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Box Office Rap: Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster

So, Contagion is the reigning champion—at least, until Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity opens in IMAX 3D this Friday, the first AHB to open in the two-plus years since.

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When Contagion opened in IMAX theaters on September 9, 2011, only a handful of films had previously been offered in that large-scale presentation that weren’t either part of a franchise, an original film with hopes of becoming a franchise, a work based on another text, or a prominent remake a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. From 2002 to September 2011, a total of 77 wide release films made their way to IMAX screens. Of these, and excluding animated and concert films, only three films (Eagle Eye, Inception, and Sanctum) opened over that nine-year span that didn’t fit the above qualifications. Certainly, these anomalous entries can be explained by their potential box-office appeal, but only Inception had directorial (let’s say auteur) pedigree, which is where my interest lies. We shall call such films art-house blockbusters (AHB), in accordance with our established definition.

As any taxonomist is prone to do, I feel obligated to compare the two films and say which is the “purest” AHB, in the sense that it most comprehensively achieves our definition. It should go without saying that an AHB need be a hit (let’s say more than double its budget worldwide) to fit the qualifications. While Inception certainly made more money, I’m inclined to say that Contagion, given Steven Soderbergh’s comprehensive proliferation within the independent scene (Sex, Lies, and Videotape arguably being the definitive independent film of the late 1980s and early 1990s) and the film’s rather radical departure from the filmmaker’s prior work, satisfies our definition best, especially since Christopher Nolan was riding The Dark Knight wave, which essentially afforded him any project he wanted and all but guaranteed a worldwide sensation.

So, Contagion is the reigning champion—at least, until Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity opens in IMAX 3D this Friday, the first AHB to open in the two-plus years since. As such, even just from the preceding hype and pedigree, Gravity is likely the most unprecedented IMAX release of the 21st century—a film that not only comprehensively fulfills the established AHB requirements, but perhaps adds an even deeper layer, in that Cuarón hasn’t directed a film in seven years, since Children of Men. That film made just over $35 million domestic and barely scraped past 1,500 theaters in its widest release. Certainly, Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a hit, but purely within the confines of a multiple-director franchise, where directorial flourish is often frowned upon. It’s Y Tu Mamá También where Cuarón originally made his name with critics and cinephiles, though the modest $13 million domestic gross is hardly substantial outside its art-house confines. Were it not for stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, Gravity might outwardly look like an oncoming train wreck. And yet, even with them, it may still. Bullock, though a considerable draw in comedies, has arguably never had a dramatic hit where she wasn’t part of an ensemble cast. And Clooney hasn’t previously had much luck in outer space, starring in Soderbergh’s Solaris: a financial disaster. Surely all of these factors signal a quick death for the latest AHB, right?

Certainly not, since Gravity’s marketing campaign and the proliferation of overwhelmingly positive reviews have saturated the market with identical ferocity to any mid-budget summer blockbuster you could care to name. The IMAX trailer featuring a single, unbroken take gets to the core of what makes Cuarón’s film so curious as a mainstream release: its avid attention to formal construction. Nevertheless, like, say, the Paranormal Activity films, Warner Bros. has wisely decided to make form its primary marketing tool—to promise “thrills” without revealing any narrative duration. Such a tact has proven gangbusters for horror films of late; remember back to the “Bloody Mary” trailer for Paranormal Activity 3, featuring nothing but a short, creepy clip…that wasn’t even in the actual film! By placing form at the fore, Warner Bros. has relegated its stars to the background, but that’s precisely what needed to be done, given that audiences don’t need convincing of Clooney and Bullock’s appeal. What they do need convincing of is that Gravity is distinct and new enough to warrant their attention. By applying horror-film advertising techniques to an A-lister sci-fi AHB, Warner Bros. has ensured a significant opening this coming weekend. Anything less that $30 million would be shocking, but I’m thinking upward of $40 million is more likely. Warner Bros. and Cuarón have made their title bid for “reigning AHB champion,” and by all accounts, they’ll get the knockout.

Box Office Weekend Predictions

1. Gravity: $43.2 NEW

2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: $23.1 -32%

3. Runner Runner: $11.7 NEW

4. Rush: $6.3 -37%

5. Prisoners: $6.2 -43%

6. Baggage Claim: $5 -45%

7. Don Jon: $4.2 -51%

8. Insidious: Chapter 2: $3.3 -49%

9. Enough Said: $2.7 +29%

10. Instructions Not Included: $2.4 -30%

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Box Office Rap: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and 3D’s Grey Area

As to whether 3D is a marker of quality or cultural ruin is growing increasingly beside the point.

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Box Office Rap: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and 3D’s Grey Area
Photo: Lionsgate

When writing about the box-office prospects for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire two years ago, I commended the film’s producers for shucking a 3D conversion in favor of an exclusive 2D release and staying true to their original intentions by refusing to cash-in on of-the-moment trends. Big questions remain regarding 3D’s longevity, but less so for the immediate future. In 2014, 12 of the year’s 15 highest domestic grossing film’s benefited from a 3D release, with American Sniper, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and 22 Jump Street being the only titles to make the ranks without it. This year has seen similar results.

While these figures might outwardly suggest 3D features consume over 75% of North American movie screens at all times, this coming weekend proves curiously anomalous in just how few screens will be running 3D showtimes. For example, of the 25 screens at the AMC Empire in Manhattan, only two screens will utilize 3D, for The Martian and The Peanuts Movie, respectively. Perhaps it’s a matter of season: With non-3D entries The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 and Spectre running the show and Oscar bait kicking into high gear, a pair of 3D glasses could become as useless during winter months as a pair of board shorts.

While it’s tempting to suggest studios themselves are starting to make distinctions between “quality” and “popcorn” blockbusters by releasing 3D entries exclusively as summer fare, the evidence wholly refutes such a blanket assertion, not least because The Force Awakens is sure to be the biggest 3D event of all-time in just a few weeks time. Recent years have seen 3D franchise entries in November and December as well, most notably with the Hobbit films, but the marketing for other “holiday” blockbusters, like Interstellar, have actually used anti-3D rhetoric as a selling point.

As to whether 3D is a marker of quality or cultural ruin is growing increasingly beside the point, especially as directors from Wim Wenders to Jean-Luc Godard to Gaspar Noé have embraced the often-maligned format, albeit for wholly different purposes. Rather than contemplating 3D as an aesthetic issue, consider its emergence and proliferation as a further means for product differentiating Hollywood product, not just in how 3D features gain actual capital from the surcharge, but the way non-3D features gain a cultural capital by being perceived as more honest through their refusal of the medium.

These gains are no better epitomized by The Hunger Games franchise, which has flirted with, but refrained from, 3D for nearly all of its entries. In February, Variety ran a story announcing Mockingjay – Part 2’s forthcoming IMAX 3D release, something director Francis Lawrence claimed he was “thrilled” by. Fast-forward to June, where Forbes ran a story announcing Lionsgate’s decision to scrap 3D for Mockingjay – Part 2, with Lawrence claiming to be “pleased that we’re maintaining the 2D only formats domestically.”

What’s lost in these excerpts is that the latter two Hunger Games films have opened in 3D in China, presumably because international box office thrives in large part from 3D and animated features. Look at Terminator: Genisys, which earned roughly $90 million domestically and a whopping $350 million internationally, giving it a 20/80 spread in terms of domestic/international box-office percentage—the greatest split for a seven-figure-budgeted Hollywood film of all time. Its 3D likely played a significant role in boosting the divide, especially as 3D screens have tripled worldwide since 2011.

On Mockingjay – Part 2 screening in 3D in China, Lawrence said: “It is the best of all worlds!” Lawrence’s comments reveal the gray area of 3D Hollywood, where the technology is revealed to be neither good nor bad, but simply a tool for maximizing profits and catering to the tastes of cinemagoers, even if that means altering the film’s release strategy according to its market. The Hollywood mechanism, as pure product, has rarely been laid this bare.

There’s a practical tragedy to all of this as well, as Filmmaker Magazine’s Vadim Rizov recently pointed out, in that many theaters screen 2D films with a 3D lens, neglecting to change the lenses between showings, and dimming the picture well beyond a reasonable margin of error. Whether these developments are the result of untrained projections or intense apathy on the part of theater chains is difficult to immediately surmise, but it’s concurrent with Hollywood’s present relationship with 3D: Whatever works.

As for its domestic opening, expect Mockingjay – Part 2 to debut with about $125 million this weekend.

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Box Office Rap: The 33 and Three Female Directors

As a woman, Nancy Meyers is more vulnerable to bad reviews and poor box office than Michael Bay.

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Box Office Rap: The 33 and Three Female Directors
Photo: Warner Bros.

Before Universal Pictures decided to scale back the release of By the Sea from wide to limited this past week, this Friday was to be the first time, in North American cinema history, that three films directed by women would open in wide release on the same weekend. In fact, as far as my research shows, it will still be the first time that two female-helmed wide releases have opened on the same day. Considering the recent findings by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that only 7% of Hollywood movies are directed by women, it’s a surprising and hopeful moment for female artists in Hollywood.

The films also couldn’t look more different, nor do they particularly resemble Hollywood films that have been historically directed by women. With The 33, Patricia Riggen directs a docudrama about the 2010 Chilean mining catastrophe, while Jessie Nelson helms the holiday-themed comedy Love the Coopers. And By the Sea, especially with its looky-pouty trailer involving a sexually frustrated married couple, is Angelina Jolie Pitt doing her damndest to give cinephiles a glimmer of hope that it’ll be a redux of Eyes Wide Shut.

Early reviews haven’t been especially kind to Jolie’s film, and judging by the review of our own Elise Nakhnikian, The 33 is a flat, melodramatic telling of its “truly dramatic story.” Reviews for Love the Coopers are embargoed until Thursday night, which isn’t usually an indicator of studio confidence for subsequent critical praise. Thus, this Friday’s historical significance, as encouraging as it is, might be muddled by each film’s failure to set critical appraisals or the box office on fire—a probability that could lead some to view this week’s releases as the calm before Katniss’s final storm.

Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of these two weeks is, in tandem, a perfect storm for generating more discussion about the implications for female filmmakers and actresses in Hollywood. In this instance, box office seems a trivial matter, at least from a data-head perspective, since a singular focus on the numbers obscures, or even loses, more meaningful conversations regarding female equality. In other words, the fact that three female filmmakers have major studio films opening on the same weekend is a more meaningful story than tracking The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’s box office, which is likely to be strong, but by no means historic.

Thinkpieces regarding women in Hollywood are more widespread now than ever before. While many have noted how few women direct Hollywood films and even fewer, if any, are given the chance at franchise entries, some have taken issue with a perceived bias by film critics against female filmmakers. In a recent article for The Guardian, Clem Bastow expressed dissatisfaction with film critics—80% male according to a report by Vulture—who gave The Intern “unduly harsh criticism” for being “unrealistic,” but failed to give equally unrealistic, male-centric films the same level of scrutiny.

Bastow mounts less of a defense for The Intern than an offensive against critics who might, say, praise Judd Apatow in one review and slam Nancy Meyers in another, virtually for doing the same thing. Bastow certainly has a point about female-directed films generally receiving negative reviews: Of the 12 wide-release, live-action films directed by women over the last five years, four have a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes and one is The Intern, clinging to its 60% fresh rating.

Bastow’s disdain is well-taken. As she rightfully points out, Meyers is much more vulnerable to bad reviews and poor box office than, say, Michael Bay or Brett Ratner, since every new film has to re-prove Meyers as a commercially viable option, whereas the men can withstand a misfire or two. Look at the production budget for The Intern, which dropped to $35 million following the soft domestic performances of both The Holiday and It’s Complicated, which were budgeted at $85 million each, though both performed exceptionally internationally. Likewise, for the two women whose films open wide this weekend, it’s inevitable that each film’s critical and financial reception will come under the microscope in ways their male counterparts simply would not have to endure.

Just ask Catherine Hardwicke, whose critical and financial failings with 2011’s Red Riding Hood have since kept her away from commercial filmmaking, opting instead (whether by choice or force is unclear) for the indie circuit with 2013’s Plush and the recent Miss You Already, which opened last weekend in 384 theaters to middling results. One might find it hard to believe that a dramedy starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette wouldn’t warrant a nationwide release, but the reality helps back Bastow’s concerns: On a weekend where 007 and Charlie Brown drew millions, a female-centric story with two A-list actresses, sometimes condescendingly called “counter-programming,” couldn’t even find its way into most theaters.

Not that female-centric films haven’t been kicking some box-office ass of their own. As Time says the summer box office was “ruled” by women, with top films like Pitch Perfect 2 and Inside Out featuring multiple female leads. But the point isn’t whether women can be box-office draws, which is irrefutable, but generating further discussions about why women aren’t being hired in more prominent directorial roles and how the industry and media outlets choose to either market and cover films that are helmed by women. As for this milestone weekend, The 33 is likely to dig in at $8 million, while Love the Coopers will struggle to keep pace with around $6 million.

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Box Office Rap: Spectre and Daniel Craig’s Straight Talk

The sentiment of what Daniel Craig is saying is healthy and should become the norm for actor interviews.

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Box Office Rap: Spectre and Daniel Craig’s Straight Talk
Photo: Columbia Pictures

In September 2014, Miles Teller gave an interview to W magazine explaining his frustrations with the Divergent franchise: “I didn’t have an interesting part, and I’d taken the film for business reasons.” But just a day after the story ran, Teller offered an explanation to the Los Angeles Times, claiming that “when he spoke of the ’business,’ he said he was referring to things like working with costar Shailene Woodley, playing a villain, and participating in a movie that would translate internationally.” Teller’s immediate rescind of his own words reveals one of Hollywood’s long-unspoken rules: If you’re making money, especially if it’s from a high-end studio movie, you don’t get to bitch about it.

Over the past month, Daniel Craig has been all too happy to shatter this rule in several interviews regarding his disinterest in continuing to play James Bond, a character he’s labeled a “misogynist,” admitted there’s “nothing” he’s good for on a day-to-day basis, and advised viewers to “not talk these films up as some kind of life-changing experience.” With Sam Mendes’s Spectre already released internationally and set to hit North American screens this Friday, it’s an unusual, even unprecedented, time for the actor to be biting the billion-dollar hand that feeds him.

In an April 2014 interview for the Telegraph, Pierce Brosnan said that he “was never good enough” as Bond and that watching his performances now gives him “a horrible feeling,” but these comments came more than a decade following his last Bond film. Moreover, Brosnan whips himself for not living up to the mythology. Conversely, Craig suggests the mythology has been flawed or, worse, problematic all along.

Craig’s refusal to play ball with press tours raises imperative questions about the roles of actors as cogs in the studio marketing machine and who the interviews actually serve. For example, when Craig told Time Out London that he’d rather slash his wrists than play Bond again, the response on the part of readers was largely negative, with commenters on Time Out’s Facebook page advising Craig to keep quiet and play the role, or, even stranger, claiming he’s out of touch and ungrateful for having received a large payday.

Beefs with actors badmouthing roles or franchises sound reasonable coming from studios, but less so from consumers. By suggesting Craig is somehow betraying 007 by speaking honestly about his perceptions, audiences implicitly demand to be continually lied to, as if the realization that one shouldn’t lose their shit over the release of a film is, well, a revelation that needs arriving at in the first place. That’s the end goal of franchise devotion for studios, where the bottom lines of czars correlate with the desires of citizens, desperate to suckle the franchise teat yet another time.

But while Craig’s comments are disruptive and irregular, they’re hardly revolutionary. In fact, they’ve been somewhat contradictory. In his October 7 interview with Time Out London, Craig stated, when asked if Bond was a dinosaur, that Bond has “to walk a thin line. I think it’s okay for him—not to be misogynistic, that’s too strong a word—to find women a little difficult, shall we say?” In an October 23 interview with the Red Bulletin, Craig seems to have changed his mind, saying, “Let’s not forget that he’s actually a misogynist. A lot of women are drawn to him chiefly because he embodies a certain kind of danger and never sticks around for too long.” Craig’s initial reluctance to call Bond a misogynist dissipates by the later interview, though the actor makes no mention of his earlier reluctance. Furthermore, Craig’s claim refutes his statement in an Esquire interview that “it’s not the job of an actor to judge your character.” As a matter of fact, Craig seems to have done just that.

Ultimately, as much as one might like to champion Craig’s honesty as a brutal blow to franchise logic, the sum result is less caustic than specious in its wavering convictions regarding Craig’s own role in propagating further iterations of a historically sexist character. Craig knows, perhaps even more than he lets on, that there’s an inherent friction between himself as an actor/artist and becoming the poster boy for a franchise notorious for its product placement and role in haute-couture fashion statements.

But Craig’s guilt doesn’t negate his choice to lock arms with the beast; making corporate art is perhaps a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless. The dilemma isn’t new. Brian de Palma famously said he intended to alternate between making a film for the system and one for himself. Craig, though, doesn’t need to shut up: He needs to speak out more. The sentiment of what he’s saying—refusing to bow before the Hollywood altar—is healthy and should become the norm for actor interviews, where sanity, perspective, and thoughtful discussion can prevail over a cultish mania for brand allegiances.

Spectre broke box-office records this past week across the world, almost doubling Skyfall’s haul in the U.K. alone over an identical period in 2012. North American numbers should see a spike as well, but nowhere near doubling the prior film’s $88 million opening weekend, which was already the largest in franchise history. A 25% uptick is more likely, landing Spectre a new franchise opening-weekend high with $110 million.

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Box Office Rap: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the Presale Box Office

The data reveals that anticipation for the film is reaching something closer to outright hysteria.

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Box Office Rap: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the Presale Box Office
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Voltaire once said: “If Star Wars did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.” Of course, these were not Voltaire’s actual words, but the sentiment still rings true: In a hyper-mediated society, citizens believe they need a cultural entity larger than themselves for the purpose of uniting around vacuous communal ties, like debating “Who shot first: Han or Greedo?” or why stormtroopers, supposedly skilled marksman, can never hit a damn thing?

Accompanying the premiere of the third trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which aired during Monday Night Football this week because Disney owns ABC and needed a ratings boost, is the news that, as the New York Times put it, the film is “a Hit at the Presale Box Office.” “Hit” suggests the film has kept pace with other blockbusters of its ilk, but the data reveals that anticipation for the film is reaching something closer to outright hysteria.

AMC has already sold out at least 1,000 shows nationwide, and IMAX screenings have already banked $6.5 million in ticket sales (the previous record, for the first 24 hours of advance sales, comes in at just under $1 million). As CNBC reports, Fandango and Alamo Drafthouse experienced sporadic network outages; the latter even “apologized for the ’frustration and disappointment’ on Twitter” after consumers were unable ensure their seats on opening night (or pre-opening night, as it were). AMC further stated that some of its theaters will stay open for 24 hours to satisfy customers who weren’t able to score tickets on the first go ’round, though surely the chain realizes there will be nothing more shameful than cramming into an auditorium at five in the morning on December 19 among a slew of fellow patrons who also have a slow Internet connection.

Or perhaps not. Shame doesn’t really seem to factor into cultural investment any longer—rather, it’s gone in the opposite direction, with “fan cultures” dominating every discourse regarding Hollywood marketing and distribution decisions. Not only is it okay to be an unthinking consumer, but it’s to be celebrated, with “Star Wars Day” now an annual occurrence, because if any cultural phenomenon needed a day to raise awareness, it’s the highest grossing global franchise of all time.

As I write this, my computer tells me it’s “Back to the Future Day,” and that USA Today is wrapping their Thursday edition in a poster that recreates the front page featured in Back to the Future Part II. In the ‘80s, the film’s release was the only event. Then came the event toy, the event trailer, and finally the early, presale showing event. Now, with movies having their own annual celebrations and receiving endorsements from supposedly unbiased news publications, you’re invited to become a lifelong stormtrooper for the brand: You get to have your DeLorean and stroke the flux capacitor too.

Furthermore, you’re invited to bitch and moan when the brand lets you down, but only as a way to try and get the brand to shape up their act. On “Force Friday” back in early September, Twitter was overrun with adult fans expressing intense anger over Toys “R” Us neglecting to adequately stock their shelves for the impending stampede of neckbeards. In an article from Io9.com entitled “Force Friday Was a Disaster for Many Star Wars Fans,” the author explains that, “while others certainly got what they wanted…it still sucks for even a few to be left with such a bad taste after such buildup.”

The description sounds much like the fan response after the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999. Film super-geek Eli Roth reviewed the film for LeisureSuit.net shortly after its release; a few choice snippets of his write-up include “there are so many glaring problems with this movie that I don’t know how to begin,” “I was so angry after the film I wanted to punch someone in the face,” and “Natalie Portman’s like totally hot.” One wonders if Roth awaits this film with as much pent-up angst; we already know Kevin Smith cried while visiting the set. All of this should entail an immediate reckoning with cultural priorities, but newspapers and magazines seem content to simply pile onto the bandwagon.

A Los Angeles Times article titled “Ava DuVernay creates #CelebrateStarWarsVII hashtag, silences racist trolls” explains how the filmmaker devised the hashtag in response to a #BoycottStarWarsIIV, which levied claims of “anti-white” casting against the new installment. Nevermind the L.A. Times seriously using the term “trolls.” What’s more alarming is that DuVernay spreads the message that even the most tyrannical conglomerates should be supported so long as they’re casting people of color.

Unfortunately, to even “celebrate” The Force Awakens in this seemingly positive manner is to throw your loose change into the pop-cultural offering plate, from which no one but the top-line profit takers will see any of your hard-earned dime. Racism among fans against black actors landing traditionally white roles, from Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in this past summer’s Fantastic Four, to John Boyega in The Force Awakens, is unquestionably a real issue. But the bigger problem, if you care about filmmaking beyond the mega-budgeted, is a now ’roided-out franchise mania which has fans of all ages behaving like the brainwashed soldiers they are. Lucas help the poor soul accused of “spoiling” any of the film’s preciously guarded details, like what color lightsaber one of the characters uses in a climactic battle or whether Luke and Leia will finally have that long-awaited session of incest sex. If that happens and you’re in the theater on opening night and you happen to notice you’re surrounded by uncuffed man-children, I’ve just one piece of advice: duck and cover.

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Box Office Rap: Crimson Peak and Two Brands of Horror Nostalgia

Jump scares, sexy vampires, popular villains, and bloodshed, especially if related to a centuries-old text, are good for business.

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Box Office Rap: Crimson Peak and Two Brands of Horror Nostalgia
Photo: Universal Pictures

Of the nearly 200 R-rated films to open with over $20 million at the domestic box office, almost a quarter are horror films. A quick rundown of the list reveals that nearly all the entries from the Resident Evil, Underworld, Saw, Paranormal Activity, and Scream franchises are accounted for. Reboots and remakes abound too, with found-footage and home-invasion films like The Purge, The Devil Inside, and The Strangers all screaming their way to the bank. The titans, however, have books as their sources or build on the preceding mythology of a popular franchise. There’s Prometheus, which promised—and lied!—a reboot to match the tension of Alien. Hannibal cashed in on years of audiences waiting to see Anthony Hopkins once again torment Clarice Starling. And The Passion of the Christ, the ultimate torture-porn film, let bloodthirsty masses watch their savior be ripped to shreds.

The message should be loud and clear: jump scares, sexy vampires, popular villains, and bloodshed, especially if related to a centuries-old text, are good for business. Because of these categorical and generic tendencies, audiences sometimes hate the product they so craved. Cinemascores make this clear. Look at The Devil Inside, whose $33.7 million opening makes it the 14th-highest opening weekend for an R-rated horror film of all time. That’s higher than The Blair Witch Project, Scream 2, or even the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, a terrible movie by any account, but one with undeniable franchise appeal and a guaranteed audience. But The Devil Inside got an F Cinemascore—one of only eight films to ever do so. The highest opener of the other seven was The Box with only $7.5 million.

This shows how people pay with their guts instead of their minds. As a social ritual, to either engage with friends or merely sit in the dark among strangers, the horror film—even if it’s a tossed-off, low-budget hack job—generally appeals to Americans who are perpetually under the sway of religion-fueled terrors, reckoning with death and bodily possession in all of its iterations.

All of these preceding markers should spell doom at the box office for Crimson Peak, the return fright fest from director Guillermo del Toro, and his first since Pan’s Labyrinth nearly nine years ago. Judging by the trailer, the film is a gory, visually vibrant, gothic fairy tale of the Grimm variety—one that has no precedence for financial success at the North American box office.

In horror, there’s no room at the box office for ingenuity or conceptual visions. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows made almost $15 million, more than seven times its budget. Pretty good, but when compared with the $100 million haul of Paranormal Activity 3, it’s in the minor leagues. Picturehouse had planned a wide release for Adam Wingard’s The Guest, one of the most visionary American horror films in recent years, but pulled the film from theaters following poor returns in limited release. In a just world, these films would at least receive nationwide exposure and interest.

Instead, Americans consistently opt for hype machines or brand-name recognition. When audiences choose to take a risk, it’s usually due to high-concept ad campaigns. Paranormal Activity had a huge bow because the trailers showed other audiences recoiling in terror. The team at Paramount Pictures figured out how to build the concept of Yelp reviews right into the advertising. Who cares what film critics say when evidence of like-minded peers isn’t just suggested, but plainly visible?

Thus, if audiences want their jollies during this witching month, they’re going to opt for brand-name recognition in Goosebumps, if only to relive those moments from their youth when words on a page were the scariest presence in their lives. Freud was generally a crackpot on many claims, but he was right about this: We’re always trying to get back to the womb, revisiting moments from the past as simply an end in and of itself. Del Toro is a nostalgic filmmaker too, but it’s aesthetic nostalgia that drives him; he finds ways to transport his own childhood interests into original properties that can only tangentially be traced to their origins. Expect Goosebumps to double up del Toro this weekend, banking $26 million to Crimson Peak’s $13 million.

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Box Office Rap: Pan and the End of the Fantasy Franchise

Bad reviews will hurt Pan, but they won’t sink it; Warner Bros.’s uninspired $150 million investment and ho-hum marketing will.

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Box Office Rap: Pan and the End of the Fantasy Franchise
Photo: Warner Bros.

When The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opened on December 17, 2014, Kevin Tsujihara, the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, had to realize it was, in some ways, the passing of an era. No longer would these Peter Jackson staples be surefire moneymakers on the backend of a calendar year; after six films and some $5.85 billion in global box office, it was back to the drawing board to find even a modest replacement. For the remainder of the year, Creed and Point Break are their only releases that could have even a modicum of hope for global box-office glory, but they’re modest (and tremulous) at best. For the time being, the studio will simply lie in wait until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice drops in March 2016.

Rather, they’ll wait after Pan opens this weekend, a prospect which should have the studio prepping for a catastrophe not seen since Taylor Kitsch unsuccessfully threw down with the Tharks on Mars. But who could blame them for trying? On paper, Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and Amanda Seyfried as Mary all look like solid choices for guaranteeing consumer interest. What looks less assuring, however, is the choice of Joe Wright to direct, as his entire oeuvre is composed of anti-fantasy entries. Even Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina, films modeled from existing novels or properties, unfold as attempted revisionist takes on their source materials that are conceptual and sensorial, rather than deeply textual. And perhaps that’s what Warner Bros. wanted: a fresh take inclined toward emphasizing the property’s spectacle. But, in doing so, they’ve conflated fresh and oppositional. Wright’s sensibilities are simply too geared toward stylistic flourish to inject sustainable economic life into a franchise that necessitates a hardened storyteller in order to prosper.

While this is an undergirding problem, it’s Warner Bros.’s uninspired and matter-of-fact ad campaign and trailers that are the primary issue. The ads posit the film as a new, fantasy tent pole without displaying any form of singularity or innovation regarding this steadily dwindling subgenre. In a recent interview with Comingsoon.net, Wright explains his attraction to the material: “What was surprising about the screenplay is that it felt like the most original screenplay I’d ever read, and yet, it was based on material that was everywhere. So that was kind of an interesting contradiction, and it felt like a complete kind of reimagining or reframing of that story.” However, that’s the inherent problem with Warner Bros.’s property resurrection: They haven’t figured out how to market the contradictions. And audiences, historically, don’t like these kinds of innovations, where popular stories are rebooted into unrecognizable or stylistically reformed iterations, whether the efforts result in a good film or not.

Bad reviews will hurt Pan, but they won’t sink it; Warner Bros.’s uninspired $150 million investment and ho-hum marketing will. If the studio is going to get back on the increasingly vacant fantasy-franchise map, they’re going to have to look to original properties that hold an adaptable and readily discernible appeal. For now, they’ll shudder and watch Pan crash and burn with a paltry $25 million opening.

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Box Office

Box Office Rap: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and the 2013 Wrap

The international box office came to the rescue for numerous films and franchises, often counting for nearly three quarters of their worldwide gross.

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Adam McKay’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues opens on Wednesday and looks to become the eighth live-action comedy of 2013 to gross over $100 million in its domestic run. That’s a significant jump from only three comedies in 2012 which made that benchmark—a doubling in margin that suggests, by all conventional accounts, that it was a “good” year for comedies. Yet, upon further inspection, we find the titles of these moneymakers to be Bad Grandpa, Grown Ups 2, The Heat, and The Hangover Part III, which are among the laziest, if not the worst, Hollywood films of the year. Instead of “good,” we should say it was a profitable year for comedies and leave any such evaluative adjectives out of box-office summations.

If live-action comedy hits were aplenty, so were their animated counterparts, with Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, The Croods, Frozen, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 all meeting or exceeding financial expectations. The same could certainly be said for nearly every endeavor into superhero territory, as audiences still prefer cinema that transports them from the confines of reality and into a playground of fantasy-infused triviality, with a treatment of characters that ranged from tongue in cheek (Iron Man 3) to bombastic (Man of Steel) to hopelessly imitable (The Great Gatsby).

Neglected were the latest films from some of the most distinctive American filmmakers in recent years. Audiences preferred the trite and derivative stylings of James Wan’s The Conjuring over the hilariously tense reflexivity of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. Instead of seeking out the corner art house for Noah Baumbach’s gorgeous and oft challenging Frances Ha, moviegoers stuck to the multiplexes for sub-sitcom fare like We’re the Millers and Identity Thief. And, when it came to the smart and visually impressive revisionism of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, younger audiences opted for the next chapter in what they already knew: Thor, Katniss, and Adam Sandler.

The international box office came to the rescue for numerous films and franchises, often counting for nearly three quarters of their worldwide gross; although touted stateside as a financial disaster, After Earth made a respectable $243 million worldwide, with 75% coming from territories outside the U.S. Pacific Rim saw a sequel greenlit, but not because of the paltry $101 million from North American audiences—rather, the $306 million the rest of the world paid to see Guillermo del Toro’s spectacular juvenilia. However, taking the crown on this front is A Good Day to Die Hard, with almost 78% of its worldwide haul coming internationally.

Reflecting on the ways Americans choose to entertain themselves often yields troubling and even disturbing results, as shown by several of the “success” stories above. Audiences continue to indulge and endorse cynical studio execs insistent upon greenlighting repetitive nonsense above thoughtful and more daring filmmaking, which remains a steadfast component of both the industry and its consumption. Culturally, we’re told that the end of a given year is meant to be a time for taking stock of what has happened, what we have learned, and what may be improved upon going forward. With box office, that approach is laughable at best, hopelessly naïve at worst, since the release calendar is chock-full of mega-budget productions as far as the digital eye can see. Yet, what we must remained attuned to is what Fredric Jameson calls “the political content of daily life,” which weekly box-office results help to track. Remaining conscious of these matters, rather than hoping The Avengers 2 outgrosses Batman vs. Superman because “MARVEL RULES!” keeps us classy—and we must stay classy, folks.

Box Office Weekend Predictions

1. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: $43.7 NEW

2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: $30.9 -58%

3. American Hustle: $27.5 NEW

4. Frozen: $15.1 -33%

5. Saving Mr. Banks: $13.6 NEW

6. Walking with Dinosaurs: $8.2 NEW

7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $7.6 -44%

8. A Madea Christmas: $6.1 -62%

9. Dhoom 3: $2.1 NEW

10. Thor: The Dark World: $1.6 -43%

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Box Office

Box Office Rap: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the Fantasy-Entertainment Complex

Confession: I don’t like The Lord of the Rings films. All of them.

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Confession: I don’t like The Lord of the Rings films. All of them. Well, at least the first three, as I skipped The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey because of my disdain for its predecessors, and needless to say, I’ll be skipping The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as well. Of course, millions of others will not be skipping the film this weekend, as it tries to land somewhere in the $80-90 million range, matching the previous film’s performance. For me, director Peter Jackson’s initial trilogy operates on bloated runtimes meant to appease fanboy OCD, including Jackson’s own. The apex of contemporary pop-cultural obsession-as-sickness is no better embodied than by these films, which edify young moviegoers to view film culture as narrative/character/imaginary playtime rather than a mindful and serious medium for artistic expression.

However, rather than further lambast The Hobbit, Jackson, and Warner Bros. for their transparent, masturbatory decisions to turn one novel into three films for means of tripling profits, of more importance this week is examining how critics are responding to The Desolation of Smaug, and the sorts of qualities being sought after in their evaluations of Jackson’s latest. The film currently boasts a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 75%—a full 10% higher than the first installment, though the middling reviews did not negatively affect its box office, as The Unexpected Journey had the highest-grossing opening weekend of any films in the entire franchise. Critic proof, like most franchises, but it nevertheless remains the critic’s role to instruct attentive filmgoers to the qualities worthy of contemplation.

I wonder, then, with Alan Scherstuhl’s mostly positive review for The Village Voice, which claims that The Desolation of Smaug boats “the greatest dragon in the history of movies,” if this kind of laudatory insight is meant to be serious or tongue in cheek? One is inclined to think the latter, given Scherstuhl’s excellently pithy term “fantasy-entertainment complex” to describe the sensibilities governing Jackson’s changes and additions from the book, which James Berardinelli claims in his review account for more than 50% of what’s on screen. However, Scherstuhl continues by stating his overall perspective: “I still adore much of Jackson’s latest Christmas pudding, despite its garish extravagance, its moral cluelessness, its disorganized bulk, and its discomfiting belief that battle is a kind of weaponized freeze tag, where any touch of the good guy’s axe or sword means the bad guy immediately collapses.” Yet, Scherstuhl’s review registers as a positive—a confounding choice that appears to equate sporadic adoration as worthy of recommendation.

On a week where an especially grumpy, but always perceptive Jonathan Rosenbaum deemed December “the season of critical inflation,” and more or less deemed Blue Is the Warmest Color to be the only great film of 2013, the lack of rigidity in critical evaluation among many fine and excellent critics is especially glaring. It appears as if the fantasy-entertainment complex has set its own standards and critics are too quick to evaluate the film within the context of that system, rather than the underlying socio-economic factors that perpetuate it. Such focus seemingly comes from the Roger Ebert school of criticism, whose emphasis on evaluating films within the context of their own artistic aspirations has influenced generations of critics since. While certainly a valid approach to highlighting what a film achieves relative to itself and other films, shortcomings appear by way of the shortsighted inflation Rosenbaum laments.

In his review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Ebert begins by warning his readers of the film’s longish runtime: “I tell you now so you won’t complain later. [The film] needs to be long, and it needs to be indirect, because the film is about how sad truths can be revealed during the slow process of doing a job.” Of course, such warnings only need to accompany art-house fare, since fans of The Hobbit or Christopher Nolan greet gargantuan runtimes with wide-eyed smiles rather than sneering trepidation, regardless of whether or not the material necessitates the bloat. Perhaps it’s a circumstance of serialized television dulling viewers’ appreciation of visual/narrative economy; perhaps it’s a loosening of critical and intellectual standards. Whatever it is, critics would be wise to adopt a bit of Rosenbaum’s Grinch-y approach to the end-of-year hoopla that revolves around forced (but often false) reflection, list-making, and, perhaps worst of all, being first out the gate to do so. To critics, audiences, and the fantasy-entertainment complex, I say: Slow your roll, Bilbo.

Box Office Weekend Predictions

1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: $82.7 NEW

2. A Madea Christmas: $37.2 NEW

3. Frozen: $19.3 -39%

4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $13.9 -47%

5. Thor: The Dark World: $2.7 -43%

6. Out of the Furnace: $2.6 -50%

7. Delivery Man: $2.2 -40%

8. Homefront: $1.7 -50%

9. The Book Thief: $1.5 -43%

10. The Best Man Holiday: $1.1 -57%

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Box Office

Box Office Rap: Out of the Furnace and Christian Bale’s Body (of Work)

Without question, Bale remains one of Hollywood’s most versatile and risk-taking leading men.

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As Bane raises Batman above his head and prepares to snap his back in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane postulates, “I was wondering what would break first: your spirit or your body!” The scene is faithful to the comic books for its “krakt” intensity, but also reflexive insofar as it speaks to Christian Bale’s acting career, which has been founded on consistent bodily transformation and, before donning the cape for Christopher Nolan’s franchise, a lack of commercial success that could have easily broken the actor’s spirit in becoming an A-list star. Yet, even after the Batman films, Bale’s financial viability removed from franchise confines remains questionable, and one wonders with Out of the Furnace opening this weekend if Bale’s name alone is enough to guarantee a $10 million opening.

Bale’s career began as a child actor in films like Empire of the Sun and Newsies, but it wasn’t until 2000’s American Psycho that he found a leading role that began to define his star persona. As Patrick Bateman, Bale’s slender, muscular body and strikingly handsome face were apparent enough, but perhaps more surprising was the ease with which the actor seemed to project Bateman’s affability-masking-psychopathy lifestyle, wielding an ax with the same quotidian detachment as when he visits the tanning salon. Roger Ebert said in his review of the film that “Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” Audiences generally agreed, as the $7 million film grossed just over $15 million domestically.

But Bale’s career saw critical and financial failure for the next four years, with the dreary Reign of Fire tanking at the box office and a string of supporting roles failing to connect with either critics or audiences. At least, until 2004’s The Machinist revealed Bale as an actor willing to go beyond Method acting and into borderline insanity, looking emaciated to an alarming degree as Trevor Reznik, an insomniac questioning his sanity. Ebert again: “[Bale] is so gaunt, his face so hollow, he looks nothing like the actor we’re familiar with.” Grossing just over $1 million, audiences were unwilling to subject themselves to the darker side of what would become Bale’s actorly m.o.: drastic vacillations between dapper leading men and tortured, afflicted souls.

Perhaps, then, that’s why Bale found his home with critics and audiences alike as Bruce Wayne, which enabled Bale to put on a physique suitable for a GQ spread, but revel in the pain and torment of a character like Reznik and introduce what has become a profitable trend at the box office: the gloomy, brooding superhero. Although Nolan is often credited with pioneering the type for 21st-century tastes, Bale gave it a recognizable and empathetic face. The same could be said in 2010’s The Fighter, which enabled Bale to return to his hyper-Method ways, though by playing an addled, if empathetic, character within the confines of a genre film in which Mark Wahlberg brought the beef, the character functioned in contrast, rather than front and center—which was much more palatable for commercial audiences.

Yet, Bale has struggled in recent years playing characters that deviate from this proven combination; though Rescue Dawn saw the no-brainer teaming of Bale with Werner Herzog and led to much critical acclaim, audiences remained perplex by Bale’s presence without the muscle-bound physique or witty charm. With Terminator: Salvation, the marketing campaign did little to afford Bale’s intensity the proper stage, instead offering machine-on-machine pyrotechnics as the film’s central draw. Public Enemies nearly made $100 million domestically, but the $100 million budget, combined with Michael Mann’s preference for ambiguity over closure, rendered the film a minor failure and left audiences (and critics) rather lukewarm.

Without question, Bale remains one of Hollywood’s most versatile and risk-taking leading men, perhaps trailing only James Franco and Ryan Gosling at this point as actors willing to undertake projects regardless of commercial prospects. Make no mistake: These are decisions to be commended, not questioned. However, when discussing commercial prospects, Bale remains a wild card, which is why anyone expecting his name to attract audiences to Out of the Furnace should reconsider, especially since the role appears to fit rather messily into the qualities audiences have historically sought from the actor. Certainly, with American Hustle later this month, David O. Russell, Bale, and the notable ensemble should have a considerable hit on their hands. For now, with Bale sporting long hair, a dirty white T-shirt, and a hunting rifle, don’t be surprised if audiences give this one a shrug just as they did to the equally grungy looking Homefront last weekend.

Box Office Weekend Predictions

1. Frozen: $44.4 -34%

2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $39.3 -47%

3. Out of the Furnace: $8.3 NEW

4. Thor: The Dark World: $7.6 -31%

5. The Best Man Holiday: $4.7 -42%%

6. Delivery Man: $4.4 -36%

7. Homefront: $4 -43%

8. The Book Thief: $3.9 -20%

9. Philomena: $3.2 -14%

10. Black Nativity: $2.3 -37%

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Box Office

Box Office Rap: Frozen and the Frost-y Showdown

Disney continues to produce and use the same kind of fantasy marketing template to attract kids of all ages.

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Some say the box office is going to end in fire, but some say it’ll end in ice, as Disney’s Frozen looks to unseat Catching Fire over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend. For Catching Fire, the lack of a significant improvement over the opening weekend of the first film suggests many viewers could have been holding out to round up the family for a viewing over the long weekend; nevertheless, almost every box-office prognosticator had Catching Fire pegged too high (especially yours truly), making talk of “catching” The Avengers appear foolish in hindsight.

Frozen goes nationwide on Wednesday, entering a marketplace that hasn’t seen a legitimate animated contender since Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 nearly two months ago. Although trailers make the film look rather pallid, reviews have been white hot, which should boost interest among core demographics and adults alike. In fact, interest could be high enough for Frozen to top Tangled’s $68.7 million opening three Thanksgivings ago.

Months ago, I likened box-office stats and numbers “without socio-cultural analysis” to fantasy football, a tendency that only becomes amplified when there’s a high-profile release weekend after weekend, as is the case now. Participants at a box-office forum such as World of KJ engage in informed, if slight, conversations about any and every film’s box-office potential, sporting avatars that predominately come from recent multimedia or blockbuster cinema of yesteryear. There’s a clear love and desire present in these conversations, but it’s misplaced; participants argue over films and figures as if they were sports teams, “rooting” for varying failures and successes, but not because a failure would prevent a certain kind of cinema from being made in the future, but because it proves a mastery of cultural capital—a kind of Price Is Right knowledge that rewards knowledgeable consumers, but here, the reward is clout among fellow forum members.

Outside these forum debates, Disney continues to produce and use the same kind of fantasy marketing template to attract kids of all ages, this time with a talking snowman who concludes the film’s theatrical trailer by asking someone to “do me a favor and grab my butt,” referring to his errant lower third. The goofy/cute ethos is, of course, merely a tool to attract young children who aren’t only impervious to advertising subtleties, but absolutely defenseless to mildly crude punchlines involving a Frosty the Snowman-cum-squirrel creature named Olaf. By baiting a “far-off place” produced in state-of-the-art animation with such inane pre-school humor, Disney guarantees families will bite because of how harmless the material seems. Posterior gags also translate well to other countries, apparently. Instead of challenging the past, Disney continues to engage in a kind of disdainful cultural perpetuation that condescends to a new generation by reassuring past generations that the milk from Mickey’s teet still has that sour, lukewarm taste.

Five-Day Box Office Weekend Predictions

1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $80.6 -49%

2. Frozen: $72.4 NEW

3. Black Nativity: $17.9 NEW

4. Thor: The Dark World: $16.8 +18%

5. The Best Man Holiday: $16.1 +29%

6. Homefront: $13.4 NEW

7. Delivery Man: $8.9 +13%

8. Last Vegas: $5.7 +33%

9. Oldboy: $3.9 NEW

10. The Book Thief: $3.7 +600%

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