By Anthony D'Alessandro | Thompson on Hollywood September 28, 2011 at 4:22AM
Aren't rave reviews supposed to push indie films into crossover success? Anthony D'Alessandro investigates what went wrong with Drive and Warrior at the fall box office.
While critics did boost ticket sales for such wide appeal films as The Help (74% fresh Tomatometer and $155 million domestic B.O.) and Contagion (84% fresh, $56 million), they weren't able to turn things around for Lionsgate’s Warrior ($12.3 million, 84% fresh) or FilmDistrict’s Drive ($21.9 million, 93%). Why? It's complicated, but one thing's for sure: the films fell short because both distribs took their films out too fast to fine-tune their roll-out for their real audience. And while both films played well for women once they saw them, neither distrib was able to lure them in significant numbers.
The films faced several common challenges: violent content, lack of marquee headliners, and selling to an uber-competitive male-dominated market (Contagion (50%), Moneyball (51%) and Killer Elite). Both were chasing the fickle young male 12-24 target demo--the ones who are often too lazy to get up from the couch. Where they differ is that the R-rated Drive is outpacing the cumulative grosses of the more accessible PG-13 Warrior by 78%.
Both films were 'tweeners that played better for adults than kids. But the art house crowd was turned off by their violent content, says marketing consultant and former Disney marketing president Jim Gallagher:"Though both are fantastic movies, based on their subject matter, neither Drive nor Warrior inherently feel like they're for adults 30+, but rather young males. They both possess violent subject matters that are apt to turn off older moviegoers. When the reviews come in and exclaim that the films are 'fantastic,' the distributors are already trying to overcome a negative with older filmgoers who've determined that the films aren't for them, even though they really are. It's a Catch-22."
This yields conflicting stats and water-downed receipts: The over-25 bunch who did show up for Warrior (51%) and Drive (75%) opening weekend didn't spread strong enough praise to resonate with their own set. Any decent WOM that Drive incurred, resulting in its initial 11% Friday-Saturday B.O. uptick, failed to spill over into its second frame, where it fell 49%. Also perplexing both distributors, who were encouraged by upbeat reactions at sneak previews and festival screenings, were Drive's woeful C- Cinemascore and Warrior's failure to mint off its marvelous A rating.
In hindsight, given the fierce competion for young males this fall, platforming would have been the better move, a choice that Relativity wisely made this weekend with its New York-Los Angeles bow of the Gerard Butler political actioner Machine Gun Preacher ($45K). But it was always part of Lionsgate and FilmDistrict's plan to go wide. One Lionsgate executive cited the lack of slamdunk 5-star reviews in New York and Los Angeles as one factor working against a Warrior platform bow; thus they chose to score the bulk of their money from a national release.
FilmDistrict sidestepped a limited opening due to the label’s stated mission for 1500-screen wide genre releases. Also, with seniors repping a portion of the arthouse crowd, there was a concern by both distribs that the blood would scare them off. FilmDistrict distribution president Bob Berney remains confident that Drive is going to stick around for the long haul, especially as the macho competition dwindles, ultimately becoming a mainstay for weeks to come at smart houses. “It’s a reverse strategy,” he says. “It’s better to make it look like a straight ahead genre film. Then it can filter down to the cult, more urban center core audience.”
It’s easy to knock FilmDistrict for positioning Drive as a stylized, genre-bending thriller with its haiku TV spots and Todd Hido-looking photographic one-sheets and billboards. But to its credit, FilmDistrict didn’t oversell Drive as a film that it wasn’t; a smart move considering such marketing maneuvers can backfire whenever a distributor promises false goods to a worthy fanbase. Last fall Rogue Pictures blundered by pushing quirky documentary Catfish $3.2 million) toward the Paranormal Activity ($107.9 million) set.
Given Drive’s polarizing, quiet tone, FilmDistrict wasn’t out to dupe the Fast & Furious demo. Even though FilmDistrict trotted out the car thriller's Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and director Nicolas Winding Refn at Comic-Con, the industry didn't harbor lofty, over-hyped Kick-Ass ($48.1 million) expectations about Drive heading into the fall.
A big blow to Warrior was that Ultimate Fighing Championship fans – a group known to shell out as much as $11 million for a single live event and together over $250 million in pay-per-view events in a given year – never queued up. The UFC wouldn’t participate with Lionsgate in cross-promoting the film, nor did they permit the label to purchase ads during their events. The organization typically refuses to lend its name to Hollywood mixed martial arts projects. As such it was anomaly when they recently permitted the use of its brand in the upcoming Kevin James comedy Here Comes the Boom. One studio sources says, "A sports organization such as UFC typically wants to get paid; they're not in the business of having Hollywood stand on their back and make money."
Lionsgate worked earnestly to generate hype in the MMA blogosphere with contests and interviews. Also working in their favor were a number of UFC fighters who appeared in the film, spoke out favorably about it and surfaced in photo-tie-in-book The Men of Warrior. But finally these efforts were fruitless.
“The young men who like mixed martial arts and who sit home and play videogames, like real violence. That’s why they’re attracted to the sport’s authenticity,” says one media analyst. “Movie violence means bullshit to them. The violence of MMA is what’s missing from Warrior.”
Further hampering both films' sales: the co-billings of Ryan Gosling/Carey Mulligan in Drive (our TOH interview here) and Tom Hardy/Joel Edgerton in Warrior (our TOH interviews here) mean nothing to middle America. Gosling’s profile is climbing thanks to the summer sleeper ensemble Crazy Stupid Love ($82 million) and George Clooney’s upcoming Ides of March, but he’s far from a true marquee star who puts butts in seats. The most mainstream billings for Mulligan (Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby), Edgerton (The Thing, Great Gatsby) and Hardy (McG’s This Means War and Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises) are yet to come.
Though Warrior’s B.O. bruises are partly responsible for Lionsgate’s negative $40-$50 million cash flow, the distributor covered a majority of its $25 million production budget in foreign sales. Drive, co-financed by Odd Lot and Bold Films for $15 million, looks to recoup its budget globally and then some. Various industry sources estimate that FilmDistrict is on the hook for a $22 million marketing bill.
While tarnished by their genre status, low B.O. won't necessarily blunt the films' chances heading into award season. Both of their handlers have a history with collecting trophies off niche-grossers; i.e. Lionsgate with Crash ($54.6 million), Precious ($47.6 million), Affliction ($6.3 million) and Berney with Newmarket’s Monster ($34.5 million) and Picturehouse’s La Vie en Rose ($10.3 million). Hardy and Drive supporting player Albert Brooks have the best prospects--should their distribs prove willing to spend the bucks to campaign for them.
Nor are Warrior and Drive indicators that there’s a shift in the adult B.O. landscape. They remind that not every well-reviewed title is worth its weight in box office gold. Despite the number of successes last autumn, many forget that there were a number of praiseworthy fare without b.o. legs, from 127 Hours ($18.3 million, 93% fresh) and Let Me In ($12.1 million, 90% fresh) to Gosling topliner Blue Valentine ($9.7 million, 88% fresh).
Adds Gallagher: "Reviews can have a dramatic impact on an adult drama's box office, but it's not a given. With a movie like The Help, geared toward moviegoers over 30, reviews work because the film has a number of appealing elements -- big broad concept, great cast and source material -- that when aligned with critical response, is incredibly validating for that audience."
The Help was also a rare film targeted at women, while young men have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. Maybe Hollywood and Indiewood both need to broaden their target demo.