Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Applying Common Sense to Box-Office Analysis; or, Why Sometimes People Just Don’t Give a Damn

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 12, 2005

I’ve often thought that there should be a personals website for film geeks. It seems like such an obvious idea to me, but no one’s done it yet. I don’t know why I’m leading with that; maybe you can figure it out as the column goes on.

It’s kind of annoying to have to write about box-office revenues yet again, because there should be something more interesting to discuss. But the Internet media seems so obsessed with this lately, and it seems to me that they get it completely wrong so often that it drives me crazy. I guess Net space is cheap, so people can spend their time dissecting the minutia of each success and failure. But everybody seems to be overcomplicating things, including the studios and filmmakers behind every flop. Sometimes you just want to say, “look, moron, it’s simple. You screwed up. Own up to it and try to do better next time.” Is it really that difficult?

The last few months have brought us several box-office disappointments that have had all the pundits running around like Chicken Little. “Horror films are dead! Action films are dead! Serious dramas are dead! Everything’s dead except comedies, which were dead last year but now they’re back!” Can these people just, you know, take a deep breath and relax for a minute? If you try to look at it with a little perspective and common sense, things are not that dire. There are plenty of things to worry about besides the future of Hollywood. Pick up a paper, and I don’t mean Variety or Hollywood Reporter.

Being a film geek (a term I use with nothing but affection) can be a strange thing in the so-called “real world” sometimes. A few days ago, I talked to somebody who had never heard of the movie Identity. This actually surprised me! OK, so we’re not talking about Titanic or something comparably huge, but it’s not like some obscure movie that maybe 5 people have seen. Identity was a relatively big hit from a major studio with some pretty well-known actors. And this person isn’t some invalid grandmother who’s completely unaware of the modern movie world either. It wasn’t until later that I realized that she probably had seen some ads for it on TV when it came out. It just didn’t register.

My younger sister is much the same way, to the point that it’s often puzzling to me. Some things show up on her radar screen, and many things just don’t. It’s not just that she’s unaware of most foreign or indie films that come out; most “normals” are the same way. I’ve come to expect that. But a lot of really mainstream things seem to just completely pass her by – not just movies but music, TV shows, etc. For instance, several months ago we were watching TV at our parents’ house and an ad for Lost came on. Now, Lost is a very popular show, with high ratings and millions of viewers. Few current TV shows have been as hyped as this one. I didn’t say anything about it at the time, but a short time later I casually mentioned the show in a general conversation about TV, and she said, “Lost? Never heard of it!” Now, I know for a fact that she saw that ad. I was right there in the room with her! But it didn’t register with her. It didn’t stick.

So what’s my point? My point is that many, many people are like this – probably the majority of people out there. They don’t follow the industry obsessively the way we do. They don’t even pay attention to most of what they do see or hear. For them, celebrity gossip is entertainment news, and Mary Hart is their Walter Cronkite. They don’t know anything about “the slump”, Sony taking over MGM, the Weinsteins leaving Miramax, or Universal possibly buying DreamWorks. And they really, truly don’t care.

These are the people that the media analysts don’t understand, but the studios are trying desperately to reach without really knowing how. As much as some of us complain about certain movies being overhyped (myself included), that’s really the only way to get through to the “normals”. If they don’t see the trailers, TV ads, posters and banner ads 65,000,000 times, they just don’t get motivated to get their asses to the movie theater. And sometimes even that doesn’t get through to them.

Quite often, these people will see an ad for a movie and think, “hey, that looks good. I’d like to see that sometime”. What they often don’t think is, “hey, that looks good – I need to see that on opening weekend!” Yet when a movie doesn’t do $50 million in its first 3 days, everyone calls that an “audience rejection”. That’s not a rejection – that’s more of a postponement. They don’t necessarily not want to see that movie; the attitude is more like “maybe I’ll see it in a theater, maybe I’ll wait for DVD or cable, but I’ll catch up with it eventually”. Maybe some people are busy on that weekend and plan to go on Monday night or something. Believe it or not, people actually do that. It’s not unheard of.

But Hollywood’s current self-fulfilling prophecy of failure dictates that if everybody doesn’t go on opening weekend, that means nobody wants to see it. Of course that’s completely absurd, but it starts a vicious cycle. The more people hear that a movie is a “failure” because it wasn’t #1 at the box-office, the fewer people go see it later, because who wants to go see what everyone perceives as a flop? By that time, you might as well wait for the DVD release in four months. The idea of letting word-of-mouth build is pretty much a dead concept at this point. If a movie doesn’t perform by Sunday night, the analysts are declaring last rites on it by Monday morning. Sometimes even earlier.

The studios are quick to blame audiences for not showing up to their latest offerings, without acknowledging the fact that a lot of their bombs are simply their own damn fault. Let’s face it, a successful movie is all about marketing these days, as much as the purists despise that idea. It’s an intangible combination of name recognition, the right actors and director, a sellable concept and, most importantly, an ad campaign that works. If you don’t have that, you’re dead in the water. Movies like Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and even (shudder) The Dukes of Hazzard had those elements. They were aimed directly at the mainstream audience and they were sold well to that audience. Movies like The Island and Stealth, while also aimed at the mainstream audience, were not sold well to them, and therefore did poorly.

Picking the right release date is also extremely important. Cinderella Man was a financial disappointment mainly because, in my estimation, it was an Oscar-bait movie released in early June, a time when the audience is hungry for summer blockbusters. Would it have done better business in November or December? Do you even have to ask? While the producers and studio ran around blaming everything from the title to the concept to the catering service, they seem to have completely missed the obvious – “you picked the wrong fucking time of year, stupid!” Seriously, how dumb can they be? Yes, Seabiscuit did well in a summer slot – but it was released in late July, a time when the audience is tired of the big blockbusters and is looking for something different. Exactly the kind of slot where The Island and Stealth tanked! Hello, McFly? Why did more people go to Charlie and Wedding Crashers in late July? Because they were looking for something different. This ain’t exactly rocket science, folks.

When you release the wrong movie at the wrong time, it’s only natural that the results will be disastrous. It also helps if the ad campaign gives people a clear idea of what exactly the movie is about. I had to laugh recently when DreamWorks head Walter Parkes actually blamed Scarlett Johansson’s “lack of star power among young people” for The Island’s misfortunes. Dude, are you fucking serious? You had an ad campaign that was all over the map, gave away the entire movie (the same thing you’re doing with Red Eye, by the way) and made the movie look dumber than it actually was, and you think she’s the problem? Oh yeah, because it’s not like many people actually liked Lost in Translation or anything. Guys don’t think she’s hot, oh no, we find her very physically unattractive. Jesus Christ…if you honestly think you would’ve sold more tickets with, say, Julia Stiles or Mandy Moore, you need your freakin’ head examined. You want to blame somebody, start by looking in the mirror. Maybe you guys deserve to be sold off.

As for Stealth, there were a myriad of reasons not to see that thing, starting with its ludicrous “Top Gun meets WarGames” premise. I personally wasn’t that interested because I’m not a big fan of Rob Cohen’s recent films (and it’s nice to see that “from the director of The Fast and the Furious” has finally stopped working), and because it looked like a Nu Image straight-to-video action flick starring Dolph Lundgren and stock footage from a half-dozen other airplane movies. It’s also occurred to me that, with a war going on and all, the idea of a “fun” military action movie probably didn’t appeal to many people, either consciously or subconsciously. Way to capture the zeitgeist, guys. Whether you’re for the war or against it, I think we can agree that none of the soldiers are running around having goofy hijinks with Jessica Biel in a bikini. I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.

Then there’s the “horror slump”, which is extremely exaggerated to say the least. I’ve already written about how High Tension, Dark Water and Land of the Dead suffered greatly from being thrust into the crowded summer marketplace. Now we have The Devil’s Rejects, another film I really admired (not sure “enjoyed” is the right word) that failed to reach the mainstream audience. But here’s the thing: I don’t think Rob Zombie was even aiming for that audience in the first place! From its extremely brutal violence to its eclectic cast to its semi-obscure stylistic influences (mostly Peckinpah and ‘70’s redneck drive-in movies), Devil’s Rejects had “cult film” written all over it. It’s a movie made for a specific audience (mainly hardcore horror and cult cinema fanatics), and I think that audience showed up. But nobody else did. It was Lions Gate’s kamikaze move to release it in the summer that brought unfair expectations that this kind of movie couldn’t possibly live up to. There was no way this movie was going to capture the Wedding Crashers audience, and no one should have expected it to. Let’s get real. People forget that House of 1000 Corpses only made $12 million during its entire theatrical run. Given that, a $7 million opening weekend isn’t particularly bad. But to claim that the movie was “rejected” by an audience it was never intended for is just insane. I’ll bet if you stopped 10 “normal people” on the street and asked them what they thought of Devil’s Rejects, 9 of them would say “never heard of it” (the “normals” mantra) and the tenth would say, “ewww, that movie looks gross!”

Think about it – when do horror movies generally do well? In the fall (particularly October) and the spring, when there’s usually not much competition. I think it’s pretty clear by now that they don’t do well in the summer. Sometimes August works, when most of the blockbusters have cleared out, but not before then. You can’t blame the films or their makers for this – it was the studios’ bonehead call to release them smack in the middle of a very competitive summer. Horror is not “dead”, any more than action movies are “dead” – the hardcore fans are still there, and they still show up (otherwise these movies wouldn’t make any money at all). The point is, you have to reach beyond the die-hards to get the mainstream audience. The studios failed to do that with these films, and that’s their fault. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

Again, the right release date is crucial. One studio that’s been particularly bad at picking the right dates in the last few years is good old Miramax (Darkness at Xmas? Mindhunters in the middle of May?), and now that the brothers Weinstein are vacating the premises and releasing virtually everything on their shelves in the next few months (“Clearance sale! Everything Must Go!!!”), their instincts just seem to have gotten worse. They’ve got would-be Oscar contenders (from last year) coming out in September, horror films everywhere but October, and films that possibly could have been breakout hits buried in unworkable dates, like Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm stuck in the dog days of late August. Sometimes I’m amazed that these guys are actually still in business at all. Just watch as each and every one of these films gets picked off, one by one, like ducks at a shooting gallery. Tons of articles will be written about this, I assure you. And I’ll just shake my head and laugh. It’s all about common sense, people. Common sense.

So, without further ado, here’s a quick roundup of the movies I haven’t found time to write full reviews for:

The Devil’s Rejects – well Rob, this is one movie critic who’s on your side. I thought it was pretty incredible filmmaking, a huge step forward from Corpses (which I liked) and an effective homage to the ‘70’s films that Zombie obviously loves with a passion. Yes, it’s extremely violent, derivative, twisted and perverse. So were Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, and the critics creamed all over those. Why is this any different? The cast is amazing, from total badass William Forsythe to the fantastic Priscilla Barnes (who knew?) to the revelatory Ken Foree. Nice to know that EG Daily is still as cute as ever! Concerning the criticism that Zombie is glamorizing his psychotic, sadistic killers, well, he could’ve let them ride off into the sunset (and more sequels). The fact that he chose not to do so speaks volumes. This is what happens to the killers when the horror movie’s over, and it ain’t pretty. Hugely underappreciated and misunderstood, and easily one of my favorite films of the year so far. ****

The Island – yes, I’m in the minority here, but I had fun with it. It’s Michael Bay’s THX-1138, and I thought it was a rollicking good time. Sue me. Those of you who are convinced that Bay is the Antichrist (sorry, that’s Catherine Breillat) won’t be converted, and I can understand that. But I went to it expecting a fun, goofy, well-made chase movie, and that’s what I got. You want something else, go to a different movie. Bay’s universe is one where a guy who looks like Steve Buscemi can land a Shawnee Smith, and I’m all for that. Logic be damned. And yes, Scarlett’s the best thing in the movie. So there. ***

March of the Penguins – I’m really kind of amazed that this G-rated French documentary is becoming such a minor phenomenon (remember what I said about people wanting something different towards the end of summer?). I’m even more amazed that this is being sold as a “family movie”. The little ones might be a bit upset when some of the penguins die on camera (at least one little girl at the screening I attended had to be carried out by her father) – nature can be brutal, but some kids just can’t handle that. And I’m waiting for the conservative watchdogs to come out against this wanton display of animal instinct – “these beasts are fornicating and reproducing outside of wedlock! They’re terrible role models for our children!” As absurd as that may sound, it wouldn’t surprise me. Really, the entire movie is a testament to how far God’s creatures will go to get some. Yeah, it’s all just good clean family fun. The movie itself isn’t bad, it’s a documentary about penguins, what you see is what you get. I thought it could’ve premiered on the Discovery Channel without losing much of its appeal. The kids I brought got restless after about 10 minutes, so take that for what you will. But it’s very well done, and Morgan Freeman does fantastic narration. I definitely learned a lot about penguins that I didn’t know before, that’s for sure. And I’d rather watch penguins than cartoonish rednecks any day. ***

That about covers it for now. Look for more reviews in the coming weeks!

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