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30 Minutes or Less Box Office Will Get Unexpected Boost from Real-Life Controversy

by Anthony D'Alessandro
August 9, 2011 7:45 AM
18 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

What was Sony thinking? Like predecessors Superbad ($121.5 million domestic B.O.) and Pineapple Express ($87.3 million), raunchy comedy 30 Minutes or Less, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride, looked to be building some summer bad-boy buzz until online needles rattled over a potentially devastating controversy. Anthony D'Alessandro has more:

Instantly, the set-up of 30 Minutes, which looked like a heightened version of Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times, took on a new light when the family of Brian Wells, a late Pennsylvania pizza man who met his fate after being coerced to rob a bank as a bomb hostage, revealed that the 30 Minutes filmmakers were satirizing their real tragedy. Who knew that the film was even remotely associated with actual events? Director Ruben Fleischer insists that there's no connection between Well’s death and 30 Minutes, while Sony’s defense is that the screenwriters were only “vaguely” familiar with the tragedy. “You don’t look to make trouble with your core audience,” says one distribution executive of studio efforts to sidestep controversial properties. “That’s stupid. You look to make money.”

How does this small tornado bode for 30 Minutes' box office?  Much to the chagrin of the Wells family, their dust-up only raises the profile of 30 Minutes even more.  The news about the unfortunate pizza man hit days before the 30 Minutes bow; it might have had more impact earlier in its production cycle.  The comedy’s biggest obstacle this weekend isn’t the Wells family or any kind of national headlines they generate, but Warner Bros./New Line’s latest sequel, Final Destination 5, which looks to clear $25-$30 million while 30 Minutes will be lucky to reach $15-$20 million. 

Although the 30 Minutes scenario isn’t offending an entire sub-group of the population, it’s a reminder that any controversy, more often than not, only fuels a film’s box office. Only when controversy completely alienates the majority of a movie's core audience will it capsize a film such as Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, which triggered a global uproar from Christian groups.  Theater chains wouldn’t even touch its film prints back in 1988, when Temptation would up playing in no more than 123 theaters, with a final domestic of $8.3 million.

30 Minutes would need to clock a ridiculous distance in order to fully sideline its core 20-30 something male demo, a group that is more likely to gripe about the authenticity of Anne Hathaway’s Cat Woman suit in The Dark Knight Rises. 

In the case of Jewish groups protesting Mel Gibson's reverently violent The Passion of the Christ ($370.8 million domestic) or GLAAD’s objections over the gay knock in Ron Howard’s The Dilemma ($48.5 million) trailer, these folks arguably had no plans to watch these films. Thus their ticket sales weren’t impacted by their noise.  If The Dilemma fell short at the B.O., it was due to its lackluster reception.

“Studios package their slates to avoid controversy," says Charles Lyons, who chronicles the history of media watch dogs’ cinematic protests in The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars. "They don’t want to deal with the headache.  They are part of multinationals and do not want to anger the parent companies. If an indie distributor happens to release a controversial film, they know how to market it and play the press to get articles.”

That said, it’s easy to buy Sony’s defense, because it would be financially suicidal for them to develop a potential sleeper hit comedy that would offend summer moviegoers, even if the comedy genre allows filmmakers to cross lines. The Wells family cry came from out of the blue.  “You never know when one group is going to get upset,” says one distribution executive, “and when it does, you just stick to your story in the marketing.”

Even so, studio executives tend to be more prudent than they were 20 years ago in developing hot topic properties. Paramount and Oliver Stone were cautious not to offend anyone when it came to World Trade Center ($70.3 million domestic, $163 million worldwide).

Although the whirlwind of controversy surrounding 30 Minutes is not at the fevered pitch of say, Passion of the Christ, gone are the days when street protests would erupt over such controversial films as 1980's Women Against Pornography rallies against Brian DePalma’s violently erotic Dressed to Kill. Gay and Lesbian groups formed the Catherine Did It coalition to protest their portrayal in Basic Instinct, designed to spoil the film’s shocker ending.  Again, neither outrage damaged the B.O. :Dressed to Kill grossed $32 million -- $84 million by today’s inflation – and Basic Instinct hooked $117.7 million.

“Because of the internet and the way social media can work campaigns, it’s rare for these groups to go protest in front of a theater today,” observes Lyons.  And though box office may be unstirred by such public outcry, “it’s arguable that these groups’ fights against cultural imagery have affected changes in the real world."  Case in point: In the wake of Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct, portrayals of homosexuals as serial killers are, thankfully, not acceptable. 

18 Comments

  • Brian | August 10, 2011 8:03 AMReply

    Also, the remake of "Lolita" was tanked by the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

  • Ryan | August 10, 2011 6:23 AMReply

    I knew this was inspired by real events A LONG time ago after the first trailer was released. The trailer mentioned it even, this is JUST NOW getting heat?

  • Jerome | August 10, 2011 5:52 AMReply

    Ryan, where's the trailer "mentioning it's based on a true story"? -- if Sony actually made one, they wouldn't be proclaiming their distance from the film.

  • Justin | August 10, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    Why is it not acceptable for homosexuals to be portrayed as serial killers in film? Shouldn't EVERYONE be fair game? Jeffrey Dahmer was a homosexual. Should we act like there has never been and WILL never be a homosexual serial killer because it might offend homosexuals? F all that.

  • Anne Thompson | August 10, 2011 4:27 AMReply

    Matt, have you ever heard of a follow-up piece? The one that deepens and analyzes the story? Sure, we all got wind of this--or scanned headlines. The idea is to explain what the impact--if any--the media blitz will have on this movie's box office. Too often it seems like folks quick-read a headline, pop off, and don't read the actual story.

  • mary | August 10, 2011 3:32 AMReply

    "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Da Vinci Code" are two other good examaples to prove that controversy can fuel box office.

  • Anthony | August 10, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    Okay, people act as if there's some kind of problem here because they don't understand. I understand never to be disrespectful to the dead. I've lost enough to know that. But, do people not actually know the circumstances? I grew up an hour or so from where this took place. . . .

    The delivery guy was IN on the incident. He just got double-crossed, basically, by his crew. He agreed to do it not out of threats, but out of greed.

  • Christina | August 10, 2011 2:44 AMReply

    Cinemark is a huge family values circuit. For example, they won't play NC-17 films across the country. If it was complete public knowledge that "30 Minutes or Less" was connected to the Wells incident, then Cinemark wouldn't book the film at the Tinseltown USA theater in Erie, a mile from the explosion/bank robbery.

  • Brandin | August 10, 2011 2:42 AMReply

    Not that I really care much about it, there is no way Sony and the writit's in bafers had no idea about this closely being related to a real life event, who the hell just thinks "hey we should make a movie about a pizza delivery dude being forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest." We all have seen that most people in Hollywood cannot come up with an original idea out of the blue like that often. I seen the trailer for this movie on revision 3's Filmstate where the host said it was based on a real life event.

  • Jerome | August 10, 2011 2:35 AMReply

    Matt Hightower, I suggest you rest your attitude and read this piece: http://blogs.indiewire.com/spout/archives/30_minutes_or_less_controversy/

  • Matt Higher Tower | August 10, 2011 2:07 AMReply

    Matt, you fail to see that the piece is about how the whole controversy --whether it's true or not-- will raise the film's profile. It's an analysis piece; go back to high school. Furthermore, just because something appears on IMDB.com doesn't make it truthful. IMDB is an interface that my grandmother can update with whatever information she wants.

  • Phil | August 10, 2011 1:58 AMReply

    The most shocking thing about this article was the last line...
    "In the wake of Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct, portrayals of homosexuals as serial killers are, thankfully, not acceptable."
    What? We aren't allowed to ever show gay serial killers anymore? They have to be WASP-y white dudes so no one gets offended? I guess if a thriller ever has a gay person in it, you can go ahead and cross them off the list of suspects... they couldn't have done it. It's a rule.

  • Austin | August 10, 2011 1:31 AMReply

    @tom
    Exactly. I'm surprised I haven't seen this mentioned in a single article written about this film.
    During the trial significant evidence was brought forward to illustrate that Mr. Wells had helped to plan the robbery. He wasn't aware that they would be using a real bomb, but he did know what was going on. So it's a bit surprising that this is even an issue.
    Certainly not the best source, but somewhere to start if people are interested in reading about the whole situation:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Wells_(bank_robber)

  • Mark | August 10, 2011 1:31 AMReply

    The premise of the film is akin to the Wells case and that is about it. The characters certainly aren't inspired by the real people in the case - which has the potential to make a really good movie and any actress who uglifies themself to play Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the mastermind in the case, would certainly get Oscar buzz for the part.

  • Matt Hightower | August 10, 2011 1:09 AMReply

    You call this news?!? What planet have these idiots been on? IMDB had the info about Brian Wells' death and the relevance to the movie posted in the trivia section for 30 Minutes or Less for well over a month now. Hey, Thompson and Co., why don't you hit us with another news flash, like Pirates 4 might hit the $1 billion mark soon, or Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set to come out sometime in August? If you are going to report news, try to get ahead of the curve, will you?

  • tom | August 9, 2011 12:12 PMReply

    Let's not forget that Mr. Wells was not an innocent victim. He was indeed involved in the bank robbery.

  • ag | August 9, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    "Director Ruben Fleischer insists that there’s no connection between Well’s death and 30 Minutes, while Sony’s defense is that the screenwriters were only “vaguely” familiar with the tragedy"

    -- please.

    the plot is almost certainly based on this event. the only reason specifics weren't changed is because pizza is, largely, the food that is delivered. i guess they could have made it a chinese food delivery guy, but that might have, in the end, appeared even cheaper. that is, people would say, 'sure. change it from pizza delivery to chinese delivery, make the smallest tweak, and you can ripoff actual events all you want'.

    the studio, writers, etc, can deny it until they're blue in the face. but, taking the flip side of the argument, that the writers were 'vaguely' aware of real-life events but didn't look into it, check it out, get all the details before constructing the script for 30 minutes is absurd. writers investigate. these writers know wells' story completely, and so did the studio before the movie was made.

    seriously... how can you write a movie who's plot closely mirrors events that you are 'vaguely' aware of without checking the facts? there are only two substantial differences between what actually happened and the plot of 30 minutes -- the real bad guys made wells wear a neck collar-bomb and eisenberg's character wears a vest bomb, and, wells died while (i'm assuming) the character played by eisenberg doesn't

    according to abcnews.com senior vp at sony Steve Elzer says, "Neither the filmmakers nor the stars of '30 Minutes or Less' were aware of this crime prior to their involvement in the film." are you kidding us? that's simply preparation for a lawsuit. elzer expects us to believe that, aside from the writers some 10-20 people minimum had no knowledge of the bank robbery. i'm sure they have a stable of lawyers prepared to dish that up in court.

    perhaps sony/columbia/tristar have a bridge they'd like to sell us.

  • wayne martin | August 9, 2011 8:28 AMReply

    Check out this interview with the cast of the new movie '30 minutes or less' http://bit.ly/qO796H

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