By Benjamin Lee

Welcome to the flophouse! The films no one wanted to see

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According to The Guardian, a disastrous weekend at the US box office highlights a year that’s boasted a string of catastrophic flops without a defined audience.

Remember when we were all panicking about the future of cinema? It might not have led to a frenzied riot on Sunset Boulevard, but there was industry-wide concern that the proliferation of streaming services would slowly kill the multiplex experience. The weak returns from 2014’s crop of summer blockbusters added to this fear. Someone had to pull Hollywood back from the brink of disaster.

They have! Thanks to a consistent string of over-performing hits, from Fifty Shades of Grey to Fast & Furious 7 to Jurassic World and a handful of major hitters still to come, analysts are predicting that 2015 will end up as the biggest ever year at the box office. There are already three films from this year in the all-time global top 10, more than any other year on record.

But there’s another record being threatened and it’s one that the industry is far less happy to shout about.

Over the weekend, there was a pile-up of catastrophic proportions at the box office. Four new wide releases and one major expansion landed in US cinemas, yet not one of them could scrape together more than $11m, and two made less than $2m each.

While the results for Steve Jobs, The Last Witch Hunter and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension were disappointments, the performance of Jem and the Holograms and Rock the Kasbah were trainwrecks.

Each was released in more than 2,000 cinemas but made less than $3m between them, landing both films on the all-time worst wide opening list. The top 10 also includes another 2015 release: the Zac Efron EDM turkey We Are Your Friends. Further down the list, other releases from the year feature, including the misjudged Robert Zemeckis effects-driven caper The Walk, the Johnny Depp comedy Mortdecai, the Aardman animation Shaun the Sheep movie, the Michael Mann thriller Blackhat and the Sean Penn Taken-wannabe The Gunman.

In an era of tidily packaged, overly test-screened products, how are some studios still getting it so wrong?

First up, Jem and the Holograms. This one benefitted from a factor that greenlights the vast majority of blockbusters: pre-sold property. But when you’re basing your film on a cult 80s animated show but hoping to appeal to a younger audience whose awareness of the original will be non-existent, you’re essentially starting from scratch. It also boasted a producer with a hit track record (Jason Blum) but when he’s known for his involvement in the horror genre, you’re also back to square one.

The trailer desperately states that it’s ‘from the studio that brought you Pitch Perfect’ as if that cold coincidence might have some sort of creative influence on the end product. The bland package eschewed the neon vibrancy that gave the cartoon a following and any of the more fun action-y elements of the plot and pandered to teenage girls with an anonymous tale of the dangers of fame. The show’s ardent supporters were offended (director Jon Chu claims he had death threats) while the over-saturated tween demographic weren’t having any of it.

Rock the Kasbah arrived as if it had been shelved since the late 80s. A culture clash comedy that relies entirely on the popularity of Bill Murray, an actor whose box office pull is virtually non-existent in 2015, the confused trailers failed to sell the idea of spending 100 minutes in Afghanistan with him. Again, it was a question of who the film was aimed at? The plot, awfully explained in any marketing materials, sees Murray’s washed up music manager try to get a young girl fame on reality show Afghan Star with the help of Kate Hudson as a prostitute and Bruce Willis as a mercenary. Hardly a slam dunk.

The reason Murray’s St Vincent turned into a sleeper hit last year was down to a simplistic and sentimental plot that appealed to the older audiences who would be lured out to see a Bill Murray film in the first place. Grouchy neighbour and cute kid? Yes. Reality TV and the Middle East? Not so much.

Acting as yet another attempt to push Zac Efron from fresh-faced Disney star to gym-going leading man, We Are Your Friends went down the Flashdance/Magic Mike route by taking a trend and concocting an inspirational rags to riches tale around it. But the trend in question was EDM DJ-ing, a practice that hardly screams out to be showcased on screen. It also didn’t help that the title was based on a lyric from a song that was released 13 years ago.

Yet again, the film’s poor performance (it ended up making just $3.5m in the US) was a result of an audience issue. The hardcore Efron fans (the star boasts over 11m Twitter followers) aren’t likely to care for an Entourage-lite tale of bros trying to make it in the music business, while the trend-setting music fans would have trouble buying the ex-High School Musical star and the film’s rather dated attempts at appearing cool.

Robert Zemeckis has one of strongest track records at the box office in Hollywood with his lowest performer Death Becomes Her still bringing in $58m domestically and nine films that have made over $100m. But despite a marketing campaign that began last December, his fact-based drama The Walk will end up with just a $10m total in the US, a disastrous result for a film that should have received a hefty boost from both IMAX and 3D tickets.

What went wrong? Zemeckis’ decision to turn the true story previously told in James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire into a cartoonish family film with a distractingly accented Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the French protagonist led to the all-important question: who is this for? Anyone intrigued by Philippe Petit’s story would have found the softened tone to be patronising, while young kids would have been unengaged by the story of a man who wants to walk between two tall buildings for no clear reason.

The films mentioned won’t go down as the year’s biggest flops (Fantastic Four and Jupiter Ascending will feature in that list) because of their relatively modest budgets, but they will go down as the year’s lowest attended. The films that have worked this year did well because the audience was clear. The recent failure of Crimson Peak (not scary enough for horror fans, too gory for romantics) proved the importance of nailing this from the outset.

The panic over luring audiences to the cinema might have been temporarily tempered by this year’s run of successes but the flops have shown that no one is safe. Analysts are already predicting 2016 to bring a notable dip in profits and with forthcoming release schedules filling up faster than ever, studios need to remember to ask themselves: who wants to watch this movie?

 

This entry was posted in General, Lunchbox
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