By Anthony D'Alessandro | Thompson on Hollywood March 25, 2011 at 6:35AM
With the annual box office at $1.93 billion, down 21% from last year, the film industry is holding out for a hero. Many were looking for succor from this weekend's Sucker Punch, the latest offering by director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), a visually gifted fanboy who knows what guys want. Anthony D'Alessandro examines the film's assets and liabilities and reports on why Hollywood likes to target the fanboy demo, from Wanted to Superman and The Dark Knight Rises.
Inspired by Japanese Anime and the adult cartoon Heavy Metal, Sucker Punch, co-written by Snyder and his college buddy Steve Shibuya, follows a band of female mental patients who retreat into their own hyper-violent fantasy world as they plot to break out of a 60s insane asylum. Going into the weekend, Sucker Punch's tracking drew well ahead of Fox’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, a family sequel that should score in the high teens over three days. But with current estimates pegging the film at a low $20-million bow, Sucker Punch is looking to be a gamble stateside for distributor/co-financier Warner Bros. Here’s what Sucker Punch faces at the box office:
Originals geared to fanboys and comics fans have B.O. edge: It's an asset that Sucker Punch is not based on a popular piece of source material; thus there are no fans to tick off. The sky was the limit at the box office for such unique projects as The Matrix ($171.5 million) and Hancock ($227.9 million) as well as under-the-radar comics such as V for Vendetta ($70.5 million) and Wanted ($134.5 million). Why? Studio marketing executives didn’t have to lose sleep over pleasing arrogant online fans. They had the freedom to reach the masses by any means possible.
“It’s about the marketing materials presented that create a ‘want to see,'" says Wanted producer Marc Platt of how comic books with slim followings can become breakout B.O. hits. With Wanted, we showed Angelina Jolie the way the audience wanted to see her. There was excitement around the first trailer. The property became its own brand.”
Screenwriter David Goyer, who is working on Superman: Man of Steel with Snyder and The Dark Knight Rises with Christopher Nolan, had a similar experience with his Blade trilogy, which spawned $415 million at the global B.O., two videogames and a TV series. Blade was based on a third-tier comic book character, a protagonist who never had his own comic book series, but guest-starred in other superhero tales. “There’s a small group of superheroes who have tremendous name recognition,” says Goyer, “Once you’ve exhausted that list, what determines if your project is successful, just like any genre, is the source material.”
It looks like a comic-book film, even though it’s not: By tapping graphic artist Alex Pardee for the film’s concepts and PR materials, the filmmakers and Warner Bros. executed a sexy, visceral campaign for Sucker Punch, buying street cred with comic book connoisseurs and educating non-fans on Sucker Punch.
’Black Swan’ fangirls could love it: In addition to running TV spots on E!, Warner Bros. smartly attached Sucker Punch trailers to Black Swan, another female empowerment film that drew women 18-34. Another studio executive also marveled about the reaction of female audience members at the premiere. Says Deborah Snyder: “Before people can say ‘Oh, but look at what they’re wearing,' the Sucker Punch girls take it back at the end of the film. They use their sexuality as a weapon. The film turns feminism on its ear.”
Cheap to make: Industry estimates for Sucker Punch’s budget range from $70-$82 million – economical by studio tentpole standards. Also, one Snyder forte is that he can make a film look like a $200-million extravaganza. Part of the low cost also stems from the director’s decision to catapult frosh talent into career-defining roles, i.e. Gerard Butler in 300; Malin Akerman and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Watchmen. If Sucker Punch falls short stateside, its Anime sensibilities are sure to rally the project at the overseas B.O., particularly in Pan Asian territories.
It’s truly fresh: If comic book films are bound to die at the box office, it’s because they’re always serving up the same hackneyed superhero origins story. Like Nolan with Inception, Snyder went outside of the box with Sucker Punch. Says the director’s producing partner and wife Deborah Snyder, “We’re building an amazing world that you haven’t seen before. A lot of films nowadays are so derivative. There are already films being made out of board games! You want to make something imaginative and different that people will respond to.”
Comic-con is no barometer for the masses: Though the Sucker Punch panel was warmly received last summer, a string of young male pics -- Tron: Legacy ($171.8 million), Kick Ass ($48.1 million) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World ($31.5 million)-- failed to live up to their hype at the San Diego confab. The problem: Only fanboys showed up at the cinema. “You can’t make $200 million off the backs of fanboys alone,” says a studio marketing exec who handles comic book films. Deborah Snyder asserts that Comic-con isn’t overhyped, rather it remains an essential part of a genre film’s PR: “(The event) creates noise, they’re a small, but vocal fanbase and I think it starts the initial buzz. You build out your campaign from there.”
No major stars: In addition to the right release date, big names are one of the vital components in turning an unknown fanboy property into a phenomenon. Case in point: Will Smith in Men in Black and Hancock. The only recognizable star in Sucker Punch, aside from the cameo made by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, is Vanessa Hudgens from Disney’s High School Musical 3 ($90.6 million). However, she’s hardly a household name and her latest teen romance Beastly drew few at the domestic B.O. with $22.9 million. Daredevil ($102.5 million) producer Gary Foster explains what made that Marvel property appealing to non-fanboys at the cinema: “At the time we cast Ben Affleck, who was a big star; Colin Farrell who was on his way up and Jennifer Garner who was hot from TV’s Alias -- all of them gave the audience a way in.”
The marketing is too fanboy-heavy, alienating the masses: Says another comic book- film marketing consultant about Sucker Punch’s print campaign, “It’s similar to a lot of sci-fi book art. Initially, it turns you on and you say ‘Wow that’s cool,’ then all of a sudden the images feel strange.” Adds Foster, “Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman gave me the best advice: ‘Don’t worry about the fanboys. Whether it’s good or bad, they’ll be there. Focus on the people who don’t know who Daredevil is.'”
Here's the Playlist's take on Sucker Punch.