Game(r) Over

It seems fairly obvious by now… the gamer population can’t open a movie. Even better, the Comic-Con obsessed geek whose aesthetic is supposed to determine the future of film can’t make something otherwise cinematically viable a solid hit. It happened with Watchmen. It happened again with Kick-Ass…and sadly, this past weekend, it happened again with Edgar Wright’s revolutionary Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. No matter the debatable nature of each title’s quality, or the reasons behind the (perceived) box office failure, the truth is that three very entertaining, oddly effective movies — each originally positioned to take the pop scene by far-reaching force – wound up limping away to respectable, if not wholly spectacular financial results. Thanks a lot, X-boxers.

In the case of the adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s beloved graphic novels, timing seems to be a specifically bitter pill for all involved to swallow. Positioning yourself as the antidote to Sylvester Stallone’s testosterone-fueled bit of revamped ’80s action nostalgia and Julia Roberts sappy chic-lit just didn’t cut it. Extrapolated out a bit further, Wright’s novel deconstruction of the RomCom came at the tail end of an awful summer, a popcorn season with far more burnt husks than fluffy, fun experiences. Toss in the continuing domination of cultural buzzword Inception, the back to school sentiments of a late August release, and the (granted) limited appeal of the material itself and you’ve got a recipe for disaster — or at the very least, a limp $10.4 million.

Surprisingly, what we have here is an intriguing combination of cult item and audience ambivalence. The lovers of the books flocked to the film, filled Messageboard Nation with their unbridled praise, and mocked those who would argue for an Expendables/Eat, Pray, Love superiority. From an artistic standpoint, they are dead on. Edgar Wright, responsible for two of the smartest satires (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and most surreal sitcom (Spaced) ever has turned the world of a 8-bit video game into a live action environment complete with power-ups, bosses, and the inevitable coin rewards. Scott Pilgrim is indeed amazing eye candy.

He also uses the narrative’s unusual format (potential boyfriend must defeat girl’s evil ex’s) as a commentary on the trials and tribulations of commitment. Just when you think you’ve won the punk-haired hipster babe of your dreams, a destructive element from her past comes back to thwart — and possibly destroy — your lovebird status. From first puppy love to hot, steam, sexual chemistry, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World uses a manic metaphoric means to speak the complicated language of amore to a demographic defeated by their own shoegazing, slackerdom. It’s also a great deal of mindbending fun, indie Id made magical via a creative directorial design.

So why the weak payoff? Why did so few outside the already converted cotton to what Wright was preaching? Another answer, sadly, seems to be source. Unless you are part of a specific funny book club, Scott Pilgrim was a unknown quantity. Like Kick-Ass before, the dangerous label of “comic” seemed to suggest something specialized and undecipherable to the unwashed masses. As a matter of fact, a direct correlation can be drawn between the profile of the source and the resulting returns. Watchmen lay dormant as a dream project for decades. Most film fans knew of Terry Gilliam’s desire to helm an adaptation, but it took Zack Snyder and his Dawn of the Dead/300 clout to spur the studios on. Warner Brothers worked on getting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons muse to the mainstream, and they walked away with $55 million over its March opening weekend.

Watchmen would eventually earn $185 million worldwide – respectable, but a far cry from the mega-blockbuster some were predicting – and most of that was attributed to left over cache from Snyder and the source. Similarly, Kick-Ass came out of its Comic-Com stint as the “must-see” movie of early 2010. It had Ain’t It Cool News’ boisterous backing and an ad campaign that highlighted the madcap free-for-all action. Of course, the whole Hit-Girl element was hidden and the shockingly violent (but fun) nature of the set-pieces was barely touched on. Add in the fact that Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. are less than household names and you had another case where a lack of recognizability led to a limp return (about $96 million cumulative and counting).

As the least understood entry among the three, Scott Pilgrim seemed poised to underperform. Universal truly had its work cut out for it, especially since most saw the movie as a direct WiFi hotwire to an already over-served gamer contingency. Broadening its possible appeal, as well as simply getting the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ name out there, was clearly marketing mandate numero uno. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the studio succeeded. Simple math would suggest that the movie only played to those already prepared for it, failing to move beyond the invested in-crowd. They couldn’t even reach those who loved Wright’s work before.

There will, of course, be an argument over artistic quality but it’s a ridiculous reach. The Expendables is not “better” than Scott Pilgrim, nor are Eat, Pray, Love or The Other Guys (the #3 film for the 13 August weekend). As entertainments, all are flawed in favor of one thing or another. The difference is that Stallone is a former superstar and can sell his stunt epic to the beer drenched dude profile. For her part, Roberts had a hugely successful saccharine Oprah-esque self-help memoir to bolster ticket sales, and in a match-up of media favorites, Will Ferrell flattens Michael Cera any day. Pundits had predicted a less than splashy tally, but few saw a paltry $10 million. Compare that with other arguable flops from Summer 2010 (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — $17 million, Jonah Hex — $5 million, MacGruber – $4 million) and it’s hard to argue for its long term legs.

In fact, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will end up being the last word on the season-long argument between “gamers” and “geezers” — and the old coots win a ‘flawless victory’ this time out. Some saw Inception as benefiting from the young vs. mature dynamic, but clearly it was more than a matter of age. Similarly, unless you’re talking about CG family films, the 20-and-under adolescent crowd has little to crow about regarding their ability to open a film. Add in the endemic belief that ‘geek equals a new commerce stream’ and the fallout is almost nuclear. It’s easy to predict a real reevaluation of the whole subgenre – even with Hollywood grappling hand over hammer toe to grab the latest “hot” comic release — and Wright’s undeniable talent will clearly survive. For now, the argument is over. In fact, it’s gamer over.

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