The weekend of August 19-21, 2016, was a very telling one at the domestic box office. Going into its third weekend, Suicide Squad had performed very strongly over the course of its first week, before plunging over 67% when comparing its first and second weekend grosses. It was always going to come busting out of the gate due to the anticipation of seeing Harley Quinn and the Joker, but the film seems to have little to offer beyond that, resulting in a deluge of negativity from both professional critics and general audiences. After Suicide Squad apologists (for the record, I liked the movie for certain elements and performances, but it’s undeniably a mess from a filmmaking perspective) reveled in their brags that the film broke the August opening weekend record set by Guardians of the Galaxy (which, again, it was destined to do, thanks to Harley. GotG featured no highly-anticipated debuting characters of which to speak. Not to most people, at least.), they have gone awfully quiet having since come to the realization that Guardians will end up with a much higher overall gross, despite the slower – but still impressive – start.
So, opening against Suicide Squad on the weekend of August 19 (where Squad grossed $20.9 million) were three new wide releases. One of them was the remake of the 1959 William Wyler/Charlton Heston epic Ben-Hur. The second was the war comedy War Dogs starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller and directed by Todd Phillips, best known for The Hangover and its sequels. And the final new release of the weekend was the fourth film from stop-motion animation studio Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings.
Ben-Hur was pretty much destined to fail. With a $100 million budget (relatively modest for a hopeful blockbuster), Paramount proceeded to cast no one of any real appeal and to make a movie that very few had any interest in seeing. The original version is revered and there’s nothing in the source material that justifies a modern update. Critics savaged it and it really had no chance of succeeding. With an $11.2 million opening weekend, Ben-Hur has virtually no path to making a profit unless it does huge overseas numbers, which seems unlikely.
War Dogs performed a little better, relatively speaking, due to the appeal of its leads. With a reported $50 million budget, the film earned $21 million and change worldwide ($14 million, domestically) over the weekend of discussion. Still, it will need to reach a total of at least $100 million in order to break even, if not a little more, meaning it will need to gross at least five times its opening weekend. This is practically unheard of. While critics liked it more than they did Ben-Hur, reviews were mixed, overall, and war comedies are a tough sell, anyway. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also underperformed, earlier this year. In general, people don’t want to laugh at war.
The third release, Kubo and the Two Strings, was released by Laika Studios, whose previous efforts consisted of Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Outside of all four of the films being produced through stop-motion animation, Kubo shares little in common with the other three, which were bordering on mild horror-comedies. Kubo is a family tale about love, loss, and storytelling, with a couple of somewhat scary – and super-awesome – villains. It’s a completely original story set in ancient Japan that features drama, action, humor, and the most beautiful visuals of any film from 2016. In general, critics have heaped untold praise upon it (it sits at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, but make sure you understand what that really means) and virtually anyone who sees it proclaims it to be an instant classic. There is plenty of subtext, brains, and heart, and one look at any Kubo-themed message boards will also reveal it to be tremendously thought-provoking. In short, in my mind and the minds of many others that I’ve seen, Kubo and the Two Strings is the best film of the year, so far, and it frankly isn’t even close.
It made $12.6 million dollars over the course of the domestic opening weekend on a $60 million budget, coming in fourth place.
So, the relative soft openings of Ben-Hur and War Dogs are understandable, as discussed. But Kubo is everything that audiences claim to want so, so badly. “Hollywood is out of original ideas!” “Movies are always sequels or remakes! Give us something different!” “I’m tired of the brainless blockbuster!” “It’s all comic book movies, all the time!” In Kubo, we have an original, non-sequel, non-remake, non-comic-book movie with brains that is different from anything that has ever hit the big screen. So where were all of the big talkers? Why didn’t they show up?
1. I didn’t know about it!
Okay. I can buy that. Laika doesn’t have the bank account that so many other studios do. The film cost $60 million, as it is, so they put it out there as much as they could, which isn’t going to be as much as a film from Disney or Universal. No Olympics ads. No Times Square billboards (that I know of. I’d be shocked but, please, correct me if I’m wrong.). But I have one response to that. If you aren’t paying close enough attention to what movies are coming out without needing advertisements shoved into your face, that’s fine. But that also means that you aren’t knowledgeable or interested enough to be making judgements about what actually is being released. You aren’t justified in complaining about any movies being released or not being released if you aren’t going to bother keeping up with said releases and then supporting the films that you claim you’re oh-so-desperate to see. So, move on, please.
2. It’s a cartoon!
Boo-hoo. This is also suggestive of ignorance on the topic of film. Firstly, more work goes into stop-motion animation than practically any other type of film – animated or not – that is being produced at this time. You think you work hard at your job? Try making a feature-length stop-motion animated film. The number of people that it takes and the multitude of man-hours necessary to make even a bad one is staggering. To make one like Kubo? I can’t even begin to imagine. It’s an art form and it’s an art form that this studio, specifically, is pushing forward into areas that were previously unimaginable.
Also, being animated doesn’t preclude it from also being sophisticated. In fact, I’d say Kubo is far more adult and mature than pretty much anything that can be seen on the so-called Learning Channel, these days. There is a vast difference between a family film and a kids’ film. Kids’ films are made specifically for children, with no consideration for any adults who may also be there, whether they’re with kids or not. Family films are films that are suitable for children but made to be enjoyed by anyone of any age. These films are oftentimes of very high quality because much effort is put into appealing to a broad spectrum of people and the easy methods of luring viewers in (violence, sex, profanity) are virtually out the window, necessitating that character and story carry the load.
So using the reductive label of “cartoon” in an effort to dismiss Kubo or other films of its ilk is ignorant, unfair, and it simply doesn’t fly.
3. I didn’t have time!
Okay, that can happen. If that was the case, then no problem. I also have to assume that you will see it at a later date (better hurry!) and that will bear itself out in its final gross. Because, worldwide, this film needs to make about $150 million to make a profit. I do think it has a good chance of breaking out, internationally, but I’d rather not depend on that. So, we’re cool, number three people. So far.
4. It looks weird!
Oh, it looks “weird”? What that really means is, “It looks different,” which is exactly what you keep saying you want! This is one of my biggest pet peeves that I hear from people regarding a reason why they don’t want to see a given film. Try it! Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, but try it! Enough with saying that there’s no originality in the motion picture industry! Original films are all over the place but when people see them advertised, they just talk about how “weird” or “stupid” it looks and then they avoid it! Just off the top of my head, how many of the following movies (in no particular order) from within the last three years did you see in the theater?
Her, Room, Edge of Tomorrow, Nightcrawler, Unfriended, Pacific Rim, Ex Machina, Tomorrowland, The Gift, Sicario, Brooklyn, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witch, Midnight Special, Café Society, A Hologram for the King, The Neon Demon
If you’ve seen more than three of them in the theater, my hat is off to you. All of them are unique unto themselves, with fresh vision and execution. Not all of them are particularly well-regarded (though most are). And even I didn’t like every one of them (I hated The Neon Demon). But they’re all original, different, and ambitious. And each of them might “look weird” because of it. You can’t have it both ways.
5. I don’t have the money and they aren’t on torrent sites!
Well, you’re not doing anybody any good, even if you watch them, if you’re watching them through torrent sites. This is simple; these types of films have to make money! If you’re stealing them (which is what you’re doing if you’re watching for free, I don’t care how you justify it), you aren’t supporting them. You’re even causing more harm than the people who don’t watch them, at all. You know what I don’t have the money for? A Jaguar. You know what I don’t have? A Jaguar.
6. Why do you even care, Stephen? You’re not making any money off of these movies!
Is that the only reason to care? No, I’m not making money from movies. I’m giving my money to movies. I do it willingly and happily, even to movies that I don’t like, such as the aforementioned The Neon Demon. Why? For the same reason that I care about how much money movies like Kubo make: I love movies and I respect the art form and everyone who partakes in it.
I care because I not only love movies, but I especially love GREAT movies. Like Kubo. And Room. And Ex Machina. And if audiences keep saying that they love and want those types of movies, but then don’t back it up with their bank accounts, we will get fewer of those types of movies!
Laika’s films barely turn a profit. If Kubo actually loses money, and then Laika’s follow-up loses money as well, how much longer can the production house continue? How many more films will get from them? Two? One? None? RKO pictures almost went out of business until they were saved in 1933 by a hugely profitable movie called King Kong. King Kong was completely unique at the time and people responded. As a result, RKO flourished and went on to give us(among others) Citizen Kane. Without audiences supporting Kong, the entire industry would have been different. If Kubo is this good, what else might Laika have up its sleeve? Well, if it doesn’t survive, it won’t even have sleeves.
6. I don’t care what the critics think. The critics are always wrong.
Oh, good lord. This is the cry of those who have no interest in maturing as a moviegoer. Let’s break this statement down. First of all, who are “the” critics? Different critics have different takes on different films. Are “the” critics wrong about Suicide Squad? How does that work? Sure, maybe 75% or so agree in general that it wasn’t particularly well-made. But then about 25% say that it was. So, which ones are wrong? How can they all be wrong in any one person’s eyes?
Okay, then, let’s assume you mean that the overwhelming majority of critics are “always” or even “usually” wrong. This little gem seems to pop up whenever someone is trying to convince themselves that a movie they like or want to like is better than it is. So when the majority of critics dislike a movie the person want to like, the critics are “always” or “usually” wrong according to that person. But then, when those same critics overwhelmingly love a movie that the same person wants to love, suddenly it’s, “Hooray! It’s good! I knew it would be!”
Funny how that works.
But people will use that anti-critic bias to justify not seeing something new or different. Critics respond to new and different. It’s not a guaranteed path to positive critical reception, but it’s a good start. So, when critics see a film that feels new and fresh, they’re likely to praise the film for possessing those qualities. Audiences then see that critics like a movie that appears otherwise challenging to them in some way (not enough action, too political, etc.) and they say that they won’t like it because (say it with me) “the critics are always wrong”.
Note that critics know what they’re talking about. If a majority of critics claim that a specific movie has a particular problem, you can bank on it being true. They were pretty spot on about their criticisms of Suicide Squad. Now, overall, I enjoyed the movie, anyway, thanks mostly to Margot Robbie. But that doesn’t mean the problems weren’t there.
So, the majority of critics, when speaking in consensus are almost always right, whether their particular criticisms of the film affect your level of enjoyment or not. You can like a movie that isn’t particularly good. And you can dislike one that is. It’s really okay.
My point is this: If the critics seem to overwhelmingly love a specific film, it’s probably pretty good and you might want to think about checking it out. And, while watching it, think about what’s playing out on-screen and look for the things the critics were praising. You might recognize that it’s well-made but still not enjoy it. That happens to me quite a bit. But you also might discover something that you love that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.
Bottom line: Look, I guess you’re going to see what you’re going to see. But if you’re going to proclaim that you’re tired of remakes and sequels (both of which typically also require originality in their own right, but that’s another column for another day), then it’s time to put up or shut up. If you don’t want to see movies like Kubo or Ex Machina, then don’t. But you also can’t pretend to have any sort of true interest in film or what movies studios are putting out. I don’t have any interest in professional basketball. And you’ll also notice that this isn’t a professional basketball site. So, sure, try to sound smart and insightful by whining about how there’s “no originality in Hollywood”. But in reality, you’ve just exposed your own ignorance and your outright refusal to help fix the supposed problem that you insist you’re so passionate about.
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