John Hughes, sequel avoidance, and his tricks to building up an audience

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John Hughes didn’t want to make sequels, and instead had a (sometimes expensive) way of keeping his audience interested in his movies.

Go through the filmography of the late, great John Hughes, and there are few examples of him being actively involved in sequels to his movies. He certainly never directed a follow-up, and as a writer, all you’re getting in terms of sequels are three films across his extensive career. He penned the scripts for Home Alone 2, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (although he skipped the second film in that series, and every other entry in the franchise thereafter) and Home Alone 3.


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He retains credits on sequels to his productions of course, which is why you’ll find his name – or that of his pseudonym – on everything from Beethoven’s 4th to Home Alone: The Holiday Heist. But Hughes as a filmmakers was barely interested in follow-ups, and Hollywood quickly learned this. He only learned, for instance, of the existence of National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation (1997) when he saw it advertised on TV.

It’s not that studios weren’t pushing him to more obvious, commercial fare. But he knew what he was doing. He steadfastly refused to move to Los Angeles, staying in his native Chicago, but come the end of the 1980s, the studios pressure was not letting up. As he told interviewer Patrick McGilligan, “my old demographics [the teen movies with which he made his name] had dwindled; there wasn’t really an audience for the kind of stuff I used to do at the point”.

With people pushing him to make a film with a  movie star in it, he went the other way and wrote a script with a nine-year old kid at its heart. Home Alone ended up being the biggest hit of his career.

But going back to the extensive interview that McGilligan conducted with Hughes, published in the book Backstory 5, the filmmaker talks candidly about the plan to build his audience up. Not through follow-ups and franchises, but by being prolific and employing some guerrilla tactics. As such, throughout the 1980s, there was a regular procession of films that Hughes either wrote, or directed, or both.

“I had a very particular strategy for the timing of those movies, which I kind of had to educate the studios about. I told them ‘I’m gonna grow an audience’, which they didn’t think I could do, but I did it”.

It’s little secret that Hughes and movie studios didn’t always get on, with development deals with both Paramount and Universal ending early with no shortage of fractious rumours of disagreements. But Hughes’ early strategy worked a treat.

His plan was this. “First of all, I tried to line up the release of each new movie with the video release of the previous one. That way, the first one might not do so well a the box office, but people would become familiar with it by the time the second came out, and so on. That’s why my movies would come out ever six months or so, and it you look, you’ll see that the grosses steadily increased with each one”.

Here’s how that period panned out from May 1984 to February 1988, when the strategy was in full flow. This is all based on US box office and release dates, which is what Hughes was discussing in the interview.

May 1984:  Sixteen Candles ($23.7m)

February 1985:  The Breakfast Club ($45.9m)

August 1985:  Weird Science ($16.3m)

February 1986:  Pretty In Pink ($40.4m)

June 1986:  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ($70.1m)

February 1987:  Some Kind Of Wonderful ($18.6m)

November 1987:  Planes, Trains & Automobiles ($49.5m)

February 1988:  She’s Having A Baby ($16.0m)

It’s not a uniform curve clearly (not least because I’ve not actually drawn a graph), but there’s notable method to what Hughes said. In particular, it’s worth recognising how the reputation of both Some Kind Of Wonderful and Weird Science, that offered the lower end of box office returns in this run, benefitted heavily in the end from a video audience.

But there was a second part to Hughes’ audience plan. Not just to grow it, but also to look after it.

As he explained, “you know how, when you’re a kid, you love it when you get mail? You feel important, like someone’s paying attention to you. Well, we used to do that”.

As such, whenever anyone wrote a fan letter to one of the cast of a John Hughes teen picture, their names and addresses would in turn get added to a mailing list (again, this is in the US). Then, every time a new movie came out, they’d mail our “huge packages” to the fans on the list, “kind like what Disney does now – posters, rolls of stickers, all sorts of neat stuff”.

For Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, those on the mailing list got a particular treat too when they received the only official record that was made at the time for the movie (releases have followed in Japan, and from the wonderful LaLaLand Records in more recent times). “A&M [the record company] was very angry with me over that; they begged me to put one out, but I thought ‘who’d want all of those songs’”.

Arguing that the mix of contemporary and older music would make too odd a bit for an album, he instead put together a seven inch vinyl with two songs that he happened to own the rights to. ‘Beat City’ by The Flowerpot Men was on one side, he couldn’t recollect the other. It appears, from this listing, to be ‘Blue Room’, and that post also adds that the record was given away at early screenings too.

This was by the sounds of it the most expensive fan package he’d put together, and each mailing was costing $30. By this stage, in the middle of 1986, there were 100,000 names on the mailing list, yet at a cost of $3m, they each received a record. “It was a labour of love”, Hughes explained. “I cared about my audience and I cared about these movies”.

Hughes, as has been well covered, would fall out of love with Hollywood, and I’ve covered the story of his studio deals ending here. But his approach, and his caring for fans, bottled something that many studios have tried to capture since, with varying levels of success. Can you just imagine John Hughes in the Comic-Con era?

He certainly wasn’t the first to care and look after a fan base and wouldn’t be the last. But there are few better examples in the 1980s of a filmmaker being so in tune with his audience, I’d argue.

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