Sunday, December 26, 2010

Box-office Flops of 2010: Bad Timing or Just Plain Bad?

Quick: what do the following movies have in common?

Edge of Darkness
The Wolfman
The A Team
Repo Men
Robin Hood
Knight and Day
From Paris With Love
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Give up?

They all flopped at the box office this year. And they flopped hard. In fact, these movies were the 10 biggest box-office flops of 2010.

In a year that saw two wars, a stubborn recession, high employment, increasing distrust in the government, and an overall negative attitude about the state of the union, is it any wonder that we wanted some lighthearted, I-don’t-wanna-think entertainment this year? Hollywood thought that’s what they were giving us—feel-good rom coms (Knight and Day), kick-ass shoot ‘em ups (The A Team, From Paris With Love), and far-out fantasies (Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Hollywood pumped these movies out, thinking they were exactly what we wanted…and then no one went to see them.

What gives?

This could be a stretch (or wishing thinking on my part), but is it possible that what we wanted this year wasn’t escapist entertainment, but reality entertainment? Were we really craving provocative documentaries, tales of hardship and daily struggles, and inspirational weepies? Are we finally ready for less fluff and more substance?

Movies, perhaps, like Winter’s Bone, an independent movie that takes an unflinching look at life in the Ozarks, in the form of a young girl forced to care for a mentally disturbed mother and two hungry siblings while hunting down her drug addict father and preventing the family home from going into foreclosure?

Or A Film Unfinished, a documentary about the deplorable conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and the Nazi propaganda used to cinematically manipulate the situation?

Not exactly feel-good fare, but excellent films nonetheless, nominated for awards and receiving critical acclaims. Was our desire for more substance a factor in these films’ success?  

I’d like to think Americans are ready to face reality head on, and are tired of being pandered to. I want to believe they want to be challenged, are looking to think outside the box, and want movies to focus on life as they know it. Maybe it’s possible Americans want Hollywood to connect with them, to identify with them, be empathetic to their struggles.

I, for one, have always liked my movies to flirt with the dark side, expose the seedy underbelly of society, show life on the fringe. I shy away from fluff for the most part.

But I’m not so sure my fellow Americans want the same. Here’s how I know.

I recently joined a book club. The first book I was responsible for reading was Tracy Kidder’s “Strength in What Remains,” about a man who escapes war and genocide in his native Burundi in West Africa to seek the American dream in New York City. The book was full of violence and bloodshed and poverty and tales of homelessness and helplessness. It was a brave choice of book, especially given this time of year, when most people’s thoughts turn to Happy Holidays and visions of sugarplums are dancing in their heads.

It gave me hope that the staff of the bookstore would shy away from the typical lighthearted stuff most book clubs gravitate towards, and include gritty, provocative, and controversial reads. Maybe this book club would be different. Maybe the staff wouldn’t shy away from the horrors of the world, wouldn’t shelter us in a protective bubble, and embraces the world and all its imperfections. And if they felt that way about the books they read, certainly they liked their movies the same way.  

But I would be wrong.

“Don’t worry,” the book club leader said to us as our meeting wrapped up. “It’s rare that we pick a book as dark as this. We’ll be returning to more lighthearted fare for the future.”

All the ladies in the group let out a collective sigh of relief, and uttered such things as “Thank goodness for that,” and “I can’t believe this book was even chosen for discussion,” and “I hope next month’s pick is Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve been meaning to read that for months.”

Yes, as you might have guessed, most of the group hated “Strength in What Remains.”

Guess that goes to show that—no matter the form of entertainment—people really do just want to escape. Which would explain the top three box-office earners of the past year: Toy Story 3 ($415 million); Alice in Wonderland ($334 million); and Iron Man 2 ($312 million).

See the common thread there? Escapist entertainment if I’ve ever seen it. But also this: all three movies appealed to kids—and the kid in all of us.

Oh, and a third thing: they didn’t suck. Maybe that’s why we didn’t flock to theaters this year to see The Wolfman and Repo Men and MacGruber. Those movies, and the other big flops, were simply terrible.

Winter’s Bone and A Film Unfinished were dark and gritty, but excellent, which explains their success. Bad timing maybe, but appreciated by a minority of people who like to be challenged and forced to think. That was those movies’ saving grace.

Bad timing had nothing to do with any of the movie flops. It all came down to being bad.

So there you have it—the key to box office gold: make escapist movies that don’t suck. Unless a vampire is involved. Then we want the movie to suck.

(Which reminds me: I think my next post should be about the vampire craze that’s been sweeping the country for like, ever now. Seriously, the trend is getting old. Please go away.)

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