This Friday sees the release of The Counselor, a film that, by all conventional accounts, should be a lock for a $20-million opening at the box office this weekend, and yet the film is unlikely to crack double digits, even with a mega-wide 3,000 theater release. Certainly, as many have been doing, we could point to Gravity as a reason why The Counselor is likely to stumble; earning over $30 million in its third frame last weekend, I'm inclined to think it will finish on top yet again, besting primo contender Bad Grandpa by a few million, and making it the first film since The Hunger Games in April 2012 to top the box office for four consecutive weekends. However, its highly impressive run cannot fully explain why The Counselor is going to fail. Rather, we would be better served to examine how Fox has been marketing the film and, beyond that, question precisely why Ridley Scott's production company, Scott Free, and Fox believed this to be a financially viable project to begin with.
The entirety of the marketing for The Counselor suffers from what I'm calling "prestige-film fallacy" (PFF). The PFF relies on the prior prestige of those involved, rather than ingenuity, to convince prospective viewers of the new film's worth. Everything about a PFF campaign reeks of derivative, outmoded notions of "quality" cinema and often hitches its wagon to the premise that sexy, rich characters played by sexy, rich stars equal big bucks. The Counselor is an epitome of these tendencies and, for those attuned to these developments, will serve to test our fundamental question: Can you sell a film based purely on prior pedigree?
An eyeball test of the poster features Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt, in a typical vertical column design, each looking cleaned, clipped, and bathed in high-key light. The film's trailer is resolute in highlighting sex appeal; the first 30 seconds alone flash shots of actors speaking softly in bed, exchanging six-figure gifts, driving six-figure cars, and offering faux-provocative platitudes about their statuses as outliers to normative socio-economic practice ("I know why I'm in it. Do you?"). The remainder features the inevitable "shit-hitting-the-fan" scenario, with Fassbender's "counselor" seemingly pitted against a nameless drug cartel. Finally, like many recent trailers, the credits are sure to let us know which actors have previously received Oscar nominations and wins.
I can't think of a marketing campaign in recent memory so disinterested in characterization and so adamant in amplifying impending threats of faceless violence. Even the trailer for Oliver Stone's Savages, while relishing the cartoonish ferocity of its drug-running characters, offered a degree of humanity beyond mere human figures and stakes beyond merely "potential death." There's a non-specificity to all of the film's paratextual materials, which even extends to the title!
The issue isn't that audiences have become disinterested in thrillers; on the contrary, it's that studios have become increasingly incapable of actually promoting their products. Look back to a film like Double Jeopardy. Simply from reading its premise, one can quickly ascertain its basic, high-concept leanings. However, when watching that trailer, one quickly notices the amount of careful, economical characterization that goes into detailing and teasing the film's 105-minute runtime in just two and a half. Each character is given a clear role within the diegesis; instead of plodding through non-contextualized exchanges, Double Jeopardy's trailer streamlines events with creative techniques like flash cuts to mimic flash photography, switches to black and white which don't occur in the actual film, slow-motion, narrator voiceover, and a virtuoso, concluding credit sequence with actor names super-imposed on shifting waters.
I use Double Jeopardy to show that, a little over a decade ago, even a routine crime thriller, when given an enthusiastic, well-made trailer, could be made to seem far more immediate and essential than it really is. That's the whole idea of marketing: to convince viewers to actually see a film they might otherwise not. Double Jeopardy opened to $23 million and finished with $116 domestic, figures that certainly surprise, in hindsight. That Bruce Beresford film can now likely be found in many a department store's bargain bin, yet in 1999, audiences paid to see it because they were sold a film that they were made to believe mattered. Now, studios marketing "adult" thrillers often make only nominal efforts to hype their films, produce trailers that could have been cut in an hour, and conspicuously insist that the money originally thrown at big-name actors is all that needs to be done in order to guarantee a hit. So the question returns: Can you sell a film based purely on prior pedigree? Fox and Scott say, "Yes." I say, in the words of Max Cady, "It's going to take a hell of a lot more than that, counselor, to prove you're better than me."
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Gravity: $22.8 -26%
2. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: $20.2 NEW
3. Captain Phillips: $11.3 -31%
4. The Counselor: $9.8 NEW
5. Carrie: $8.4 -48%
6. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: $7.1 -26%
7. Escape Plan: $4.5 -54%
8. Enough Said: $1.4 -20%
9. 12 Years a Slave: $1.2 +29%
10. Prisoners: $1.1 -45%