Scott Pilgrim vs. Universal and the Matrix

by Anne Thompson
August 23, 2010 11:37 AM
8 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's bottom line comes down to the same problem that has faced a long line of Universal projects. It was an indie movie that cost too much to be successful inside the studio paradigm and should have been produced and released on a smaller less ambitious scale at the studio's specialty division Focus Features, which could have nurtured it and sent it into the world on a more limited basis and built on the film's strong word-of-mouth from its narrow base. To them a $12 million gross would have been fine. To Universal, it's less than the film's marketing budget. (A funny mash-up of Scott Pilgrim vs. The Matrix is below.)

What did they have to sell? Michael Cera isn't a big marquee draw. The costly VFX may have played well, but didn't seem to draw people in. Edgar Wright means something only to indie filmgoers, and the comics played to an even narrower Comic-Con slice of the world. Universal marketed the hell out of this movie (I don't think they could have done much better, and they probably overspent) but it only played for the young smart demo. That's the Focus demo.

If you spend too much (in this case, the movie cost somewhere under $85 million, less some tax incentives, plus marketing) you are forced to open a movie wide. Other Universal movies that in hindsight could have been handled differently in less expensive mode: Green Zone, Robin Hood, State of Play, Duplicity, Funny People, Bruno, Public Enemies, Drag Me to Hell, Frost/Nixon. It's hard to say no to players like Imagine, Working Title, Ridley Scott, Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sam Raimi, Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass, who demand budgets to go with their visions. But sometimes a studio has to do what a studio has to do.

Edgar Wright: he could have played in the indie playpen.

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8 Comments

  • M | August 26, 2010 5:59 AMReply

    I haven't seen Scott Pilgrim. But this statement really disturbs me:

    "It was an indie movie that cost too much to be successful inside the studio paradigm and should have been produced and released on a smaller less ambitious scale."

    Forgive me if I am misinterpreting you, Anne, but it sounds like you are saying films which appeal to an independent demographic shouldn't have large budgets simply because they appeal to a smaller audience.

    Now, I will be the first to say that sometimes a small film can be ruined by having too much money thrown at it because a sense of intimacy that is inherent and important to the film is lost in the star power and spectacle. But the history of film is also rife with studio backed, box office disasters that later were recognized as some of cinema's greatest works of cinematic art. (I am not saying that Scott Pilgrim will ever rank among them...)

    Call me an old-fashioned, naive idealist, but shouldn't we be encouraging studios to take chances with their unimaginable stacks of cash by occasionally throwing lots of money at something that might be a box office risk?

    Isn't that how we got Citizen Kane? And 2001? And The Godfather? And Fight Club?

  • Bill | August 25, 2010 1:05 AMReply

    Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was a gem, as charming a film as I've seen this year. But Mr. Marx is right about the dubious connection between the Comic-Con sensibility and Box Office success. There's too much to choose from out there, in all kinds of media, and people who actually play videogames and read comic books may not be all that fired up to actually go see a movie in a theatre. Even a film-lover like myself is finding it much easier to stay at home and use VOD, since the wait after theatrical release is down to a few months or so. That said, I look forward to buying SP on Blu-Ray for my permanent collection.

  • Vincent Lesh | August 24, 2010 9:28 AMReply

    scott pilgrim = much ado about nothing

    is this what's its come to: studios so desperate and ignorant, that they are willing to drop $100M plus down the drain... just for something that plays well at comic-con?

    yawn.
    mannerism = the appearance of art

    there has never been a better time to be an audience-
    or an artist, especially a film maker.

    too bad the people in the middle aren't doing their job, the endless stream of "producers" whose greatest accomplishments seem to be the placement of their credits.

    screw dogme 95-
    how about dogma 2010... just no more movies based on graphic novels or video games.

  • nightheat | August 24, 2010 9:13 AMReply

    The movie was stupid. The trailer looked stupid. People think the movie is stupid. You're 100% right. Universal shouldn't have spent this much money on a stupid guys stupid movie. Man, Scott Pilgrim was stupid.

  • Kent | August 24, 2010 8:56 AMReply

    Finally somebody loony enough to like Scott Pilgrim but not silly enough to blame the marketing.
    Look, the people who like SP clearly do so because they see their own awkward lives in it and because of that they will defend it no matter how bd it is. But get this straight.
    The marketing accurately told people what kind of movie this would be. And people didn't want to see it. It's stupid. Fighting for a girl who's rude, inconsiderate, and doesn't know you exist is stupid. Audiences will forgive dumb, but not stupid.

    BTW, this girl has already gone through 7 boyfriends, making her a certified slut. So why would SP even bother to try to win her over when common sense should tell him it won't be 5 minutes before he becomes ex-boyfriend number 8?

    Hyper-Nostalgic mega-homages to your favorite 80's pop touchstones may make you tingle in your nether-regions but to everyone else it's ridiculous and offensive.
    SP is a terrible movie. When will you people stop wondering why no one but you wasted money seeing it?

  • Dixon steele | August 24, 2010 6:13 AMReply

    I liked SP but at $60-80 million, it was WAYYYY to expensive. Universal must've been thinking "franchise" but still...

    Gotta disagree about the Focus thing though. What about James Schamus equals Young Audiences? Focus = Art House, which SP never was.

    Also, not to pile on, but while I like Cera, his whiny/meek persona can get annoying after a while. Maybe it's part of the joke, but I never bought into the whole idea that the uber-hot Ramona would be vaguely interested in this child.

  • Anonymous | August 24, 2010 6:01 AMReply

    How can you blame the filmmakers for the lame marketing campaigns that ruined the box office of these films? S

  • Andy Marx | August 24, 2010 5:43 AMReply

    Good column. One more thing to add: People have to stop believing the hype that comes out of the fanboys at ComicCon. Just because it goes well there doesn't always translate to box-office success.

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