Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Richard Kelly's The Box is getting ready to limp out of first-run theaters, having eked out a miserable $13.2 million in box office receipts, and laying claim to a dubious achievement; it earned the almost unheard-of "F" grade from opening night CinemaScore audiences. The Las Vegas-based research organization polls Friday night filmgoers in 25 major markets across the US, and gives patrons the option of assigning letter grades from A+ all the way down to F. To place that failing grade in perspective, it is widely assumed that A's are given to hits, B's to middling successes, and a C is usually the worst grade that an audience is expected to give. A C grade is tantamount to a death kiss, with D's and F's all but nonexistent.
Why such a high curve? That's because those who are being polled are highly-motivated consumers of that film. They're the ones who braved opening night crowds, paid opening night prices (matinee goers need not apply), and obviously were keenly aware of the new film's opening date to catch one of the first showings. Not only are they most primed to enjoy the experience, but CinemaScore founder and creator Ed Mintz has found that they are also the patrons whose disappointment in a film's shortcomings can prove most accurate for predicting BO totals. Once the Friday night numbers are in, they are crunched to deliver a prognostication for final US gross. The system has proven remarkably prophetic.
So if you are polled by CinemaScore, what precisely are you asked? As it turns out, not very much. The poll, able to fit on a wallet-sized card, wants to know your age, gender and the grade you'd give the film. Also, you're asked if you're enthusiastic enough to either rent or buy the movie later (although given the recent precipitous drop in DVD and Blu-Ray sales, one would think this question's worth has been devalued of late), as well as your primary reason for wanting to see the movie - star, director, genre, advertising, etc.
And that's it. CinemaScore then applies a formula that takes into account the age and gender demographics to predict a film's BO take, and a high grade does not always equal dollars; if the audience has skewed older, that usually means a lower final gross (Russell Crowe's State of Play earned an A- from CinemaScore, but the younger demographic shunned the movie, and it was widely considered a flop with $37 million banked.)
Now, consider this; according to Entertainment Weekly, there have been three other movies in the last five years that have also earned the dreaded F grade, and, gentle Jar readers, get a load of what they are - 2004's Darkness, 2005's Wolf Creek and 2007's Bug. This means that the only films to garner a failing grade have all been Horror films, or at the very least films that were sold as such. So does this mean that horror fans tend to be peevish, more apt to reject a film they feel doesn't meet expectations? Or did these movies pull an opening night crowd that was unprepared for the subject matter they saw? (It is worth noting that none of the four films - The Box included - met with total critical derision. Indeed, Wolf Creek and, to a lesser extent, Bug, have come to be highly-regarded examples of the genre as the decade draws to a close.)
Two of the films - Darkness and Wolf Creek - opened up on Christmas Day, never a strong choice for unveiling a horror film. In my memory, there have been only two genre films that have done considerable business during the holiday season: 1973's The Exorcist and 1996's Scream, with the former having been front page news in the days leading up to its opening, and the latter having built its business slowly due to spectacular word of mouth. There have been many horror films that have tried a Christmas Day release, only to play to near empty theaters; Dracula 2000, An American Werewolf in Paris, The Faculty, even the when-the-hell-else-are-you-gonna-release-it remake of Black Christmas. The holidays bring out the angel within theatergoers, when perhaps the Grinch is the one who should be sitting in the seat. And let's face it - can you think of a more un-Christmasy picture than Wolf Creek? (With a final US gross of $16 million, it more than made back its $1 million investment.)
In the case of Friedkin's Bug, an unsettling flick that was a challenge to sell, its schizophrenic ad campaign left viewers uncertain as to exactly what kind of film they were going to see. With its roots on the stage, it was a project that was better suited to a limited release arthouse campaign. (Of course, the fact that its subject matter was calculated to make audiences squirm in their seats and reach for disinfectant could not have helped.)
I find it amazing that audiences are more tolerant of failure from comedies or dramas than they are of darker, nastier themes. Few films were more despised - and rightly so - than Tom Green's Freddy Got Fingered, yet it too managed to dodge the dreaded F grade, ejaculating horse and all. And I find it sad that the Camerion Diaz movie so judged is not The Sweetest Thing. It may be cold comfort to Richard Kelly, but it's worth remembering that a CinemaScore is far from history's final verdict on a film; unfortunately, in the short run, it may be the most accurate.