15 strategies for box-office success

Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa shooting Three Wise Cousins

Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa shooting Three Wise Cousins

Three Wise Cousins is family to the core.
In the trailer you think it’s a romantic comedy but
by the time you leave the cinema you realise it was a morality tale.
It speaks especially to the generations who weren’t born in Samoa
or haven’t been back to the homeland in a long time.”
            ~ Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa

Three Wise Cousins is a unique film made by a smart Samoan as a dedication to all Pacific people. After graduating from University of Auckland with a BA/LLB, Vaiaoga-loasa quickly realised the law profession was not for him. So he entered the television industry as a freelance director and camera operator. As you do.

Ten years later he made Three Wise Cousins, which opened on NZ screens in January. From his efforts as shooter, director, producer and sole investor, came an achievement that has surely made him the envy of many filmmakers and investors; a film grossing NZ$2.3million at the box office against a budget of $120,000 – with a significant take in Australia ($600,000) and the USA ($650,000) to say nothing of its success in New Zealand ($978,000) and a few other places. It would be harder to envisage a better foundation for Vaiaoga-Ioasa’s filmmaking career.

This truly remarkable accomplishment from a first time NZ filmmaker was achieved thanks to a range of factors – many of which relate to Vaiaoga-loasa’s deep understanding of his audience.

As an aside, Vaiaoga-loasa is credited in the movie as SQS. He explains that he considers the name ‘Stallone’ to be too iconic, so he chose a name that grounds him in his family: SQS stands for: Stallone, his given first name; Quaver, one fourth of a beat in music – he’s the fourth child; and Sini, his grandfather’s name.

So successful was the producing team in targeting the right audience that they recounted a situation whereby a patron went to the cinema and bought one ticket and the cashier said, “Are you sure?! No one has ever bought only one ticket to this movie!”

Indeed, average sales were five to 10 tickets at a time. SQS recounts that after many people saw the film and the deeper moral tale at its core, they bought tickets for their whole family. Some screenings were delayed to allow for elders to make their way to their seats.

Freelance producer Whetu Fala describes her experience at the first and, then, only Wellington screening booked for Lower Hutt. Having discovered Three Wise Cousins on Facebook through Pasifika networks, she got one of the last nine tickets and drove straight to the cinema. The normally quiet cinema was busting at the seams with a long line of patrons and a second screening already being organised for later that evening. She later recounts the audience reaction in her blog:

“The average audience age was around twelve years old and they all seemed to be out with their parents and older siblings. Predominately Samoan-speaking, the audience laughed and cheered at all the Samoan language and cultural jokes. At the end many stayed in their seats afterwards excitedly talking about what they had seen.”

Like many independent New Zealand films, the odds were stacked against Three Wise Cousins. The production budget was ‘micro’. It began at NZ$30,000 and swiftly expanded to NZ$70,000 as SQS realised he had underestimated many costs.

After completing two weeks of filming in Samoa, it took another six months of stop-start filming in New Zealand before principal photography was complete. Vaiaoga-Ioasa had few resources to invest in conventional marketing strategies. It wasn’t until well into the Australian release before they modestly utilised the power of the Facebook ‘Boost’ feature to locate and promote to their audience; something they made extensive use of in the USA.


The audience was such a strong focus of his strategy that we might coin a new variable, the equivalent of IQ and EQ in a marketing sense: AQ or Audience Intelligence, a measure to better discern those films which truly ‘get’ their audience, as opposed to those who treat them as an after-thought.

From the very beginning, Vaiaoga-Ioasa knew without a doubt who his audience was. Both his vision, and his benchmarks for success were that every Pasifika family could watch the movie; they would be entertained, and feel a sense of pride in their culture and people. He got exactly what he envisaged.

It’s funny how those with a burning vision combined with a detailed plan seem to get what they want while the vague are ignored.