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Five Reasons Why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Didn't Kick Ass at the Holiday Box Office

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 29, 2011 at 12:40PM

No question, Sony isn't happy with the early holiday returns on David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Why did the studio put this violent R-rated counterprogrammer into the holiday window opposite "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"? It got creamed, grossing only $19 million over the four days and $24 over six days in release.
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"The Girl the Dragon Tattoo."
"The Girl the Dragon Tattoo."

No question, Sony wasn't happy with the early holiday returns on David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Why did the studio put this violent R-rated counterprogrammer into the holiday window opposite "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"? It got creamed, grossing only $19 million over four days and $27 over six days in release. Which leads many to ask, if the movie isn't wowing American audiences, why would Sony green light a sequel? Steve Zaillian has already started writing "The Girl Who Played with Fire," but the sequel has not yet been announced. Overseas box office will likely tip Sony in the sequel's favor, even if the domestic is lackluster. UPDATED Christmas box office numbers are here.

While the movie, which earned decent reviews and an A Cinemascore, should score more than the modest $35 million domestic Sony predicted for the Christmas break, just why did "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" disappoint?

1. The holiday release date may be Sony's biggest mistake. The movie wasn't ready for an earlier December berth, but the violent R-rated mystery (not a genre thriller--there's little action), makes unusual holiday fare. It had to face intense competition for the adult audience. And the movie is far less mainstream that you might think given the popularity of its source material. It would have knocked it out of the park on President's Day weekend in February.

2. It's not a mainstream genre title. Yes the books sold 30 million copies around the world, but in studio commercial movie terms, "Tattoo" is a brainy, cerebral, character-driven procedural along the lines of an Agatha Christie mystery. It boasts two detectives, not one. Breaking movie conventions, the male hero is white collar passive and reactive, almost feminine, while the heroine is the tattooed outsider vengeful action hero on a motorbike, better on computers, the sexual aggressor, and saves the hero's ass. Men are not used to this--hey, Lisbeth Salander is on top--and it creates a level of discomfort.

3. It lacks marquee stars. But, you argue, Daniel Craig is James Bond. Well, he makes a great Agent 007, but it's James Bond that pulls people into theaters, not Craig. Put him in anything else and he's a great-looking, charismatic actor with action chops and a wide range. But he didn't pull audiences to see "Cowboys and Aliens." Neither did Harrison Ford. Marquee movie stars are few these days. It helps if they are in a franchise: Tom Cruise in a "Mission" movie, Matt Damon in "Bourne." Only Angelina Jolie or Will Smith-- in an action vehicle--are box office guarantees.

4. Sony mismarketed the film. This movie should have opened better with such a brand title. Despite the R rating, the studio sold the movie as transgressive, dark genre fare to younger audiences, but it played to adults, many of whom had read the book. I don't buy the argument that this is another foreign remake that didn't wash with American audiences. Many of them did not see the Swedish film, which played art houses. This is more of an adaptation of a bestseller that was translated into English. The film's primary appeal was to women (attendees were 55% female) and adults (49% 35 and over).

5. It's too expensive and too long. Put David Fincher at the helm of a studio movie and it's going to cost--and two hours and 38 minutes takes its toll at the box office, with fewer slots a day. But why did this movie need a budget of $100 million? That's what dictated the prime-time holiday release date inside the Oscar corridor (which should have been irrelevant to this film). Gorgeous as this and "Hugo" are, their inflated budgets make it much harder to come out in the plus column.

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Girl with Dragon Tattoo


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.