For critics and moviegoers who constantly wonder why Hollywood studios continue to return to sequels and formulaic product instead of more original ideas, all you need to do is look at this weekend’s box office results for ample evidence why.
Certainly a new product, Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables” uses a popular “the gang’s all here” marketing mentality by featuring some of the most beloved and well known actions stars of the past 30 years to hook male ticket buyers. While they are barely in the movie, the campaign used numerous shots of one scene featuring Stallone, Bruce Willis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reinforce this fact. The result? Stallone’s biggest opening ever, $35 million.
“Eat Pray Love,” sold as a female escapist fantasy and a return of the “fun loving” Julia Roberts (ie, lots of smiles) played to older women just like summer options “The Devil Wears Prada” (which quickly expanded to become a phenomenon based on good word of mouth) and last year’s hit “Julie and Julia.” It didn’t hurt that it was also based on a very popular novel as well.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”? A stunningly low $10.5 million. “Pilgrim” wasn’t universally adored, there were some detractors, but for the most part critics absolutely embraced Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s graphic novel series with a 68 on Metacritic and a 80% on the more populist Rotten Tomatoes. So, with the continuing complaint of repetitive product in theaters, why did this imaginative, funny and groundbreaking film fail to catch on with audiences? There are a lot of reasons why, but many of them can’t be faulted to Universal’s marketing dept who are no doubt licking their wounds after a long campaign. They pretty much did everything possible on a publicity and media level to grow awareness of the property since it began production over a year ago. Unfortunately, that was a different time. Hollywood and the media still thought Michael Cera was a star then, which brings us to the first problem:
In 2010, Michael Cera hurts you at the box office.
After “Superbad” and a supporting role in “Juno,” many mistakenly believed the “Arrested Development” cast member was the next quirky, unexpected star who could relate to the millennial generation. Well, not so much. His follow ups either were puzzling, but quality misfires (“Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” “Youth in Revolt”) or outright bombs (“Year One”). That string of negative results basically stung Cera’s likability with audiences. Unfortunately, he’d already been selected as the lead and shot “Pilgrim” before the biggest turd, “Year One,” even hit theaters. Universal quickly realized the problem, but while they could hide his face on the poster, it was hard to take Scott Pilgrim himself out of the trailers or TV spots. And frankly, if you’re Cera’s agent, you better be hoping that “Arrested” movie actually gets off the ground or HBO comes calling about a TV series after this weekend.
The second problem:
What is the movie actually about?
While hardcore fans and those that embraced the imagery of the first few trailers were eager to figure it out, most potential ticket buyers seemed unable to gauge what “Scott Pilgrim” was all about. The visual media focused on a young man who was battling seven evil ex’s in strange video game like battles all for the love of a girl. Unfortunately, a 2-minute trailer and :30 TV spot made conveying any reason why our hero should put himself in harms way for his love extremely difficult. That’s partially because his love, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), isn’t exactly the most affectionate and traditionally sympathetic heroine. When creating the marketing materials, it was extremely difficult to sell the fact that it was worth our hero’s time to risk cartoon life or death for the love of a girlfriend who had not just one, but seven evil ex’s. The concept works in a graphic novel, but when it is placed in reality there has to be more sympathy with the actual characters. For young women in particular, this seemed to be a huge issue with generating interest in the film.
The third problem:
The release date.
Back when Universal first moved “Scott Pilgrim” to August 13 it probably seemed like a smart move. “Eat Pray Love” would appeal to older women (never one of their target audiences) and “The Expendables” would go after older men, some of whom would hopefully see “Pilgrim” as well. What the studio didn’t count on was “Expendables” generating huge interest in “Pilgrim’s” key demo: men under 25. For those potential moviegoers on the fence (and no demo is more important for an opening weekend), the loss of that group took any potential wind out of “Pilgrim’s” sails. What is puzzling is that it was clear by late spring that “The Expendables” was generating massive interest online across all male demos. Universal no doubt believed their picture would seem fresher and hipper to that audience (and to be fair, it certainly is), but the kitsch factor of Willis, Schwarzenegger and Stallone together was just too much to overcome. In hindsight, moving the film to July 30th vs. a weak “Dinner for Schmucks” and following a rash of Comic-Con publicity would have been the smarter move. And yet, hindsight is 20/20. Live and learn.
The fallout of “Pilgrim” for movie fans has to be taken in hindsight along with a number of other failed, but well made secondary comic book or graphic novel properties in the last few years. “Kick-Ass,” “The Losers,” “Watchmen” and even the much maligned “The Spirit” (hey, you can’t say it didn’t dare to be different), each were severe disappointments at the box office. Granted, inventive fare such as “District 9” or “Inception” can still break through (for numerous reasons, mind you), but this is just more evidence for corporate higher ups to put the kibosh on more original material. In fact, Marc Shmuger and David Linde, the men who greenlit “Scott Pilgrim,” had already been ousted from their positions as co-chairpersons of Universal Studios months ago for not bringing enough surefire hits to the NBCUni division. The studio has a long history of mixing up unconventional pictures on its slate, but the box office failure of “Pilgrim” won’t help when an executive is fighting for a similarly risky project down the road (whether its at Universal, Fox, Paramount, Disney, Sony Pictures or Warner Bros. either). That’s why the cliche, “That’s why they call it the movie business” can sting more deeply than any other words beyond “You’re fired” in this town.
Sadly, it’s also a strange turn of events for Wright, the “Hot Fuzz” helmer who showed tremendous talent and originality in “Pilgrim.” The Brit was rumored to have already dropped out of discussions of other event tentpoles in order to concentrate on a possible “Pilgrim” sequel. Since those that love “Pilgrim,” including many of Wright’s peers, will keep the buzz alive he’ll no doubt land on his feet. Whether he’ll have the same creative control? We’ll, fingers crossed…
There’s still time to turn the tide, of course. “Pilgrim” reportedly has an A- Cinemascore (higher than “Eat” or “Expendables”) and little competition for the next month or so as the summer wind down. But, if failing at the multiplex puts “Pilgrim” alongside other notable surprise underperformers such as “Office Space,” “Fight Club” and “Children of Men,” is that such a bad place to be?
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