Grindhouse flops! People who care about such things as who wins the weekly popularity contest called Box Office (I do care, just a little) are formulating their explanations for why the audience stayed away from a movie that seemed like such a sure thing. Harvey Weinstein himself offers some answers. The movie was too long. The audience, especially in flyover country, didn't get the concept. Both are probably factually true, but as explanations I'm not so sure. Did the grindhouse films of the 1970s earn boffo b.o.? Maybe the Grindhouse audience-that-wasn't did get the concept and expected crapola because the film was promoted as schlocky. Call this the so-bad-it's-bad explanation. Maybe. I haven't seen the film, so I really shouldn't opine. I will anyway.

Explaining why people go to see a movie is hard enough. Explaining why they do not see a movie is a mug's game. It has always vexed me that we generally assume a movie is popular because people like it, and unpopular because they don't. But you can't know that you'll like a movie until you have seen it, at which point you have already paid your money. Movies that are unpopular could potentially please lots of people, but they can't know that until they pay their $8. This is different from many other cultural experiences. We rarely buy music recordings without having heard some of them first. We rarely watch TV shows regularly that we have not already tuned into and liked.

With the impossibility of really knowing the motivations of millions of non-viewers in mind, here are some more reasons why a film like Grindhouse might fail:
-No big name stars. Regardless of how hot they are on the cover of Rolling Stone, Rose McGowan and Rosario Dawson don't open movies big.
-No clearly identifiable, bankable genre. Sorry, postmodern pastiche don't count. Neither does horror anthology.
-No pre-sold property (adaptation from a book or game, say).
-A confusing poster that makes the film seem like a revival (this is the point, but not everyone will get it).
-A title that doesn't refer to the content of the movie and that has to be explained to audiences at every opportunity. If you need to have it explained, that means you don't get it.
-The reviews. The fake trailers and the QT feature were generally well received, but few critics gave the Rodriguez feature a very positive notice, and...
-You have to sit through Planet Terror to get to Death Proof. This is a violation of a basic rule of double-feature programming: you snag the audience with the better film first, and keep them around to watch a weaker film with second billing.
-Most of the key moviegoing demographic, people my age and younger, is too young to have seen movies in grindhouses. The film tries to tap into nostalgia for something we don't remember. 70s retro is so, so dunzo.

Now for the explanations that smell to me like baloney:
-Too long. Long movies do well all the time.
-Easter weekend. Easter weekend is for family films. Yeah, and the studios used to avoid bringing out big new movies in the summer. I don't believe that people are so constrained by Easter weekend obligations as to avoid a movie they really want to see.
-There's something wrong with the audience--they're playing it safe, they're timid, they can't spot quality, etc. Joe Carnahan, who you might know as the director of the QT-manqué Smokin' Aces, writes in his blog:
What is wrong with American moviegoers? Is there nothing NEW that they're willing to embrace? Jesus, it's the worst kind of erosion. We're making dumber and dumber films and they're becoming cash cows. God Bless '300', at least it's got balls and the director WENT for it. THAT movie is good for the business, it's good for everybody. But some of these other flicks don't even TRY because they know in the end, EXACTLY the age range and demographic driving ticket prices these days. Those monstrosities (the names of which I won't mention) are pure pieces of commerce, marketed to perfection.
Kids these days, whatevs. I've seen Blades of Glory, which won the weekend, and it's a competent, funny movie with a strong cast and a decent script. It's no Miracle of Morgan's Creek, but then Smokin' Aces ain't exactly The Godfather, is it?

Keep reading, movie fans: Mojo, Film Threat, Variety, Vidiocy, Poland, MovieJuice, MovingPictureBlog.


Commanderson Education and Consultation said...

I had a tough long work schedule last week and had the option of knowing I was going to see Will Ferrell make me laugh five or six times or 3 hours plus of films that could be good or bad or who knows what. I chose the former as both me and my gal just wanted to relax. Actually, if I had a bit more energy I would have gone to see a screening of "Celine and Julie Go Boating", but I needed a laugh.

That said, Grindhouse just seemed to meta for blockbusterdom. I mean, you get to see "two movies" but the movie is called Grindhouse? I can see how someone who works a forty hour week, has kids and could give to craps about being hip would look at that and just go see Blades of Glory. Besides, Will Ferrell in his underwear is always funny. Always funny.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps what we have here is a "disconnect." Weren't grindhouse films "B" movies? Did B movies do well at the box office? Better yet: did this "B" movie have the kind of budget that made those movies profitable at the time?

Jason Mittell said...

I agree with everything you said, Mike, but I question the very premise that this counts as a flop. Flops boil down to underperforming to expectations - in this case, the expectations were wildly inflated. The film (which I too haven't seen nor plan to) is a formal exercise in nostalgia for a fringe phenomenon. It's an art film by design, although one that revels in the lack of "art." It's a film about action cinema, with the story being told about the genre/form itself, not focusing on characters & situations we're supposed to care about. Who is the target audience for that? If Harvey thought this was a potential blockbuster, he was drinking way too much of Quentin's kool-aid. I think $12 mil is a reasonable return for a film that defines itself in such meta-terms.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mike! Although I actually prefered PLANET TERROR, which was more lively and audacious, to DEATH PROOF, which I found to be Tarantino-lite until the action started. I caught the film with 5-6 other guys and we had a great time. I'd be happy if QT and Rodriguez made one of these a year for the rest of their careers, although that's obviously not in the cards.

I think Jason is right that the films are too self-conscious (not to mention absurdly violent) to find wide success. KILL BILL and SIN CITY fashioned stronger bonds of identification with the characters, even if they're generally in the same spirit as GRINDHOUSE. But GRINDHOUSE was a helluva lot better than 300 and (cliche alert) should find an audience on DVD.

Anonymous said...

To say that 'flyover country' doesn't get the appeal of a grindhouse-style double bill is to completely discount the drive-in tradition prevalent throughout most of the South.

What screwed over "Grindhouse" was the horrible promotion that didn't tell you anything about the films, but tried to sell you solely on Tarantino's name. The same flaw that "Land of the Dead"'s commercials had, I might add. A name might work for fans, but to get everyone else's attention you need to, you know, tell us what the movie is about.