I meant to write about this a couple of days ago, but got preoccupied with reading about the Virginia Tech murders. I find that stuff pretty overwhelming. Despite all the people who said they couldn't understand why Columbine happened, the social politics behind it were clear as day. Virginia Tech is less defined, except to say that the modern world is making people lose their minds. Some kid couldn’t take it, and now 33 people are dead. The reasons for the box office failure of Grindhouse suddenly seemed pretty trivial.
Then, I was gonna post this again last night, but got held up again when I noticed that the new Nine Inch Nails CD changes colour in heat. That’s awesome.
So, yeah, Grindhouse is a bomb. And a lot of people are asking why.
Despite what Harvey Weinstein claims, about $100 million was spent on this movie ($30 million of which went to advertising.) The business aspects of box office grosses are of no interest to me, but the social aspects are. It's been interesting reading speculation on why this movie failed to capture a large audience.
Here are a couple of the wrongest theories I’ve read:
- It opened on Easter Weekend, a time when people observe the value of family.
This is true for Easter Sunday morning, but really, nobody who wants to see Grindhouse is so sanctimonious about the Easter holiday weekend that they won't watch violence on Friday or Saturday.
- The feature films contained within are in the wrong order. The more action-oriented Planet Terror should have played after Death Proof.
This shouldn't affect opening weekend box office in any way. Furthermore, it's 100% wrong. If you pay attention to how most long movies are paced, there’s a notable slowing down in the third quarter. Note the poker game in Casino Royale. Its placement makes the film move more briskly, while giving viewers time to catch their breath. The relentless action of Planet Terror makes the breather of the first half of Death Proof a nice chill out period before getting back into the mayhem.
Now here’s a filmmaker’s take on how Grindhouse’s failure reflects on how stupid your nextdoor neighbours are.
“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”
– Joe Carnahan, director of Smokin’ Aces.
Grindhouse is a throwback. It doesn’t represent anything new. Though it is a better movie than most recent films the general public has embraced (like 300), it’s not at an intellectual level they’re incapable of meeting. People weren’t interested in seeing it. When movies like Grindhouse and Smokin’ Aces are hits, it isn’t good for everybody. It’s only good for people who worked on them and people whose entertainment tastes crave seeing more movies like Grindhouse and Smokin’ Aces.
Nobody should really be surprised that Grindhouse isn't more popular. It’s a homage/entry in trash and exploitation cinema. Part of what makes cult films is that they aren't massively popular.
The Internet skewers peoples’ perception of what the rest of the world is interested in. The handful of people who frequent sites like Ain’t It Cool News can spend months salivating over Grindhouse. They’re the audience for that movie. When you move past that circle, to the people who don’t live on the Internet, not many of them give a shit.
A similar thing happened last summer with Snakes on a Plane. You can excite a certain niche with movies like this, but in the broader scope, they're not Spider-Man 3.
It didn’t help that the advertising for Grindhouse was so exclusionary. The trailers, posters and TV spots sold an attitude—an idea that this movie is the epitome of cool, without translating that appeal to those who aren’t in the know.
Advertising the movie on the names Tarantino and Rodriguez, rather than stars like Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell, isn’t making things easier. With a couple exceptions, general audiences don't think to ask who directed a movie. Nobody went to see Four Rooms either, and the Rodriguez/Tarantino pair-up From Dusk Till Dawn wasn’t a big hit. Why expect more from the 3+ hour Grindhouse?
I’m suspicious of the attitudes of people who wish the niche, cultish films they love were popular hits. Isn't it good enough that you love them? Part of the appeal of movies like this is that they’re an escape from what the mainstream deems exceptional, and sometimes acceptable. If Evil Dead 2 becomes the dominant culture, what’s left for the cult-circuit films? Underground filmmakers will start establishing their outsider status by making Dirty Dancing sequels.
Maybe this does speak of the sinking levels of the Average Joe’s taste. For whatever problems I have with it, I consider Grindhouse a good movie, and far better than Wild Hogs (and Blades of Glory, Meet the Robinsons and Are We Done Yet?—the films that outgrossed it on its first weekend.) It just shouldn’t crush the dreams of aspiring-future-director-millionaires that more people are showing up for the Ice Cube family comedy.
A point I often try to make is that movies like Wild Hogs and Are We Done Yet? don’t have to be bad. Some of the most satisfying filmgoing experiences happen when a seemingly hopeless premise produces a good movie. And aspiring filmmakers should be relieved to know that coming up with a terrible premise that will appeal to idiots isn’t really that hard.
I have an exercise for producing movie concepts called 60 Minutes in an Hour. This means there are 6 groups of 10 minutes in an hour. Set aside an hour of your day, and sit in a chair. Use this time to think up 6 different movie premises. You have 10 minutes for each one. Don’t worry about them being good right now.
Here’s two surefire hits I thought up in only 20 minutes of my time:
More Jolly Than Roger
This movie stars Billy Bob Thornton as an asshole named Roger. He gets arrested for religious intolerance. He agrees to community service instead of serving his prison sentence. The community service consists of him spending 3 months as a door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness. He really hates this job. To make matters worse, his partner is a super-happy Jehovah’s Witness named Drew (played by Jon Lovitz). They’re a real odd couple. Drew is more jolly than Roger. They fight a lot. Zooey Deschanel should be in it as the nice girl who melts Roger’s heart when he knocks on her door.
Civil Knight’s Movement
The next movie is a comedy with serious overtones. It stars Chris Rock as Winston Lockhart, the most powerful lawyer in Detroit. One day Winston’s driving home from work when his Porsche gets rear-ended by a bulldozer. He goes into a coma. Winston’s family loves him, but they lose hope that he’ll ever wake up from his coma. His wife gets remarried, and his kids’ football coach becomes their stepdad.
a>Several years later, the hospital is scheduled for demolition. But because Winston’s in a far away wing of the hospital that nobody ever checks, they forget to move him out of there, Suddenly, Winston has some body movement (like in the title)! He wakes up from all the noise of the building getting torn down, and has to make it out of the falling hospital alive. The same bulldozer type machines that put him into a coma are trying to kill him again. This is how the movie double-backs upon itself, creating a motif. In screenwriting, the technical term for this is brilliant. He then gets to fight the ruthless contractor. The movie ends with Chris Rock giving a heartfelt speech about civil rights.
Now, both of these movies sound awful. But it’s up to you to find the worth in a premise. Writing a great script requires talent. So if you're worried about money and integrity, figure out the common ground where More Jolly Than Roger gets you as excited as Grindhouse.*
*Note: More Jolly Than Roger and Civil Knight’s Movement are the intellectual property of Mark Palermo. Do not try making either without consulting him. You will be sued.