'What’s It Like to Flop at the Box Office?'

Near the end of The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s brilliant 1991 look at Hollywood’s misfired version of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling Bonfire of the Vanities novel, you begin to feel remarkably sympathetic towards Brian DePalma, almost in spite of yourself. He spent well over a year prepping the film, directing it on the set, supervising its editing, spending many, many sleepless nights along the way, and then a rough cut of the film is ready to be previewed for the first time in front of a test audience.


It goes badly.

Very badly.

As do subsequent test viewings. And while he can make a few tweaks, there’s not much than can be done at that point to salvage the film. The actors have all gone to their next gigs, the sets have been struck, and there’s only so much editing can do. But even knowing that very big icebergs loom ahead, DePalma still has to shepherd the production through the final stages of dubbing, recording the foley sound effects, adding the titles, mixing the background score, and all of the myriad details that make up a complex, multimillion dollar production shoot.

Nikke Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Website has a fascinating essay by Sean Hood, one of the four credited screenwriters on the remake of Conan The Barbarian, which died at the box office last weekend:

When you work “above the line” on a movie (writer, director, actor, producer, etc.) watching it flop at the box office is devastating. I had such an experience during the opening weekend of Conan the Barbarian 3D.

A movie’s opening day is analogous to a political election night. Although I’ve never worked in politics, I remember having similar feelings of disappointment and disillusionment when my candidate lost a presidential bid, so I imagine that working as a speechwriter or a fundraiser for the losing campaign would feel about the same as working on an unsuccessful film.

One joins a movie production, the same way one might join a campaign, years before the actual release/election, and in the beginning one is filled with hope, enthusiasm and belief. I joined the Conan team, having loved the character in comic books and the stories of Robert E. Howard, filled with the same kind of raw energy and drive that one needs in politics.

Any film production, like a long grueling campaign over months and years, is filled with crisis, compromise, exhaustion, conflict, elation, and blind faith that if one just works harder, the results will turn out all right in the end. During that process whatever anger, frustration, or disagreement you have with the candidate/film you keep to yourself. Privately you may oppose various decisions, strategies, or compromises; you may learn things about the candidate that cloud your resolve and shake your confidence, but you soldier on, committed to the end. You rationalize it along the way by imagining that the struggle will be worth it when the candidate wins.

A few months before release, “tracking numbers” play the role in movies that polls play in politics. It’s easy to get caught up in this excitement, like a college volunteer handing out fliers for Howard Dean. (Months before Conan was released many close to the production believed it would open like last year’s The Expendables.) As the release date approaches and the tracking numbers start to fall, you start adjusting expectations, but always with a kind of desperate optimism. “I don’t believe the polls,” say the smiling candidates.

You hope that advertising and word of mouth will improve the numbers, and even as the numbers get tighter and the omens get darker, you keep telling yourself that things will turn around, that your guy will surprise the experts and pollsters. You stay optimistic. You begin selectively ignoring bad news and highlighting the good. You make the best of it. You believe.

In the days before the release, you get all sorts of enthusiastic congratulations from friends and family. Everyone seems to believe it will go well, and everyone has something positive to say, so you allow yourself to get swept up in it.


Read the whole thing.

The new version of Conan cost $90 mil to produce, according to the LA Times. As James Lileks notes on his Pop Crush blog at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, studios are beginning to notice that box office returns are down, and cancelling some questionable future mega-projects. (Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger? Ouija Board: The Motion Picture? Rejected! At least for now.) It doesn’t help that DVD sales and other ancillary movie-related products are down as well. (That’s good news, right James Cameron?) And with the economy in the dumps, and so few appealing products playing at the local multiplex, “no one wants to spend fifty bucks to take the family to some soulless CGI-infested 3D movie that beats you over the head and pokes things in your eyes,” Lileks writes. So what can the studios do?

They might ask themselves why these things are so expensive in the first place. I’ve seen plenty of good little-known Alfred Hitchcock films that were made for the modern equivalent of a million dollars, and while they didn’t have enormous spaceships or people running away from fireballs or anything, they made up for it with curious, old-school tricks like “Acting,” “Script,” and “Story.”

That seems like a level of introspection that’s far beyond a Hollywood studio chief’s capabilities.


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