They were supposed to be the saving grace of cinema, the cyberspace tastemakers that provided insight into what would be a hit come theatrical release date. Via their focused devotion and frothing fanbase obsessions, they would function as broad-based barometer, a way to decipher how like minded movie maniacs would respond. Yet ever since Snakes on a Plane significantly underperformed, and Grindhouse ground to a halt, the geek has been getting its commercial clairvoyance kicked. Over the last few months alone, the potential prognostication of these messageboard/MySpace mavericks, luminaries supposedly in tune with the times, has proved to be downright deadly. And in its wake, a selection of stellar and slightly less significant films have been left to flounder.
Of course, a caveat has to be provided before plowing forward. Just because the knowledgeable nerd loves a possible project with all his mint condition action figure might doesn’t mean the movie will actually be good. With large exceptions – 300, for example – the quality of the film actually figures into the failure. In addition, any kind of cult, by its very nature, is limited in scope and design. Unless you can manage a Unification Church level of brainscrubbing, the choir will always be preaching to a smaller and smaller subsect of the converted. And yet Hollywood still rests a lot of its hope on feeding the so-called insider sites with as much pre-production pimping as possible. Rarely does it come back to bite then in the bet (the recent dork nation reject of Rob Zombie’s Halloween a clear anomaly).
Take Shoot ‘Em Up! for example. Released at the start of Fall’s frequently confusing motion picture season, it had the earnest earmarks of a surprise post-Summer sleeper. There was non-stop action, loads of gratuitous violence, a scantily clad Monica Belluci, and several deadly carrots. The characters were cardboard cut-outs of carbon copies accentuated with just enough quirk and smirk to make them viable, and director Michael Davis didn’t just bury his tongue in his cheek – he cut the damn thing off and crammed it into your craw. Yet after one week in theaters, and a less than impressive $6 million take at the turnstiles, the movie is headed for a quick take turnaround onto the DVD format. Receipts are down almost 60% in the second week, and the lack of “legs” indicates an audience that’s already climaxed on this kooky crime caper.
So what went wrong? Why is Shoot ‘Em Up! failing to make a major marketplace dent. There are two answers, really. One is a throwback to the days of the VCR. There is still a significant number in the mainstream viewership who will see a title or trailer like this, run the entertainment possibilities through their own aesthetic processor, and determine that a trip to Blockbuster (or a pre-release placement on a Netflix queue) would be preferable to battling crowds and disruptive theaters in exchange for their discretionary income. This “I’ll wait for the (digital/analog) release” has plagued the industry, and the occasional unusual movie, ever since Beta battled VHS for format supremacy.
The other factor is far more fascinating. Call it the “basement” syndrome, or the “Me, Myself, and I” ideal. In general, a geek is a geek because of their solo fixation on something. They love it because of how it speaks to them, not how it resonates with the masses. Indeed, it could be argued that popularity completely undermines the feeb. Once it’s a part of pop culture, it’s hard to feel it belongs only to you. So as long as the material is unavailable, able to be scrutinized, and scanned as part of a personal dynamic, there’s a façade of potential success. All the advance buzz and preview hype does help. But once the movie makes it into the marketplace of ideas, it begins to loose its exclusivity. And with rare exceptions, this means the fanatical will have their moment – and then move on.
Of course, there are those times when Tinsel Town tries the opposite approach. Take the case of Neil Gaiman. Somehow, overnight, he went from well loved literary figure with a few notable adaptations under his belt (MirrorMask, Neverwhere) and an equally devoted following to the latest player in the post-LOTR fantasy adventure face off. Without the prerequisite preparation for a ‘next big thing’ crowning, a version of his Princess Bride like fairytale farce, Stardust, attempted to become a major popcorn movie moment. For months prior to its August release, it was touted on numerous websites as the second coming of sophisticated adult fairy tale-ing. But after a month in theaters, the film has barely grossed $36 million, a far cry from its $65 million budget.
It’s clear that the studio suits underestimated this British writer’s popularity. But it didn’t help matters much that Matthew Vaughn’s take on the material was all mannerism and no magic. People don’t usually go to a sword and sorcery epic to see aging actors swishing around (Robert DeNiro played a closeted gay sky pirate) or noted beauties rendered butt ugly (though Michelle Pfieffer was actually very good as a crabby, craggy witch). No, they want the visual fireworks, the ephemeral eye candy that comes with the genre – and if not that, some very solid satire. Stardust had neither. Instead, Gaiman was garroted, his own unique vision undermined by a movie that skimped on both spectacle and wit.
Even independents found themselves struggling under the lack of clear geek support. Prior to its coming to our shores, the New Zealand comedy Eagle vs. Shark was being pushed as a Napoleon Dynamite for the Kiwi cult. It even starred the up and coming actor from the acclaimed HBO series Flight of the Conchords (Jermaine Clement). Unfortunately, the movie itself was a bafflingly disorganized dramedy that took a decidedly hard line look at what were, in essence, massively marginalized human beings. Where Nappy co-writer/director Jared Hess felt a kinship with the crackpots he put on screen, Eagle creator Taika Waititi just wanted to mock his morons. Even with the evocative setting, the storyline seemed harsh and the characters more confrontational than charming.
About the only films in the last nine months that followed through on their omnipresent online anticipation came from one enlightened individual. While his name was already known to many in the motion picture bazaar thanks to certified 2006 hits Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow literally stormed the cinematic stocks in 2007 and took over the reign as comedy’s creative king. His Knocked Up was one of the Summer’s certified gems, and his production credit on the equally engaging Superbad gave the smallish coming of age farce a much needed shot of significance. And it worked. Both films remain fan favorites from the otherwise unimpressive sunshine season, and stand as examples of how nerd acknowledgment can lead to legitimate commercial claims.
But these are the rarities, the situations where artistic integrity (read: good filmmaking) meshed with Internet attention to create a cult of profitability. But it’s not really indicative of the dolt demographic’s perceived power. Indeed, both Superbad and Knocked Up got as much conventional support as they earned from the online community. No, in most cases, the fanatical come up rather short in their power to both guide and deride the similarly minded. Indeed, they are equally powerless at stopping a film’s support as they are at guaranteeing its success.
As mentioned before, Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween remake stands as a great example of their overall ineffectual stance. For months, Ain’t It Cool News was gunning for this “unnecessary” horror update. It published pundit piece after pundit piece criticizing the script (even before the film went into production), arguing over Zombie’s approach, and picking apart the casting. As time passed, the mandatory screening reviews started to appear, it was clear that Harry Knowles and his artificial (and actual) industry insiders were of one like mind. Because of their longstanding professional relationship with John Carpenter, they were desperate to undermine anything that challenged his legacy.
Now, this is not just conspiracy theorizing. While no one from the site has actually come out and stated such an intent, it’s pretty easy to infer, given the obtainable facts. Drew McWeeny, otherwise known to AICN readers as “Moriarty”, has worked very closely with Carpenter in the past. He scripted the macabre icon’s Master of Horror segments “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life” and is noted for his connection to the famed filmmaker. It’s no surprise then that McWeeny took Zombie to task in a 31 August review of Halloween that, in brief, referred to the film as “creatively bankrupt from the start”, and incessantly trashed it for nearly 3000 words. Now, there is no denying the man’s entitlement to his opinion. It’s the cornerstone of criticism. But the lack of openness (Carpenter’s name is mentioned, but never the duo’s business relationship) taints any take.
The funny thing is – it really didn’t work. While far from a blockbuster and more or less destroyed by the rest of the fractured Fourth Estate, Halloween did go on to score almost $52 million at the box office, guaranteeing Zombie another stint behind the camera. In fact, your regular movie going audiences have been much more receptive of the film than the so-called clued in, and with its microscopic production costs (approximately $15 to $20 million, by some estimates), it will surely be labeled a decent sized hit. So what does this say about the geek contingent? Are they really a powerful predictor of success? Or are they nothing more than untried tea leaves for a desperate studio system?
The answer is clearly neither. While there is nothing new about gauging fan interest in divining a product’s potential success, Hollywood has forgotten something significant about the online community. Like talk radio and any other forum for public interaction, the squeaky wheels that choose to participate are not representative of the entire population. For every lover/hater of a movie/director/actor, there’s a Nixon-esque silent majority sitting back, making up its own mind. They will ignore the love of a specific author or genre type to simply pay for what interests them. In fact, the louder the screams from the self-imposed about the importance of a project, the more likely the hype will fall on indifferent or just plain deaf ears.
Certainly, the geek will have its failures. All gamblers do. And it is sad when such a flop is fostered upon an undeserving entity (Grindhouse was great, as was Shoot ‘Em Up!). But perhaps it’s time to stop using the overtly zealous as a benchmark for bankability. It’s clear that any position they take – pro or con – still renders a title a veritable unknown quantity. Like the buzz building around a student union, or a high school cafeteria, the new ‘Net water cooler is just one factor in a film’s overall potential success. The rest of the elements tend to render the nerd a minor mirror at best. Hopefully Hollywood will remember that come creativity/concept time. It’s one thing to play to the prone. Relying on them is just a fool’s paradise.
// Notes from the Road
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