Why did three fun comedies have to arrive at the same time?

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

For being such allegedly savvy operators, the people in charge of Hollywood sure do some dumb things.

Like releasing three good, smart comedies on the same day, thus guaranteeing that two of them would crash and burn.

That's what occurred last weekend when "Zombieland," "The Invention of Lying" and "Whip It" squared off at the nation's multiplexes.

Though they were all over the place in terms of approach and tone — zombie yukfest, cerebral/philosophical rumination, roller derby-as-female-empowerment — the three were competing for comedy dollars.

The winner by a gross out: "Zombieland," which collected $25 million, leaving "Lying" to play catch up with $7.4 million and Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" with a pathetic $4.85 million.

C'mon, folks. It's not as if there are so many worthwhile comedies out there that we can afford to throw them away.

Even your average fifth-grader understands this basic rule of film distribution: When you open your movie, make sure it's the only movie of its kind debuting that day.

You don't unveil "Transformers" the same day as a "Terminator" sequel. Or a ghost story alongside a slasher flick. Or "Julie & Julia" opposite another chick flick like "The Time Traveler's Wife." You don't split the audience for those genres. It isn't done.

Apparently nobody told the deep thinkers at Columbia, Warner Bros. and Fox Searchlight. How did this happen? Call it a perfect storm of bad decisions.

Originally "The Invention of Lying" was to have opened on Sept. 25. "Whip It" and "Zombieland" were scheduled to open Oct. 9.

Between them and dominating the weekend of Oct. 2 was to have been "Shutter Island," a Martin Scorsese-directed Leonardo DiCaprio thriller set in an isolated facility for the criminally insane. The names Scorsese and DiCaprio on the marquee, along with the lurid subject matter, suggested a box office behemoth.

"Shutter Island" had that weekend all to itself.

Then in August it was announced that "Shutter Island" wouldn't be released until February. Suddenly there was an empty date in the fall release calendar, and the various studios jumped into action, moving "Lying," "Zombieland" and "Whip It" into "Shutter's" slot.

Result: a bloodbath at the box office, and I'm not talking about "Zombieland's" high body count.

Is there a way to avoid this sort of scheduling Armageddon? Probably not.

The studios operate independently of one another, and there's no central booking agency telling them what the other studios are planning. Which is why the schedule is forever in flux ... opening dates are always being changed as films jockey for position, hoping to claim a weekend when there's no obvious competition.

Going into last weekend it had to be obvious to everyone that "Zombieland" (artistically the least interesting of these three comedies) would be hard to beat. The film's combination of blood, horror film cliches and brighter-than-you'd-expect humor was guaranteed to appeal to the fanboy base. Basically, it cannibalized two genres: horror and comedy. It perfectly targeted that much-prized demographic of young men.

"The Invention of Lying" attracted fans of comic Ricky Gervais (the Brit version of "The Office" and last year's "Ghost Town") and a more sophisticated audience. (Note to up-and-coming filmmakers: Do not expect to break box office records by appealing to a sophisticated audience. P.T. Barnum had some useful thoughts on this matter.)

The film's premise was clever — a world where nobody has ever told a lie — and the picture's second-act satire of the origins of religious faith (the main character invents God and the afterlife from whole cloth) appealed to audiences who like their laughs with a bit of intellectual bite.

"Whip It" (the best of the three, at least dramatically) took the worst hit. Let's see ... will it be zombies or roller derby? Zombies, definitely. Apparently "Whip It" didn't even draw the expected audience of young women.

While the walking dead carried the day, I take some comfort in the idea that "Whip It" will have longer legs. Most of the gorehounds turned out for "Zombieland" on opening weekend.

"Whip It" will benefit from word of mouth and return business by customers charmed by its blend of raunch and sentiment. Hopefully audiences will discover it the way they did star Ellen Page's big breakthrough film, "Juno."

I don't care which studio makes a killing and gets bragging rights on Monday. But I am concerned about the quality of movies in general, and when solid efforts go splat, it doesn't bode well.

What conclusion will studio heads draw from the numbers? I would hope they'd recognize that it made no sense to pit three witty comedies against one another.

But my fear is that the bean counters will look at the numbers and conclude that there's not much audience for clever satire or sweet goofiness.

Brace yourselves for "Zombieland II."




By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.


Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.


L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.


Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.


Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.


Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.


West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.