By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 16, 2013 at 3:03PM
What Was The Buzz Like: Two-and-a-bit billion dollars later, it's easy to forget that when "Avatar" was first unveiled in San Diego, the buzz was less than deafening. The film had already been hyped to the skies, billed as a game-changer and something revolutionary, so when director James Cameron screened 25 minutes from the film in Hall H, there was an almost inevitable sense of anticlimax. Sure, there were some who got excited: First Showing raved "holy shit it was phenomenal, just amazing. It does indeed look like nothing you've ever seen, it is groundbreaking, it looks incredible." But Collider's reaction, saying "Nothing of what I saw redefined cinema or will change the way films are made forever," or CHUD's, saying "This is an evolutionary jump, not a revolutionary leap," were more typical among the geek press.
What Happened: If anything the release of the first trailer and Cameron's worldwide IMAX "Avatar Day" presentation in August (in which substantial footage was screened exclusively on IMAX screens) only continued the slightly underwhelming feeling about the movie in advance, which might have caused Fox to sweat a little. But they stayed on course, and even if the film didn't exactly change cinema, it picked up strong reviews, and made a little bit of money. Namely, $760 million in the U.S, and $2.782 billion worldwide, making it the top-grossing film in history.
Why? Well, given the weight of expectations placed on it, Cameron could have been joined on stage by Jesus and Jimi Hendrix and some would have come away disappointed. But premiering the footage at Comic-Con gave the faithful time to come round whilst letting Fox focus on marketing it to Joe Public. By touting Cameron, and the film's budget, it made it an event of the kind that hadn't been seen since, well, "Titanic." And for all the film's flaws, Cameron's storytelling chops were still rock-solid enough that the film felt satisfying enough for audiences to go back for more.
What Was The Buzz Like: Tepid. Sony made a big push for their glossy big-budget remake of Paul Verhoeven's Philip K. Dick adaptation. Despite filming having only just gotten underway, they brought an early, action-packed sequence to Hall H in 2011, and then returned in force in 2012, a few weeks before the opening. The first year, reaction was fairly cool, with Collider writing that, "It looks a lot like a video game... I'm not really feeling any thoughtful or inventive sci-fi from what we saw." But there was at least an understanding that it was some way off. While the more extensive footage shown the next year of the completed film had some supporters (Cinema Blend called it "fantastic"), it didn't seem to do much to turn views around.
What Happened: Something of a disaster. Opening a few weeks after Comic-Con, "Total Recall" was comprehensively outgrossed on both its opening weekend and in its total by its 1990 predecessor, taking only $25 million in its first three days, and $58 million in total. It fared better internationally, making it to just under $200 million worldwide, but given the film's whopping cost, it was still one of last year's biggest money-losers.
Why? Simply put: there was no reason for it to exist. Verhoeven's "Total Recall" might not have quite been a geek sacred cow, but its target audience certainly had their defenses up, and director Len Wiseman's film failed to add anything even vaguely interesting to the premise. Looking deeply generic, and with the never-quite-a-draw Colin Farrell carrying it on his shoulders, it's not so much a question of why the film flopped as why it was greenlit in the first place.
What Was The Buzz Like: Last year's Comic-Con wasn't a complete wash-out for Sony, with their underdog "Looper" winning over fans in a similar way that "District 9" had a few years earlier. The low-ish budget sci-fi was perhaps anticipated more by cinephiles, thanks to being from the brain of "Brick" director Rian Johnson, than by the geek crowd. But last year's Hall H presentation changed that as Johnson and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt charmed the crowd, and the studio showed a good chunk of footage that Cinema Blend called "insanely cool," and had Hollywood.com praising its "innovative action scenes."
What Happened: A nice little sleeper hit: "Looper" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to strong reviews in September, and rolled out at the end of that month. While not quite busting-blocks, it made a very healthy $66 million domestically after a $20 million and an impressive $110 million worldwide, for a total of $176 million, only just shy of the gross for "Total Recall," at a fraction of the cost.
Why? Domestically, the film came in somewhere between a "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and a "District 9," suggesting that there is something of a ceiling on this kind of low-budget original sci-fi fare, but it can be higher if the film is targeted to audiences other than the geek crowd (i.e. Johnson's profile, and its TIFF opening, signalled to audiences that it was smarter than, say, "Dredd"). Crucially, the real cash was made abroad, where the presence of megastar Bruce Willis helped bring in action-hungry audiences. And in a sign of what's becoming increasingly common practice, scenes scripted to be set in France were moved to China to help appeal to audiences there, with those moments extended in the film's Chinese release. Most importantly, it was made for a reasonable price. "Looper" would have been a flop if it had cost $120 million, but modest budget helped it turn a tidy profit.
What The Buzz Was Like: Deafening. Nine years after Bryan Singer revived the modern superhero movie with "X-Men," the time seemed ripe to start to deconstruct the genre, so enter the comic book world's enfant terrible, Mark Millar (who'd had a hit the year before with "Wanted"), and fast-rising British director Matthew Vaughn, who at one point had nearly directed "X-Men: The Last Stand." Their "Kick-Ass" was something of an underdog at 2009's Comic-Con— lowish budget, independently financed and, at that point, without a distributor. Its bloody, sweary charms captured the Hall H imagination in a big way, with Ain't It Cool News describing "the wild ovation (half of it standing)" that greeted Vaughn's presentation, and /Film talking of "the pitch-perfect execution" and adding that the clips were "received more warmly than 'Avatar.'" Lionsgate snapped up the film soon after, and buzz reached a fever pitch by the time the film screened in full to a similar crowd at Butt-Numb-A-Thon (a 24-hour film festival hosted by Ain't It Cool godhead and Comic-Con mainstay Harry Knowles) in December, to rave reviews.
What Happened: Lionsgate opened the film in April 2010, where it did reasonably well, if not quite living up to expectations. The film opened to a middling $19 million, and took $48 million in total domestically, with the same again coming internationally. Given the film's low cost of $30 million, that proved profitable, but it was only a healthy home video total that saw this summer's sequel greenlit.
Why? The initially breathless reactions from Comic-Con and BNAT were replaced by more measured ones on release (the film is arguably Vaughn's best since "Layer Cake," but is still tonally wonky and not as interesting as it could have been), and with "Clash Of The Titans" still mopping up much of the geek crowd thanks to surfing the 3D wave, the film faced tougher competition—we wonder if it might have done better if it had landed a month or two earlier. It'll be interesting to see how the almost completely Vaughn-free "Kick-Ass 2" does next month.
What The Buzz Was Like: Want to know why 'Scott Pilgrim,' "Cowboys and Aliens," "Dredd," and this year, "Escape Plan," risk doing full screenings at Comic-Con? The answer is "District 9." Neill Blomkamp's (relatively) low-budget sci-fi actioner had a quiet presence in the form of viral teaser posters in 2008, but came back in full force the following year, at a point where the film was a few weeks out from release, and still under the radars of many. The film didn't just have a storming Hall H panel, complete with producer Peter Jackson's first-ever Comic-Con appearance, it also screened secretly on the Thursday night and despite the presence of "Avatar" proved to be all anyone could talk about the rest of the weekend. Deadline wrote that the film "looks all kind of awesome," and io9 said it "excited us more than any other," and called the finished film "one of the best movies of 2009."
What Happened/How Much It Grossed: An almost unprecedented level of success, as far as relatively-low-budget con fare goes. Sony opened the $30 million R-rated star-free movie about three weeks after Comic-Con on August 14th to a hugely impressive $37 million weekend, which led to a $115 million domestic gross, and a worldwide total north of $200 million. What's more, it proved to be a critical smash too, eventually going on to pick up a Best Picture Oscar nomination on top of all that green. Blomkamp's follow-up, "Elysium," was one of the big hits of last year's Comic-Con (back when it was sent for a March '13 release), but isn't on Sony's slate this year. That said, don't rule out a similar surprise screening, given that the movie's done.
Why? The easy answer would be "because it was awesome," and that's partly right. "District 9" was one of the best sci-fi movies in years and its strong reviews, both from the geek crowd at Comic-Con and from the wider press, can only have helped. But the film also had a canny release date—it followed in the footsteps of underperformers like "Funny People" and "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra," so the geek crowd had gone nearly a month without anything targeted at them (though "Inglourious Basterds" did land the week after). Furthermore, Sony didn't do what some of their competition did in solely targeting the movie at the geek crowd; the minimalist art and high concept appealed to a wider audience even without A-listers involved.