This past weekend, The Counselor opened to a mere $7.8 million—second only to Runner Runner for the weakest opening for a film debuting in over 3,000 theaters this year. By all standard accounts, this was a “bad” box-office weekend, and, as I discussed last week, one that perceptive prognosticators should have seen coming. Coupled with a 35% Rotten Tomatoes score, nothing has gone right for Ridley Scott’s latest. But lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we need to be certain that The Counselor is ultimately an object of derision because it’s a bad film, and not simply because it’s a poor box-office performer.
Of course, any discerning eye knows quality and capital cannot be equated, but ultimately, a weak box-office showing necessarily diminishes cultural impact and public opinion. A casual viewer reads that The Counselor opened poorly and determines that it mustn’t be very good. There is, indeed, an equation made. In this case, critics and viewers agree on the film’s negative quality, which makes its dismissal easier, but this isn’t always so. Films like Killing Them Softly and Wolf Creek were despised by audiences, as each is one of only a handful of films to receive the dreaded F CinemaScore. However, these films were generally admired by critics, though Wolf Creek was fairly polarizing, with an equal measure of raves and pans. Both floundered at the box office, with each failing to attain a $3,000-per-theater average on opening weekend. When such dissonance occurs, it seems the supremacy of box office reigns over positive reviews.
Nevertheless, the D or F CinemaScore can indicate something potentially subversive about the material, whether intentional or not. If audiences see The Counselor and despise it vehemently, a breakdown in socio-economic transaction has occurred: Audiences have paid for a defective product. Ruptures in the structures of mindless consumption can rarely be depressing, since they open a consumer’s eyes to both the literal and symbolic exchange at hand. What’s depressing—and, what cannot create such opposition—is pure product, that which possess nothing beyond mere economic exchange. No discussion, no controversy—just passive naval-gazing. This weekend, the three films opening in wide release epitomize these attempts at “fingers-crossed” consumerism, as each film looks so derivative, so contrived, or so transparently molded for a particular market, that any sense of artistic intent—even squandered intent—appears missing.
Pure product is depression and, in Ender’s Game, Last Vegas, and Free Birds, Lionsgate, CBS Films, and Relativity Media seem to be daring audiences to see these films—daring them to fund yet another franchise, engage more quick-buck nostalgia, or see something animated just because it’s animated. The Counselor is a studio dare, but of a different sort. With its marketing, Fox dared audiences to see the film simply because of its cast and crew’s prior successes. In this case, the dare is product-driven, but displaced from the confines of franchise or high-concept branding—the lowest forms of commercial filmmaking. The new releases this weekend are the worst form of dare, pandering to an imagined viewer who’s interested in repeating and perpetuating lowest-common denominator models of studio filmmaking. Can anyone offer a single, memorable line from the trailers for one of these three new films? How about an image? How about anything resembling artistic ambition? Is there anything striking at all about these films aside from their egregious lack of ambition? Free Birds tells us: “On November 1st, hang on to your nuggets.” Good advice.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Ender’s Game: $33.5 NEW
2. Free Birds: $16.7 NEW
3. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa: $14.7 -54%
4. Last Vegas: $13.2 NEW
5. Gravity: $11.9 -41%
6. Captain Phillips: $7.9 -32%
7. The Counselor: $3.2 -59%
8. 12 Years a Slave: $3.6 +71%
9. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: $3.3 -47%
10. About Time: $2.5 NEW