Saturday, September 4, 2010

The failure of Scott Pilgrim and the realities of geek cinema

I have not yet seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the movie that was supposed to be this summer's awesome geek sleeper hit. Neither, it seems, have a lot of people. As of this writing, Pilgrim has taken in $27.2 million in 21 days of release. In Hollywood's ideal world, this would have been its opening Friday night take alone. In contrast, the moronic spoof Vampires Suck has taken in $29.2 million in only 16 days of release, and the utter bullshit-fest Piranha 3D has taken in $20 million in 14 days, with a weekend coming up. Meaning that when it has been out for 21 days it will probably be north of $27 million too.

So why, a million websites and blogs are asking, has this ever-so-clever little opus failed to connect? People who have seen it, like our very own Gia and Ryan, have fallen bonkers-crazypants in love with it, seeing it multiple times. (Though I have read a few online reviews by fans of the graphic novel expressing the usual disappointment in how it was adapted.) Ryan has gone so far as to purchase the video game and all the books, and may well be considering taking steps to have his name legally changed to Scott Pilgrim. So among the people who are discovering it, it's striking a chord — pardon the pun.

Just what is this movie about anyway? The teaser one-sheet made it look like a rock n' roll movie. Plus it did its level best to hide star Michael Cera's face, generally not a sign of studio confidence in their product.

Why my dear friends have yet to persuade me to see the movie, and why people in general are staying away despite such great word of mouth and strong reviews, is being heatedly debated all over the interweebs as if it were the great mystery of the age. I'm going to try to cut through the chest-beating and finger pointing and try to elucidate what I think are some practical realities about this business.

Geeks just aren't that impressive a demographic.

While it has finally become socially acceptable to get your geek on, those who do so as a way of life still do not measure in anything like the kinds of numbers sufficient to support a strong counterculture. What geeks do have is an immeasurable capacity to form the kinds of enclaves in which they are the mainstream. And since a prerequisite for being a geek in the first place is a willingness to throw all shame to the winds in expressing your undiluted, obsessive love and devotion for whatever it is you're into at that moment, the levels of energy expressed at such enclaves as Comic-Con International can give non-geeks a somewhat skewed impression. Non-geeks working as studio suits think that the near-riots they see at Comic-Con are indicative of society's attitude towards their product as a whole, and they expect the world to simply be a scaled-up version of Comic-Con.

Hence the head-scratching and waves of executive job loss that erupt in the wake of such box-office disappointments as Snakes on a Plane, Aeon Flux and Scott Pilgrim. Yes, it's true there are many movies that premiere at Comic-Con that go on to be huge hits. These tend to be movies with more going on for them in a marketing sense than Scott Pilgrim had: either they're based on comic properties well-known and established for decades, like most of the Marvel and DC superhero lineup, or they're the latest in an established movie franchise like Terminator, or they feature stars far more appealing to the general public than Michael Cera.

But it's interesting how Hollywood has latched onto Comic-Con as the main event of the summer to promote its upcoming slate of wannabe-blockbuster movies. In a way Comic-Con has supplanted such established festivals as Sundance, Toronto or Cannes as the place to get the buzz going for movies (keep this in mind, as it will come up again in a minute) — and they do it without even having to show the movies! But while it's easy to get excited at the spectacle of a Comic-Con auditorium full of 5,000 geeks all going into apoplectic seizures over your teaser trailer, studios should at least have the sense to realize that 5,000 geeks are not necessarily representative of tens of millions of everyday Americans...the very people they need to spend that $100 million box office that will keep the suits their jobs.

And even among geeks, there's a lot of cynicism

Face it, we've all been burned. We've been burned by nipples on Batsuits, Nic Cage's endless collection of creepy hairpieces, and those goddamned Star Wars prequels to be wholly willing to give ourselves over to much of anything these days. Yes, I just got done talking about the excessive enthusiasm of geekitude and the circus atmosphere of Comic-Con. But Comic-Con is an event, and as such is conducive to building the sorts of mob excitement identified with fandom. I mean, what — are fans gonna not scream their little propellerheads off when Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron steps onto the stage?

But get a geek back home, let the cheering die down a little bit, and they're all too inclined to remember that all it takes is one Catwoman to take the wind out of your sails for a good while. The fact that these may be the very same geeks who were responding to Comic-Con teasers and clips by ejaculating with such force as to risk hospitalization doesn't mean the magic will still be there when the actual movie hits the mall, and the predictable round of "it sucks" whining begins to crop up on AICN. Too many times have geeks had their hopes built up, then dashed. Chickens coming home to roost and all that.

It's very likely Scott Pilgrim was just made and marketed all wrong

Remember just a moment ago when I mentioned the festival circuit? It's entirely likely that, by treating Pilgrim strictly as a comic-book, major-studio, summer-release property, and failing to glom on to the festival circuit, the studio may have seriously miscalculated. Wikipedia tells me that the only festival Pilgrim played was Toronto's Fantasia Fest. Hell, why not try to place it in TIFF? It's like it didn't even occur to them.

For all that the movie is based on graphic novels, they aren't really superhero fare in the traditional sense. There's a much more indie-flavored sensibility to the comics' humor. If the studio had devoted, say, $25 million to the production instead of $60 million, they could easily have left the source material's quirky wit intact. By allowing the movie more time to build buzz on the festival circuit, where there certainly is an audience for this stuff, they might have found themselves with a Napoleon Dynamite-style left-field hit on their hands, instead of what will undoubtedly now be known as a Scott Pilgrim-style faceplant flop. In other words, they tried to go mainstream with something that isn't really mainstream in the least, and they assumed a fan base was simply there, ready and waiting, when it wasn't. Such marketing fail has brought down movies that deserved better many times before. After all, Hollywood has never really known what to do with movies that are even the tiniest bit challenging or outside of formula. Here, they may have just been trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.

So Scott Pilgrim vs. the World seems destined for cult status. In a sense, that's not necessarily a bad thing, and can serve as some comfort to its most devoted fans. (There there, Gia and Ryan, come here, have a hug.) The history of geek cinema is full of movies that were not exactly blockbusters upon their initial release, only to finally find their audience on DVD in after years. Office Space, Donnie Darko, Fight Club, John Carpenter's The Thing, the list goes on. I feel pretty confident that while Pilgrim may be a dud right now, in 20 years, people will be buying the 20th anniversary Blu-ray (or whatever HD format we have then), while Vampires Suck won't even be in print.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen Scott Pilgrim either, but I do intend to eventually. That's the same thing I said about Inglorious Basterds, which I saw mere weeks ago.

    Being a sort of half-assed geek, I was completely unfamiliar with the entire thing, and it took a Yahoo News headline about nerd references in Scott Pilgrim to arouse my interest because the trailers didn't get that across to me. Maybe it's just the people I grew up around (and I'm going to stereotype a bit here), but all but the jockiest of jocks I can think of could probably show up at Comic-Con and geek out a little.