a profit, but it took almost 4 weeks for it to start truly making money.
But how did they continue marketing the movie with such a low budget? Yeah, they had a trailer, but they didn’t have money for much else. This is where it gets kinda crazy. The marketers made the daring choice to market in the only way they could afford: over the Internet. The “secrets” of District 9 were clouded by even more mystery following one of the largest viral marketing campaigns in Hollywood history.
When the film was finally released, no one knew what to expect. Some thought it was about an alien invasion, others thought it was a government conspiracy, and a few thought it was about the fallout after an alien invasion. What it actually was turned out to be one of the most horrifyingly realistic takes on what would happen when we contacted an alien race. It was a story of racism, prejudice, poverty, family, love, and the human condition. The movie sparked controversy in Johannesburg because of the bad light it shone on them. This was not a movie about aliens conquering humans; this was about humans crushing helpless aliens.
The first few weeks of District 9’s run were fairly profitable, but afterwards it declined very quickly. The people who wanted to see the movie had already seen it. District 9 is not the kind of movie people talk about seeing twice or that you recommend to just anybody. It is a gory, disturbing movie only suited for those of strong backbone. When I left the theater, I asked someone what they thought of the movie; their response was “I thought it was too dark.” This response saddened me to no end. District 9 is not a mainstream film. It is a hardcore science fiction film with many underlying themes. The man who told me it was too “dark” was most likely looking for a happy ending, but that would have defeated the purpose of the entire movie.
District 9 is a dark movie that scared away audiences very quickly. Not because it was a “scary” movie, but because of how truthful it was. Nobody wants to know how bad a person they actually are. After watching this movie, I am scared to say that I would have reacted in a similar fearful manner towards the aliens (Prawns). Does this mean that I am a racist? Am I no better than the people depicted in the film? Nobody wants to truly question themselves in this way. District 9 was a great movie that was largely misunderstood by audiences around the world; people reading this article on InGenre are most likely the kind who understood and enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, time has shown that people like me (science fiction lovers, thinkers, or even geeks) do not control the box office. It is the common man who controls the box office, and geeks are not the common man.