This Weekend’s Winners: If you won an Oscar, you took a victory lap this past weekend. Ang Lee’s Best Director winner Life of Pi shot up 43 percent to gross $2.3 million, putting it near $117 million domestically. Best Picture winner Argo rose by over a fifth, to $2.2 million, cresting $133 million just in the States. Even Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence’s Silver Linings Playbook was up 3 percent to an estimated $5.94 million, earning $116 million to date.
This Weekend’s Losers: Technically, we do have to mention that 21 and Over opened to a tepid $9 million, while The Last Exorcism Part II coughed up just $8 million, or barely a third of what the original racked up three years ago. But this weekend was really defined by the total failure of one film and one film only: Jack the Giant Slayer (No. 1 with $28 million), which could easily have been titled, Jack the Giant Writedown, but more on that in a moment …
How It All Went Down: It’s not clear how much money Warner Bros. will lose on Jack, but all reasonable sources suggest it’s well over $100 million. When a film this big fails this completely, one must ask: What went wrong? Its production? Marketing? Distribution?
“You can’t pin it on one division,” says one rival studio chief, “This is more like the movie disaster version of a group hug.”
To start with, this was a fairy tale for which the studio chose Bryan Singer as director, whose non-franchise oeuvre — The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, Valkyrie, House MD — is the polar opposite of family friendly. “The director started out making an edgy R-rated film with violence,” explains one talent agent, “And the studio changed mid-stream and tried to make it a family film.” The result, adds a rival studio’s vice-chairman, was “real ratings confusion: Its DNA is ‘kids’ despite its cast or director, and it ended up PG-13.”
And that middle ground of MPAA rating, explains a head of distribution at still another studio, is a fatal no-man’s land. “You’re either in or you’re out,” says this distribution capo, “But taking a PG-13 for a fairy tale, you’re not in or out.”
A third senior production executive at a rival studio calls this — without irony — “a giant miscalculation,” for, as a fairy tale, “the film had no natural [adult] audience” and “the director choice guaranteed the elimination of any younger audience. It wasn’t a kids movie and it certainly wasn’t a film that an adult would have any interest in seeing.
Jack clearly failed on an aesthetic level, too, as the film’s weak 3-D numbers suggest. “They also didn’t convince anybody on special effects,” says our vice-chairman. “Only 37 percent of the audience saw it in 3-D, and just 12 percent in IMAX.”
Still, Warner Bros. had done what it could to make the best of a bad situation. “They knew they were in trouble and you could tell they were struggling,” observed one head of publicity for a rival studio. “The title change and date change give you some indication that they knew this fairy tale was not going to have a happy ending.” (Singer’s film was originally titled Jack the Giant Killer and scheduled for last summer, not this spring.)
“It’s the same as John Carter and Battleship,” e-mailed one producer, “A director with too much power and too little oversight making bad decisions. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Don’t blame marketing; it’s a development, production issue.”
Then again, the Jack marketing left much to be desired, too. Mrs. YBOE noted that it confused both her and her 5-year-old son: Was this or was this not a kids movie? Clearly, the Family YBOE was not the only one confused. “The posters look like something my kids do in Photoshop,” sniffed our first rival studio chief, “and even I never knew what the movie was about.”
Which brings us, finally, to its distribution. Opinion varies as to whether the release date of Jack could have helped it dodge a bullet, or was, in fact, just another bullet.
“At least they got it out before Oz [the Great and Powerful],” said our first distribution chief, who was quickly contradicted by a second. “This is where a production problem actually becomes a distribution problem,” argues this second distribution head. “If you have a $200 million movie, you usually don’t want to be anywhere near or around another $200 million movie. Originally, this movie was slated for last summer. Okay, fine; too many movies? So, you move it to spring. But there’s one little problem: [Disney’s] Oz. They’re going to get pummeled by Oz. Pummeled. If they had the goods, they could withstand it, but they don’t. Jack is just not a very good movie.”
If there’s an irony to the title of Jack the Giant Slayer it’s that the “Giant” being slayed may well be its own studio, New Line Cinema, the once-proud home to high-grossing franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Rush Hour, Final Destination, Austin Powers, and Blade, but now greatly diminished. “With Rock of Ages and now this one tanking domestically, you might see New Line cease to exist outside of the remaining Hobbit films (which obviously just crossed $1B),” notes a second talent agent. “I’m curious to see how Jack performs internationally, where they eat up 3-D tentpoles and fairy tales.”
This is a sentiment echoed by our first studio chief, who said simply, “All you can do is pray they like it internationally.”