Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Kick-Ass"? Not at the Box Office

I do enjoy schadenfreude in the morning.

Early estimates of this weekend's box office numbers have come in, and the two films that are neck and neck for the number one spot are "Kick-Ass," which opened Friday to mostly positive reviews but underperformed, and "How to Train Your Dragon," the Dreamworks animated film that is in its fourth weekend of release. Both films pulled in roughly $20 million apiece. "Dragon" previously held third place spots the last two weekends behind "Clash of the Titans," "Date Night," and the latest Tyler Perry movie, "Why Did I Get Married Too?" The industry folks are in an uproar, because nobody expected this to happen. No film in recent memory has come back after so many weeks to challenge what was supposed to be a major release.

What's striking is that "Dragon" hasn't experienced some sudden resurgence in popularity. Despite a soft opening, it's retained modest but steady numbers from week to week while the other, subsequently released films have done big numbers upfront and faded away quickly. It's doing almost the same business that "Monsters V. Aliens" did last year, actually trailing about $5 million from what that film had generated at this point in its release, though "Dragon" has much smaller audience drop-offs from week to week and may end up surpassing it. Also in its favor is the lack of competition for its audience. Aside from "Furry Vengeance," the dreadful looking Brendan Fraser comedy coming next week, there's nothing on the schedule for the family audience until "Shrek 4," the next Dreamworks animated film, debuts on May 21st.

On the other side of the equation, the totals for "Kick-Ass" didn't match early estimates that pegged it as taking in $25-30 million, mostly based on the hyped up early response of the film's intended audience of young adults. Most analysts are now looking at the film's "R" rating and the recent controversy over the film's content as the culprits. While most critics praised the film, almost all did so with reservations and strong warnings to parents about the graphic violence and profanity. A few, like Roger Ebert and AO Scott went further and addressed the controversy directly and explained their objections in greater detail.

My pet theory is that the film's marketing did the most damage by studiously avoiding any mention of the film's copious profanity and ultraviolence. Without them, "Kick-Ass" looks like something aimed at a much, much younger audience. All the ads focus on the characters in brightly colored superhero costumes, reminiscent of something from the Disney Channel. A major point that most commentators glossed over in the content controversy was that many people assumed that the film was intended for children because if its comic premise and visual style. Nobody blinked an eye at foul-mouthed tots in films like "Role Models" because those are clearly intended for adult consumption. "Kick-Ass," by the creators' own admission was meant to confuse the line, and confuse it did.

There are still a few hopefuls suggesting that "Dragon" had inflated numbers because the kids were buying tickets in order to sneak into "Kick-Ass." Even if this were true, it still highlights the high systemic hurdles facing any film trying to woo teenagers with adult content. Some predict "Kick-Ass" will benefit from good word-of-mouth and overcome its opening weekend numbers, or that it will find an audience on DVD. It's clear, however, that "Kick-Ass" will not be the major hit that so many of the fanboy sites were giddily anticipating. Frankly, the dismissive attitude of many of the film's champions when confronted with questions about the film's provocative elements should have raised alarm bells early on. Fanboys can be terribly myopic and tend to forget they only comprise a fraction of any film's potential audience.

Lionsgate and Matthew Vaughn, who self-financed "Kick-Ass," should make a tidy profit in any case, but it doesn't look good for future comic-based properties with similar conceits. Instead, animation fans and animators are having a very nice day.

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