Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Brad Pitt of Despair

I'm a bit puzzled by this article from Variety about the failure of The Assassination of Jesse James at the box office. Specifically, how the writer appears surprised that the movie wasn't a big success.

It seemed entirely clear to me that Jesse James, despite being one of 2007's best films in terms of quality, was never going to rank among the year's most popular films. It's a difficult, deliberately-paced 3-hour Western with minimal action and one major star. Has a film like that scored with audiences since 1990's Dances With Wolves? Its backers were most likely gambling on the film garnering awards recognition or critical praise and parlaying that into a moderately-successful theatrical run and long shelf-life on DVD. That still might happen. Though it's hard to figure a $3.8 million domestic haul is anything less than a major disappointment, this is a film movie fans will discover over the course of a few years. (Here's my original review)

The interesting story here is how a foreign director with one notable American release to his credit (Andrew Dominik) was able to convince a studio to invest any money at all in this film. Instead, writer Pamela McClintock tries to use the failure of Jesse James to make some kind of point about the very concept of movie stardom:

One studio exec says people are in the mood to be entertained -- regardless of the name on the marquee, at least to some extent.

"I think it's the movie, not the movie star," one studio exec says. "Movies like 'Juno' have the accumulation of great contemporary resonance, and you have a dazzling breakthrough performance in Ellen Page."

Though it kind of unfortunately comes off as a knock on the film - implying that Jesse James isn't entertaining, when nothing could be further from the truth - the point she's making is actually quite obvious: famous names don't guarantee box office success, and attention from the tabloids doesn't mean attention from paying film audiences. (One need look no further than Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Simpson's dismal returns at this year's box office to confirm this fact).

I mean, dozens of films open each year featuring major stars that fail to connect with audiences. The idea is that it's very difficult to guarantee an audience for a movie that doesn't have celebrities, so a film like that will have a harder time finding investors. That doesn't necessarily mean that the inverse is true, that a film that does feature celebrities will have guaranteed success. It just makes this significantly more likely to occur. I mean, duh.

It just strikes me as incredibly superficial to view this disappointment as a mark on Brad Pitt's celebrity status. It's not like the guy's had a foolproof, stellar record of hits up until now. Babel did $34 million last year despite months of publicity and Oscar nominations. From 1997 to 2000, the guy made nothing but flops - The Devil's Own, Seven Years in Tibet, Meet Joe Black, Fight Club, Snatch. He's done alright with the Ocean's movies and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but let's not forget those also starred George Clooney, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie and half the celebrities in Hollywood.

Why are we suddenly expecting him to have Will Smith-style opening weekends?

The article also fails to mention anything about the marketing or advertising of the film, and any analysis of box office performance without bringing this into account can't possibly be complete or thorough. I mean, McClintock writes that Warners had essentially written off the film years before it was ever released:

The studio says "Jesse James" cost $30 million to produce. Shooting was actually completed in the latter part of 2005; the release was delayed by more than a year until September 2007 due to editing.

By the time "Jesse James" opened in five locations Sept. 21, Warners had tempered its expectations; usually, when a film underperforms at the box office, there's all sorts of hand-wringing back on the studio lot.

So, they didn't expect it to do well and therefore, it's likely they didn't put their full resources behind promoting it. (Also, if I'm not mistaken, Pitt distanced himself from the production over time and didn't participate in a lot of publicity when it finally opened.) You think this may have had something to do with its poor showing?

No comments: