“Nobody knows anything.”
In his 1983 book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” screenwriter William Goldman offered those three words as a sort of mantra to the fickleness of the movie-going public.
Some have misconstrued Goldman’s turn of phrase to mean that the people who run Hollywood are stupid. It sometimes looks that way from out here in the more-or-less sane Middle West.
But Goldman was writing about the crap shoot of making and distributing movies.
No matter how much planning and polling you do, nobody knows for sure what will be a hit and what will be a flop.
Movies built on monumental best-sellers can tank. A little unsung comedy about a pregnant teen can be worth its weight in gold.
Which is why Hollywood tries to even the playing field at every opportunity.
One way is movie stars. Certain stars bring with them an adoring public. Presumably this makes them worth their multi-million-dollar paychecks. Of course, even the most popular actors have made movies in which the public had absolutely no interest.
Another way is genre. Romantic comedies, no matter how bad, seem to be perennially popular, but not always. Sci-fi works — sometimes. Gritty police drama can find an audience — or not. It depends.
Audience “familiarity” is a big word with studio bigwigs. That way they don’t have to work so hard to explain what it’s all about.
Movies like “Mission: Impossible” and the upcoming “The A-Team” are based on popular TV shows. Some movies are based on award-winning plays. Others are based on hugely popular novels about romantic vampires or young witches and wizards. Movies are based on popular toys (“Transformers,” “G.I. Joe”).
And, of course, movies are based on other successful movies. They’re called sequels (sometimes prequels).
The goal is to make a film with built-in fans just dying to plop down their $10 ($14 for the 3-D version).
But, again, the truth is that nobody knows anything.
A great example: Last week saw the opening of “Kick-Ass,” a deconstruction of superhero films based on a comic book series.
It’s hardly news that comic books have become an essential source of ideas for Hollywood. Comic books tend to be read by the same people who see a lot of movies. And the most popular of them (“Batman,” “Spider-Man”) have such iconic status that every man, woman and child in the country recognizes them.
As a comic book, “Kick-Ass” has a huge rep among hardcore comics readers. But in print each issue in the eight-issue run sold around 50,000 copies, which hardly makes it a household name.
The studio guys realized that making a movie of “Kick-Ass” was a commercial long shot. So they all turned it down. Director Matthew Vaughn ended up raising the production money himself.
When it was finished Vaughn showed it to the studios and, lo and behold, they liked it. It was smart. It was funny. It was subversive.
There was a bidding war. Lionsgate won.
And what happened on opening weekend? The brand-new “Kick-Ass” took in a mere $19.8 million, only $200,000 more than a 3-D animated movie (“How to Train Your Dragon”) on its fourth weekend.
By conventional Hollywood reckoning, the opening of “Kick-Ass” was a near disaster. Prognosticators were saying that Vaughn’s film would easily open with more than $30 million.
What went wrong?
Well, first let me assert that nothing went wrong with the movie per se. It’s a good film. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
And I’d opine that a $20 million opening weekend is pretty great for a film with only one star (Nicolas Cage, who’s not in it that much, and not that big a name) based on a property that most of us had never heard of and which, far from being a superhero movie, is a post-modern vivisection of superhero movies. If anything, the film is too clever to be truly popular.
Plus it’s R rated, which means (in theory at least) that a huge chunk of the potential audience — namely teens — couldn’t see it without dragging along Mom or Dad. Which is a really uncool way to spend your Friday night.
The lesson here is that even if the finished film is terrific, it’s still no guarantee of box office success.
Nobody knows anything.
Still, I think “Kick-Ass” will overcome its slow start and gradually build its box-office numbers. Between the film’s U.S. and U.K. box-office takes, the film has already recouped its $30 million budget.
Like the “Dragon” it barely beat last weekend, “Kick-Ass” is a classic word-of-mouth movie where not many people know what to expect going in. But they’re delighted and tell their friends to check it out.