As summer blockbusters begin to roll out every weekend, here’s what we know about box office 2009: Mall cops, museums and mutants have had a great time. Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts and Robert Downey Jr. have not.
In a year that has defied economic indicators from every other industry, the overall box-office tally is up year-to-date from 2008 by an incredible 14 percent.
And many are predicting that this summer could outperform last summer’s record $4.2 billion take.
But not everyone is enjoying the party.
While the tentpoles are starting to do what they do — and most everything else, from “Paul Blart” ($146 million) to “Taken” ($145 million) to even “The Haunting in Connecticut” ($55 million) have been winners — there have been some major misses.
"The Soloist" ($29 million), "State of Play" ($36 million), "Duplicity" ($40 million) and "Confessions of a Shopoholic" ($44 million) all can be considered wrong turns in ’09.
What makes it more surprising is that most of these titles boast major movie stars. And another — "Shopaholic" — had one of the biggest producers on the planet behind it: Jerry Bruckheimer.
So what gives?
"It’s the ‘Lions for Lambs’ syndrome," said one agent, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. "Well-intentioned movies with noble messages and big stars always look great on paper. But right now, the mass audiences don’t want to see them."
Indeed, the serious adult movie has always had trouble at the box office, but in the current economic climate, escapism seems to be the key as theatergoing becomes the last cheap night out. Genre films like “The Last House on the Left” are meeting expectations, and “Wolverine,” "Star Trek," "Night at the Museum" and “Angels & Demons” are just too big not to do good business.
But despite the flood of them we get at the end of every year, the general movie for sophisticated audiences is becoming extinct.
"Adult movies with movie stars can work, but these just looked so boring," said one executive at a major studio, who would not speak for the record. "Nobody wants to see Jamie Foxx as a homeless person, and no one wants to see Russell Crowe fat and ugly. These movies looked like medicine, rather than entertainment.”
So instead of taking their pills, audiences were more inclined to ingest Zac Efron ("17 Again" — $60 million), Miley Cyrus ("Hannah Montana: The Movie" — $77 million) and the combo of Paul Rudd and Jason Segel ("I Love You, Man" — $71 million), unproven bigscreen actors who delivered solid grosses.
Of course, it is all the clarity of hindsight, and no one in Hollywood will predict with certainty what movies work or won’t. But a deeper look at these four misfires reveal different reasons why they didn’t: timing, marketing and, in every case, plot.
DreamWorks’ “The Soloist” suffered from bad buzz at the onset, moving from a prestigious November release to the dead zone of spring. Reviews were mostly negative (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 55), and the plot was hard to summarize on a one-sheet (homeless man as a violin prodigy!).
It was hard to get past a silly-looking Jamie Foxx in the ad campaign. What’s more, he was being chased around by a (terror!) newspaper reporter, which felt either too desperate or too dated.
"I want to see it," said one publicity executive, "but only as an Oscar movie. Not as a spend-my-time-on-a-weekend movie. There’s a difference."
"State of Play"
Print journalism got another bad rap, this time in the form of a bloated, disheveled Russell Crowe. Chasing down a hot story about political evil-doings, the Universal film suffered from being earnest, somber and complicated.
Even as a counterprogramming option, “Play,” which was sandwiched between “17 Again” and “Hannah Montana” on its opening weekend, never caught fire. And it’s not that critics showed no support: the film got an 85 from Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the best reviewed films of the year.
Still, when "Monsters vs. Aliens" and ‘Fast & Furious" were in high-concept first gear, this one got lost.
Universal’s Julia Roberts/Clive Owen spy caper had plenty of mojo – at least on paper. The banter was hot, the reviews were positive, and it had a built-in marketing hook: Julia was back in romance mode.
But for some reason, nobody cared much. The movie, which didn’t come close to crossing $100 million worldwide (usually an easy benchmark for the star), was instead supplanted by "Taken" as the adult title to see in the first quarter.
A recent Variety analysis hit the mark: “Greenlit before the recession, the movie painted a portrait of uncaring corporations and workaholic spies that may have cut just a little too close to the bone at a time when anxious Americans are seeking escape, fun and comfort.”
"Confessions of a Shopaholic"
Speaking of "wrong movie, wrong time," this Disney comedy looked like it was a shoo-in for the "Sex in the City" crowd — but, in hindsight, it was easy to see why it missed.
A star in the making, perhaps, Isla Fisher isn’t there yet. But again, economic realities hit this movie below the belt. Just as Americans were hearing stories night after night about belt-tightening, collapsed mortgages and pinkslips, here was a movie about a woman who couldn’t stop shopping ‘til she dropped. An insurmountable barrier.
More cartoonish piffle than adult-themed, it’s still a noteworthy miss in a year that saw another actress who hasn’t quite yet become a movie star — Beyonce — do just fine in a B-level title like “Obsessed” ($66 million).
So what have we learned?
First, the A-list stars don’t matter like they used to. Julia and Russell do not automatically guarantee great returns.They’re giving way to a new generation of actors, who are opening light-hearted films and who cost a whole lot less. What’s more, audiences cannot be relied upon to show up and see even their favorite actors in movies that seem like a long sit, or a confusing one.
Secondly, message films have a bigger hill to climb in a society facing economic distress. Movies are still the last cheap night out, but audiences are not turning up to be challenged, or lectured or offered morality tales. And now’s not the time to remind them how rich other people are.
And oh yeah, don’t forget to make a good movie.