I am consistently mystified by the American box office — and not just those absurd moments when soul-dismemberingly bad movies retain the number-one slot for a second weekend (2008’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” or Nick Cage’s 2007 “Ghost Rider” — ugh).
No, more than finding box office returns lamentable or laughable like so many critics and academics, I just find the whole thing utterly perplexing. I don’t think the box office represents some collective numbing of taste or consciousness, or some “death of culture” as the howling beleaguered elite insist, so much as it represents the unpredictability and capriciousness of American preference and popular opinion.
For instance, this weekend in theatres we had two classic models of the star vehicle: a film whose financial success hinges on the popularity of its central celebrity. Brad Pitt’s “Moneyball” and Taylor Lautner’s “Abduction” seem (on the face of it) to wage a straightforward ticket-sales war on the plane of celebrity, rather than the planes of genre or form.
I’ll grant you that “Moneyball” and “Abduction” are birds of amusingly dissimilar plumage. The one is a character study of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who revolutionized preseason scouting strategies; the other is an action movie about kidnapping and guns and conspiracies and stuff. I’ll also grant you that genre is never an insignificant — it is often the most significant — factor at the box office.
But honestly, last weekend had all the trappings of a multi-million dollar popularity contest. Considering Mr. Lautner’s infamous abdominal muscles and retinue of vociferous tweenish fangirls, and considering Mr. Pitt’s simply being Brad Pitt, one might expect it to have been quite a close contest indeed.
It wasn’t. “Moneyball” made nearly twice as much ($19,501,302 versus $10,925,253 according to boxofficemojo.com) but in the end both films lost out … to “The Lion King.”
“The Lion King.” Originally released in 1994. Recently re-released in 3-D. Number one in the nation. For the second weekend in a row.
WHAT. American filmgoers, if I could have a moment of your time: You’ve already seen this movie. You might already own this movie. If you don’t own it, you could buy it for less than you spent on those hyper-inflated 3-D ticket prices and those stupid headache-inducing disposable glasses. American filmgoers: what were you thinking? I don’t mean this derisively — I really just don’t understand the collective motivational system that gets millions (millions!) of people into theater seats to see “The Lion King: 3-D.”
Steven Zeitchik, writing for the LA Times’ entertainment blog “24 Frames,” articulates my incredulity in a (perhaps reactionary) post entitled, “Lion King: Is moviegoing changing before our eyes?” Mr. Zeitchik muses, “The 17-year-old movie didn’t just defeat a late-summer dump-off. It trumped — in its second week of re-release — a well-reviewed, heavily marketed crowd-pleaser with one of the world’s most famous celebrities.”
Right, this is bizarre not because a kids’ movie holds magisterial sway at the box office (Pixar and Disney learned this long ago) but because a 17-year-old film can regain this much momentum — it’s made more than $60,000,000 in less than two weeks.
This suggests something new about the viability, virality (and if you ask me, virulence — but I’m a curmudgeon) of 3-D marketing. We already knew that filming a new release in 3-D boosts ticket sales. “Avatar” and every recent Pixar movie reconfirm this strategy and have indeed crystallized it as phenomenon, not fluke.
But now 3-D has entered a new phase in its Hollywood hegemony (I’m half-serious, folks). Now we know it actually reanimates tired material. Zeitchick mentions past blockbusters, “Titanic” and “Ghostbusters” among them, now in line to get the 3-D treatment. Which sounds a lot like high-tech botox for old movies. It sounds like thoughtless, effortless, cyclical and cynical reuse of a material artifact — one that despite its democratization through DVD reproduction and the endless disseminating energy of the internet, still somehow drags us back into theaters. And now, gives us headaches and astigmatism.
Gimmicky play with spectatorship is nothing new. Smell-o-vision and rumbling chairs have come and gone (well, kind of — the most recent Spy Kids installment marketed “aroma” as the Fourth Dimension, which makes me want to kidnap a team of studio executives and demand they write a commercially viable adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in this glorious, eternal, Sisyphean circuit of revenge).
Anyway, 3-D remains as the Great Gimmick — the Greatest Gimmick. Maybe it will transcend its lowly status as a cheesy marketing ploy, will instead become enough of a threat to contemporary modes of spectatorship that it validates the slightly hysterical title of Zeitchick’s blog post. I certainly hope not, but only time will tell.
PS: Since I won’t be writing before October break, I urge you all to check out the following films, none of which will be affecting the box office in any but the most peripheral ways: “Take Shelter” with Michael Shannon, Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” with Antonio Banderas, Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (his last feature was “Let The Right One In” and the idea of him directing a spy movie makes me a little delirious) and especially “Weekend,” which just won the Grand Jury prize at Outfest Los Angeles and opens in Philly on October 7. Unfortunately, none of these titles are coming out in 3-D.
Nolan is a senior. You can reach him at email@example.com.