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What Does Box Office Failure Even Mean these Days?

It’s already happening. We’re already calling Kick-Ass a failure. Even though it managed to narrowly slide into first place at the US Box Office over the weekend, there are tonnes of pundits ready to dogpile on top of it and describe it as the most epic kind of failure. It seems to be a cyclical experience every time that a big geek film emerges, that has experienced a large amount of pre-release hype on the old interweb: Snakes on a Plane, Watchmen and Grindhouse among others. So how come Hollywood keeps pandering to a niche that never seems to show up?

Did Kick-Ass get its ass kicked? Should we call it Ass-Kick?

The first thing to observe is that sometimes the pandering pays off. There’s a lot of speculation at Iron Man 2 may secure the biggest opening weekend of all time when it arrives in the US next month, and it is the living embodiment of geek chic. Similarly any insecurities about the geeky comic book movies that were raised by Watchmen were somewhat erased by the surprising success of X-Men Origins: Wolverine a few weeks later. Geek-driven cinema is going strong.

But one might argue that there’s a whole order of magnitude between films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, with their simply massive mainstream appeal, and more niche and geeky properties like Snakes on a Plane or even Watchmen. Everyone knows Batman, who the hell knows Dr. Manhattan? Except for us geeks. Cause we’re cool like that. So, even if you except the appeal of the nerdy dollar, you must concede that it seems a lot safer for studios to play it safe with big mainstream properties rather than venturing into titles that draw hopefully fictional (and slightly disturbing) reactions like ‘nerdgasm’?

Being honest, it’s hard to figure out what ‘failure’ for a movie means these days, particularly as prognosticated by pundits. It was recently announced that Grindhouse – a film which failed so badly at the US box office they had to split it up for us simple Europeans) has just produced its second spinoff. Apparently we’ll be seeing Hobo with a Shotgun some time after Machete. Apparently ‘once bitten, twice shy’ means nothing to these big studios, at least according to the pundits who declared the big experiment financially stillborn. The ghost Snakes on a Plane continues to drive the production of web-driven publicity machines like Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus (albeit on a much smaller budget). Much to the chagrin of The Guardian, Hollywood is still using these old models and making movies for us, despite our apparent failure to show up on opening weekend, which is becoming rude at this point.

Every one of these films posted weak opening numbers (and, arguably, weak overall numbers) which were decried as some sort of cataclysm. I’m not convinced. Watchmen opened with a Box Office of the same size of Superman Returns, which was deemed a success (of course, Batman, being the devious little fellow he is, undermined Supes with an even bigger box office prize for Batman Begins). I think labeling it a bomb isn’t necessarily fair. Given the moderate-to-low budget of Kick-Ass, this isn’t a box office bomb. It isn’t an earth-shattering success, but it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s all about how you measure these things, and they need to be measured relative to the costs. A few weeks ago, the ever wise Castor made an excellent post about Hollywood films, budgets and when they make their money back that’s well worth a look. He makes the point that by that measure any number of success stories are severely undermined, struggling to make back money made on them. So what makes these cases so special that they deserve to be singled out?

I’m tempted to go the obvious route and suggest expectation management needs to be drawn on. I loved Kick-Ass. A whole host of enthusiastic bloggers agreed with me (or I with them). That got people talking about on-line. The assumption is that chatter means box office money. Not necessarily. That’s a faulty assumption and one I think needs be removed from the equation when speculating on the next ‘big’ release.

We’re nerds and geeks. We get excited about Kick-Ass, in the same way that teenage girls get excited about Channing Tatum, for example (he is the hulk of the moment, right?). However, we don’t vent our excitement and anticipation by gushing at lunch with the girls or googling pictures of that dreamboat, we do it be writing articles and tweets. These get picked up and noticed. Like some wizard staring into a couldron, these are interpreted as a grand design in motion. Hollywood executives don’t hang out at the local prep school or beauty salons or local hangouts, they browse the web. They’re wired in. So the interest from nerds, even though it may be comparable to the interest in a Channing Tatum vehicle, is magnified, because they can actually measure it and substantiate it.

Of course, this is conjecture. Maybe I’m being too straightforward. Personal experience also tells me that nerds like us are probably more likely to by the DVD than the casual movie-goers who flock to cinemas in great numbers than us. We’re suckers for special editions or rereleases. I make a point not to buy these deluxe packages, but I still own two copies of the Godfather Trilogy and two copies of Blade Runner. I’m a Hollywood executive’s wet dream. I have no figures to back this up (I’m not as awesome as Castor is), but I remember reading once that a film’s theatrical release is nothing but a trailer for the DVD. Hell, Alice in Wonderland had its cinematic run cut short (to the chagrin of cinemas) in order to get it out on DVD faster, because that’s where the money is. And those niche audience members are the ones who buy the video. I imagine a higher percentage of people who saw Kick-Ass this weekend will buy the home video release, especially compared to, say, Dear John. But I don’t know – but how many non-movie geeks do you know with a DVD collection over over 500?

I don’t know exactly what the box office figures mean, but I know that they don’t mean failure. At least not in any real terms.

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13 Responses

  1. Good points, I understand that the movie industry is one that aims to make money (like anything else) but sometimes I’m a bit nonplussed as to the relation between quality and of film and the money it makes. Of course, it’s a never ending argument though…I mean if films like [insert name of horrid movie] can make a million dollars and a movie like [The Messenger, An Education] make like 10 million isn’t it a bit obvious that money is not the yardstick to measure a film’s success. But what do I know…?

    • Darren, these philosophical and higher-order critical thinking posts of yours just keep me coming back and back and back. Well done.

      Piles of cash do not necessarily speak to a film’s quality. But there’s a reverse prejudice there, evident when “The Dark Knight” came out and the Academy snubbed it: that if a movie is a huge blockbuster it must be thin and pedestrian and emotionally empty and thus Oscar does not reward it. It KILLS ME that “Dark Knight” was so cruelly snubbed while “Avatar” got awards out the wazoo.

      • Thanks, M, I’m blushing (and also, just rambling).

        You’re right – I hate the argument that “there’s a reward for making money: it’s called making money”. If a film is good, it’s good, regardless of how much money it has earned.

    • Yep – there all manner of financial failures (hell, even critical ones too) that have been reappraised as classics. I think that the nature of cinema, what with weekly releases and all, promotes this sort of short-term appraisal of a work. Pass or fail based on 72 hours. It’s a little bit crazy.

  2. okay obviously that should read if [insert name of horrid film] can make *100* million dollars. that mistake invalidates the entire comment, sheesh.

  3. Heavy duty stuff, Darren. I’m liking it.

    I couldn’t agree for a second that Kick-Ass could be considered a failure. Considering it was made outside the studio system, losses might be a little harder to absorb for the investors, but the spoils are also so much more meaningful when things go well.

    No doubt the franchises whose reach goes beyond the geekset are the ones who’ll do well at the box office, but it will always be the hope that our special little-known heroes might break out into fame and fortune, and I suppose that all the studios hope that there small investment into optioning each and every property they’ve snatched up since X-men might blow up into some kind of major windfall. Doesn’t that sound more like they’re planning for a sleeper hit – well, you can’t plan for a sleeper, they just happen.

    Let’s keep our fingers crossed for Scott Pilgrim.

    Really like how this tucks in with Castor’s post about box office winnings. We’re all on the same wavelength these days, I think.

    • Yep. Looking forward to Scott Pilgrim. And I think it’s just like Castor to be a little ahead of the curve.

      I think Iron Man was a hero that nobody expected to do well (I knew next to nothing about him before the film), and came from “almost unknown to the mainstream audience” to “box office gold”. I imagine the studios are all looking for something similar.

      Either that, or all the surefire franchises (X-Men, Batman, Superman) are taken.

  4. Outstanding post Darren and thanks for the link. Considering that Kick Ass production budget was $30 mil, which is nothing too considerable these days, we could consider Kick Ass to be a mild disappointment. It will probably not be as profitable as some suggested but cost will be recouped and DVD sales should be fairly significant through words of mouth. Having seen it yesterday and loving it, and observing that most critics enjoyed it (78% RT), I would say Kick Ass more than deserved to have been made!

    • Yep. I imagine that it’s movies like these that allow studios to triple-dip on the DVD – regular edition, special edition, director’s cut, etc. I reckon that might be the appeal of geek-friendly films. I certainly don’t think it’s a failure at this stage of the game.

  5. Poignant and thoughtful article Darren.

    It is a bit stifling to hear what is or isn’t a success via the execs of Hollywood, especially when success doesn’t always equal quality.

    If that has to come back in a $$$ amount for them to say success, I don’t think it will matter to us geeks one way or another. Your general movie goer? Maybe, but as you pointed out, they aren’t the ones who are going to buy special additions and expand their movie collection weekly.

  6. Box office failure = a film that doesn’t at least double what it cost to produce. And whether or not it goes to number one makes no difference.

    • Thanks Alison, but I think that there is life after box office – most movies will make more on home media, for example, and some will through merchandising. So the initial box office failure is mitigated substantially.

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