Cinema Psycho

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

Boxed Office: What to Do When Awesome Movies Bomb

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 29, 2010

I don’t think it’s any big secret that the current obsession with boxoffice numbers is bad for movies in general. It keeps people focused on financial success rather than quality work, and drives the mainstream audience away from films that they might actually enjoy just because they didn’t have a huge opening weekend. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. But lately I’m seeing a trend (especially online) that disturbs me. There seems to be a growing school of thought that certain movies only appeal to “film geeks”, and that their inability to spread to the mainstream somehow proves their lack of artistic worth. It’s the “nobody cares” argument, and some really terrific films have been caught in this dilemma. To be fair, it does seem like there’s a bit of a disconnect between the films that get raved about on sites like AICN (and often, mine) and what the general public is interested in seeing. Films like Grindhouse, Watchmen, Kick-Ass and now Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are examples of recent films that seem to be appreciated by the “geek crowd” but didn’t really register with the masses. Needless to say, those were all films that I greatly enjoyed. I think there’s a problem here, not with the films themselves but with the way they are perceived and processed by mainstream moviegoers. Why is it that when a film is “different” the masses register it as “not for me”?

b8qxd.jpgFor the purposes of this discussion, let’s divide the audience (as I think it is divided in real life) into two categories: the “film geek” section, who are generally knowledgeable about film, follow the industry online, read reviews and interviews, have favorite directors, have a large movie collection, etc. and the “normal” people who just go see whatever looks the most appealing at the time and don’t give it any kind of deeper thought. If you go to the cineplex with any sort of regularity, you’re going to encounter the latter quite a bit. These are the people who go to movies like Marmaduke and Vampires Suck and the Alvin and the Chipmunks kind of stuff. You know, the crap that we wouldn’t be caught dead at. Yet sometimes they seem to wander into “our” movies as well, and their reactions to what they see can often be quite odd. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve really liked a film, only to walk out of the theater hearing people say things like, “that sucked!!!” or (in whiny girl voice) “I didn’t like it… it was weird.” This happened to me just yesterday at The Last Exorcism (which I thought was really good) – the audience actually seemed let down that they weren’t getting a typical exorcism movie with all the bells and whistles. Which is exactly what I liked about it, that it subverts your expectations and still delivers a frightening and disturbing movie. That apparently didn’t register with those particular people, and while the film is doing well so far, I expect it to drop off sharply once word-of-mouth spreads to the regular Joes. And that’s kind of sad, but what can you do about it? You can’t go up to each and every one of these people and argue with them. “You just didn’t get it, man!” I mean, you could, but it probably wouldn’t do much good.

I honestly think that these people often have a kind of intellectual disconnect that keeps them from appreciating original ideas and new concepts. If a film’s story doesn’t play out exactly as they expected it to, they seem to emotionally rebel against it and dismiss it as being “weird”. I can understand having a genuine critical reaction, but this is something more basic and primal than that. It’s as if they actually want to see the exact same things, over and over again, and anything that digresses from that somehow offends their sensibilities. Whereas a true film fan is excited by originality and creativity, the “normals” seem to have violent reactions to it. Don’t make them think about what they’re watching, don’t give them something new to mull over. And god forbid you don’t give them their beautiful happy ending. Any sort of ambiguity – forget about it. It’s not just a matter of taste; they literally can’t seem to process the unexpected as a positive experience. And when those movies don’t do well at the boxoffice, they get to point their fingers and say, “see – I toldja so! I’m not the only one!”

The problem is that this mentality seems to be invading the “film geek” crowd as well. About 99% of the online discussion about Scott Pilgrim seems to be about its lack of financial success; precious few seem to be actually saying anything about the film itself, whether they love it or hate it. Myself included, granted. People who love it are theorizing about why it didn’t do better, while people who hate it are crowing, “see – nobody cares about this stuff”. The actual film and its content seem to be irrelevant at this point. What I don’t understand is why the people who love the film (or any film) can’t just love it – why do we need the validation of mainstream success? Why does anyone care whether or not Universal makes its money back? That’s the mentality of a studio executive, not a film fan. Think about it – did anyone back in the 80’s give a shit whether or not Repo Man or Weird Science or Real Genius or Big Trouble in Little Chinaimproved the cash flow of their respective studios? Hell no! We were just happy that Hollywood was making movies that we liked. If anyone had suggested that those movies shouldn’t have been made because they didn’t generate enough profit for their corporate overlords, the response would have been something like, “Get the fuck out of here!” And rightly so. We loved those movies because they were awesome, not because the rest of the world validated them for us. If they didn’t make money, that was Hollywood’s problem, not ours.

Look, I understand the argument – and I’ve even made this argument in the past – that the movies that make money decide what gets made in the future. And I believe that to be true. I believe that you vote with your money, and if you like certain kinds of films, you should put your money where your mouth is and pay to see them. Absolutely. But if that doesn’t happen, it shouldn’t take anything away from the film itself as a work of art or as a piece of entertainment. Just because the majority of people don’t appreciate it, that shouldn’t matter to people who really love movies. There are lots of great films that have cult followings that didn’t really cross over to the “normals”. Are Fight Club, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet or Apocalypse Now diminished in our eyes just because the popular kids don’t watch them? Of course not. These are the people who like the Twilight movies, for christ’s sake; who gives a shit what they think? Does anyone actually think that Edgar Wright or Michael Cera are never going to work again? Get real (and frankly I don’t understand people’s problem with Cera; I honestly think the kid’s fucking hilarious). You want to know what really happened to Scott Pilgrim? They released it on the same weekend as two big movies with mainstream appeal – The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. The guys went to Expendables, the ladies went to Eat. That left precious little for anything else, much less a movie that appealed mostly to comic-book readers and gamers. That’s the bottom line. But frankly, I think it pretty much did what it was going to do financially. They took a risk by putting it out there the way they did, and it didn’t pay off. That’s it. It doesn’t take away one iota from the film as an artistic work. Maybe people will catch up with it on DVD and cable. Maybe they won’t. It doesn’t affect my appreciation of it either way. Why should it?

I don’t understand why we, as proud self-proclaimed film geeks, can’t just take a stand and say, “you know what, fuck the boxoffice, we love what we love and the hell with anyone who doesn’t get it.” Why can’t we just celebrate when something awesome actually gets made within the studio system instead of another Marmaduke? Isn’t that what being a true “film geek” is supposed to be about? Loving movies, regardless of how much (or how little) money they make? I didn’t start to hate Inception when it became a smash hit – so why should I dislike Scott Pilgrim for not becoming one? The dollars involved should have no bearing on our appreciation of excellent filmmaking. Nor should the mainstream audience’s lack of interest. Look at it this way – classic films like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and Citizen Kane were all flops when they were released. Now they’re beloved by millions of film fans. Yet there were tons of mediocre movies that were hits at the time that are completely forgotten now. The “normals” are often wrong, and it’s pretty much always been that way. So maybe it’s time for us to just say “fuck ’em” and love the things we love, with or without them. All this armchair boxoffice analysis is just taking our focus away from what we should be writing and talking about, which is the movies we love and why we love them.

And just for the record, my 13-year-old nephew loved Scott Pilgrim. He was dying to see it and didn’t really care what anyone else thought. So maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for the future after all. (“There he goes, talking about his damn nephew again…”) I’m not saying this will happen, but if I’m still around in 50 years and kids are rocking out to Sex Bob-omb, I’m gonna laugh my ass off. You never know.

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