Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Losing for winning: Famous box office 'flops' that were actually financial hits.

With a mere $145 million in domestic grosses for the five days, many pundits are already calling Iron Man 2 a disappointment. For the crime of not breaking the three-day, $158.4 million record set by The Dark Knight over its three-day opening, the Marvel sequel has been tagged as an under-performer right out of the gate. Once the label of 'flop' is placed on a given film, it's darn-well impossible to remove the stench of alleged failure, even when the numbers clearly say the opposite. Whether due to unrealistic expectations or a press eager to bring famous actors or filmmakers down a peg, the entertainment media often sinks their teeth into these films at the first possible moment, sometimes labeling a film as a flop before the receipts are even counted. Even if Iron Man 2 completely collapses due to word of mouth, it's already amassed well over $341 million globally. Sure, the movie isn't very good, and there are other films on the horizon that may best it for the summer 2010 crown (Toy Story 3, Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Shrek: The Final Chapter, Inception). But Iron Man 2 is a hit by any reasonable standards. So, as we watch Tony Stark limp to a 'pathetic' $600-800 million worldwide take, let's take a gander at several other famous box office hits that were unfairly labeled as disappointments if not outright disasters. Good or bad, none of the films below deserve the title of 'box office bomb'.

Waterworld - At a then-record cost of $175 million, the Kevin Reynolds-directed and Kevin Costner-starring 'Mad Max on water' adventure picture was tagged as a flop before it even opened. Dubbed 'Keven's Gate' and 'Fishtar', the film battled rounds and rounds of bad press concerning cost overruns due to the difficulties of filming on water, as well as the behind the scenes squabbling between Reynolds and Costner. The film debuted on July 28th, 1995 to mixed reviews and a good-but-not great $22 million opening. While the film suffered from bleh word of mouth (it was basically a character-driven sci-fi downer with two massive bookend action scenes) and eventually cashed out at $88 million in the US, overseas grosses saved the day. Amassing $175 million in international dollars, the picture limped out of the red with a respectable $266 million in global box office. It was no mega smash, but the film eventually broke even thanks to home video and cable sales. It's no masterpiece, but it's no mega-flop either. It's a generally satisfying action film that made its money back the hard way.

The Matrix Reloaded - Back in April 1999, whether you thought it was the future of movies or merely a more action-packed and upbeat variation on Dark City, few could deny that the Andy and Larry Wachowski's The Matrix was an uncommonly compelling and thoughtful sci-fi action picture. Four years later, the follow-up was expected to dominate summer 2003 and once again set the bar for action spectacle. And, it kinda-sorta did. The initial reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but audiences quickly revolted. But while fans loved the philosophical ramblings of the first picture, they turned on the sequel's sometimes confusing theological moralizing. While they loved the Hong Kong and anime-influenced action set-pieces in the first picture, they screamed 'too much CGI' and ignored some of the most impressive practical-action scenes (the tea-house fight, the freeway chase) of the past decade. In the end, the sequel's biggest sin was erasing the narrative and moral simplicity of the original film and plunging the series into a swamp of ambiguity. Still, the hype was enough and the film opened to a massive $91 million Fri-Sun take (still the largest R-rated opening of all-time) and a $134 million Thurs-Sun opening weekend. By the time the nerds stopped complaining about the very things they came to see in a Matrix sequel, the film had amassed $281 million in the US (the second-largest R-rated domestic gross ever) and $742 million worldwide (the largest R-rated international gross ever).

King Kong - Peter Jackson's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy was a classic example of falling victim to unrealistic expectations. While the film was already a target due to the alleged hubris of spending $207 million on a three-hour remake of a 1933 monster movie, the troubles really began when the film started screening. The problem was that the movie was good... really good. The initial reviews were ecstatic, which caused pundits everywhere to make completely absurd comparisons to another three-hour, period-set, doomed romance released over the same weekend (the weekend before Christmas) back in 1997. Yes, the word was out that Peter Jackson's epic adventure about a quasi-romance between Naomi Watts and a giant ape was indeed a threat to Titanic's reign as box office and Oscar champion. Alas, when the film opened to 'just' $66 million over five days, including a $50 million Fri-Sun take, backlash set in and everybody was at a loss why the film didn't open to record numbers. Whatever the reason (the length, the fact that opening weekend fell on finals week at many colleges, an overestimation of audience interest), the press immediately branded the picture an outright flop. Yes, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which opened the weekend before, eventually grossed more money ($291 million domestic, $745 million worldwide), but the acclaimed and then reviled King Kong ended its theatrical run with $218 million in the states and $550 million worldwide.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Expected to easily rule summer 2008, the heavily-anticipated fourth Indy film was whip-lashed by the debut of Tony Stark just two weeks earlier. Debuting to a $102 million 3.5 day opening weekend and rave reviews, Iron Man took much of the wind out of Indy's sails. Never-mind that Indiana Jones part IV debuted with a $100 million three-day take (a slightly higher Fri-Sun gross than Iron Man despite being part of a Thurs-Mon Memorial Day opening weekend) or that the film played all summer and ended the season with just $1 million less than Iron Man in domestic numbers, the film was branded a commercial disappointment by those who had no idea how an Indiana Jones picture would perform in our modern box office age (the highest-grossing film in the series up to that point was $242 million, well under the lowest-grossing Star Wars picture). At $317 million domestic, it out-grossed Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harry Potter 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Independence Day, The Matrix trilogy, the X-Men series, and The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring. Plus Dr. Jones crushed Tony Stark overseas, grossing $786 million vs. $585 million. Some flop...

Seven Pounds - When Will Smith signed to do a third Men in Black film (in 3D, natch), it was hard not to see it as a depressing act of a major movie star running scared to a safe franchise after suffering a box office defeat with more challenging material. Which is probably how even Smith himself sees it, but he's wrong too. Seven Pounds is a dark, depressing, and overly cryptic drama based on a foreign film. It's a character study concerning a man who is basically planning on killing himself so that he can disperse his organs to seven worthy souls, in order to atone for his own misdeed that claimed seven innocent lives. Just the kind of thing that everyone wants to see over the 2008 Christmas season right? Yet, despite its reputation as a box office stinker, this dour, critically-panned drama grossed $69 million domestic and $168 million worldwide against a budget of $55 million, all purely on Will Smith's unbeatable star power. Will Smith is the only true movie star left in the world right now. Only Smith can get people to see movies that they otherwise wouldn't be interested in. Name anyone else who could have gotten the tear-jerking economic-mobility drama The Pursuit of Happyness to $307 million worldwide. Yes, Seven Pounds didn't do the usual blockbuster numbers that the star of Hancock and I Am Legend is used to. But it was never supposed to, and the fact that such a movie was quite profitable is a testament to his Smith's unmatched star power. No one wants to see Will Smith turn into Tom Hanks, a movie star who once used his capital to get interesting films made but now hides under the safe sheen of Dan Brown adaptations. The world doesn't need Men In Black 3D. Neither does Will Smith.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Chris said...

GREAT post. There's a guy I work with who I like to talk about new movies with, but his only exposure to the business side is the monday morning blurbs/rankings in the newspaper. This leads him to say things like "ah i saw that sherlock holmes movie...didn't make that much money though huh?" Just because it wasn't #1 due to Avatar.


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