Universal's superhero romance squandered incredible buzz and great reviews — who's to blame?
Moviegoers never got the memo.
But those who actually saw the day-glo love story almost universally adored it — surely a recipe for word-of-mouth business in week two. Right?
Wrong again: in its second weekend, the graphic novel-based, video game-inspired action/comedy fell to $5.2 million at the box office, a 51 percent drop from its doleful $10.6 million opening.
How could something so intrinsically good — and at $60 million, not cheaply made — go so wrong?
Selling the film proved to be an impossible task, film marketing executives and analysts told TheWrap. Coupled with a mashup concept that defied easy characterization, the film was crippled by its lead actor Michael Cera, who is rapidly earning a label as box office poison.
“This was a case where there was a narrow demographic and where that group of people responded to the movie very enthusiastically and were loud in praise, and the internet lent it more weight than it may have deserved,” said Jeff Hartke, a former box office analyst with the Hollywood Stock Exchange.
Here are the five things that went so wrong with a movie that seemed to do everything right.
1. Genre Confusion = Epic Marketing Fail
Universal did the best it could with a steep marketing challenge, according to multiple film marketing veterans who spoke with TheWrap.
But the film’s unique concept doesn’t easily translate to a TV trailer. Its mashup of genres – superhero adventure, romance, comedy — left Universal’s marketing team with no precedent to draw upon; they were charting new ground.
Unlike Lionsgate's “Kick-Ass,” Universal made a concerted effort to broaden the film’s appeal. The studio spent heavily on ads and television spots, cutting certain ads so they played up the film’s comic elements, all so that the movie would play beyond the core comic-book nerds.
Its posters and billboards were often contradictory, some marketing executives said. Their initial art, showing Cera cradling his electric bass guitar, seemed to position him as a cool guy, while commercials played up the star’s awkwardness.
“They couldn’t decide if this was a true superhero movie and they should make him look like a hero, or if it was an underdog story and you were supposed to root for him to get the girl,” a marketing executive with knowledge of the production told TheWrap.
In the final weeks leading up to the movie's release the film’s art and commercials shifted away from Cera and focused more on the superpowers of the exes themselves. The plot and its comic undertones seemed at loggerheads with the action that the posters and TV spots tried to sell.
One element the spots never quite managed to convey was the film's video game aesthetic, where words like "pow" pop up in bold face letters and characters disappear in a shower of coins much as they would in "Super Mario Brothers."
2. Comic Books Aren’t King
It’s been a rough year at the box office for second- and third-tier superhero properties. Given the dwindling takes for movies such as “Kick-Ass,” “Jonah Hex,” and now “Scott Pilgrim,” film executives should be cautious before greenlighting the next graphic novel or comic book adaptation (hear that "Green Lantern" and "Green Hornet"?).
“There is too heavy a reliance on the fanboy and fangirl crowd, and they don’t always branch out to the mainstream,” an individual with knowledge of the film’s marketing campaign told TheWrap. “You can only dig into the bottom of well of the comic book canon, before you come up with esoteric characters no one's heard of.”
Part of the trouble is the ever-expanding influence of Comic-Con in studios decision making process. Some studio executives privately griped to TheWrap that the failure of films such as “Scott Pilgrim” and “Kick-Ass” show that what plays like gangbusters in San Diego doesn't necessarily have great appeal in the flyover states.
“Comic Con now reads like it's ShoWest, but it’s a hot-house environment. It’s not the real world,” a film marketing executive told TheWrap.
By heavily screening the film at Comic-Con, Universal was banking that the true believers would serve as ambassadors for the film. However, their enthusiasm wasn't enough.
3. At This Stage, Michael Cera Couldn't Open an Envelope
“Scott Pilgrim”s’ fate may have been sealed the moment Michael Cera nabbed the lead role.
Cera may have had a hit with “Superbad” and “Juno,” but the credit there may lie with Judd Apatow and Diablo Cody, respectively: Films with Cera’s name above the title since have all bombed. “Year One” earned $43.3 million, “Youth in Revolt” netted $15.3 million and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” grossed $31.5 million. Like “Scott Pilgrim,” all the these films featured Cera as a mumbling, geeky, and virginal protagonist.
“Aside from recasting, I don’t know what they could have done,” the individual with knowledge of the marketing campaign told TheWrap. “I don’t know why or when this occurred, but somehow this industry became convinced without any evidence that Michael Cera is a star.”
“Who wants to hang out with this guy? He’s the kid you shoved in a locker,” the executive added.
4. Slacker Fatigue
Despite the fantastical elements and efforts to sell its superhero elements, the film’s downtrodden protagonist may have hit a little too close to home: Pilgrim lacks a steady job, sleeps in his gay best friend’s bed and seems perfectly content with his dead-end prospects in a bad economy.
“In recessionary time, who wants to see a movie about 20-year-old slacker do-nothings who are in a band? You’d rather slap them than go watch them in a movie,” a film marketing executive told TheWrap.
5. The Price Tag
Universal spent heavily on “Scott Pilgrim,” in part to seduce audiences with its eye-popping visuals. But that razzle and dazzle came with a hefty price tag. The movie, however, may have ultimately been too offbeat to justify its cost.
“This should have never been a studio movie. It feels like an indie movie and if they’d released the movie through Focus [Features] it would have felt more organic,” a rival studio marketing executive told TheWrap.
Adds another film marketing executive, “It’s too damn expensive. if it was made for $25 to $30 million, nobody would be beating up on it and it would go on to make a good chunk of change at the box office. At this point it may never make its money back.”