It's no secret that Frank Miller's The Spirit has flopped both critically and commercially, earning only $14million in its first week of release. But could that have been avoided, if more care have been taken?
To put that $14million figure in some context, the top movie of the week made $10million on Thursday alone (and $82million over the same amount of time as The Spirit); on average, bad word of mouth for The Spirit has seen the movie's take drop each day (with the exception of New Year's Day, when it inexplicably made three times as much as the previous day... when it made half as much as it made made the day before). Despite being in its first week of release, the movie dropped out of the daily top ten last Monday, and is now being beaten on a daily basis by limited release indie Slumdog Millionaire, playing on less than a quarter of the screens of Miller's movie (All of this courtesy Box Office Mojo). Obviously, this is somewhat of an embarrassment for the people behind The Spirit... so the question is, what happened?
To be fair, there's more than a small case to be made for the fact that it's so bad a movie that it could never have been a massive success - You only have to look at the reviews to see that this was never going to be anything more than a cult classic at best (When even its supporters are left saying things like "The pacing and motion of the picture felt tedious. About 40 minutes in, I began nodding off. And it took Sam Jackson in a Nazi Uniform doing a crazed mad man routine to get my attention" or even "Is THE SPIRIT a good movie? No. Is it entertainingly and inventively bad? Yes," you know things aren't looking too good), which really raises the question, Why Was This A Christmas Day Release?
Cinematical called the carcrash potential of the scheduling back in May, back when it was first announced:
The move is indeed a vote of confidence, but it might up throwing the film to the wolves.
The fact is, no matter how eager the movies' studio, Liongate, may have been to show off their shiny new toy, this seems to have been a case where common sense was abandoned in favor of... what? Excitement over having buzz creator Frank Miller making his first solo movie as director? A superhero movie all of their own in a year when superheroes had ruled the box office? The promise of a popcorn-friendly movie with big-name actors? Admittedly, on paper, all the ingredients seemed to be there; it's just that no-one involved with the decision to put this movie out during one of the most high-profile, high-expectation and outright bland (Seriously, look what else was released on Christmas Day: Oscar Bait, an Adam Sandler kids' movie and a lowest-common-denominator film about beautiful people and a dog) periods of the cinematic year seems to have known what kind of a movie they were actually making. Publishers Weekly's Heidi MacDonald puts it best:
Lionsgate really shot everyone in the foot by thinking they could turn this cult movie into a Christmas film. It was originally set to be released on January 16th, in the wasteland of movie releases. At such a time, the film’s eye-poke awkwardness and weirdness might have been a welcome respite to winter doldrums and might have even made some money at the box office.
So, what lessons will be learned from The Spirit's failure? Sadly, not the ones that should be (That would be the ones where you pay more attention to the source material before ignoring it in favor of your own fetishes to the point where even coherency is a distant friend - more politely known, perhaps, as Gaiman's Law Of Superhero Movies - or consider the movie itself, instead of the talent involved in creating it, when considering how to promote and release it); more likely, the fallout from the entire experience will be twofold:
A Shift In The Way Hollywood Views Comic Books
It seems that movies based upon comic books seem to fall into three camps: The Big Name Characters (Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, for example), Critically-Acclaimed Sources (The Spirit, 30 Days Of Night, Hellboy), and Fodder (Almost all of the movies we report are being based on indie comics that you read and think "I've never heard of that"). While The Spirit's fall is unlikely to change the direction of Iron Man 2, it may make studios less willing to invest in something that may end up as critically savaged and abandoned by even its core fanbase; the key here is in how The Spirit's failure ends up being contextualized. Will the industry just accept that it was a bad movie, or will it be viewed as something that wasn't mainstream enough for mainstream audiences nor "comicky" enough for comicbook fans, and therefore satisfied no-one? If it's the latter, expect retiscence from studios about more comic book movies that don't have "smash" written all over them from the start.
Frank Miller's Star Will Fade
More than likely, blame for the failure of The Spirit will land squarely and firmly on the shoulders of its writer and director instead of causing the industry to think about things like screwing up the release date and misunderstanding the appeal of the movie. This is, ultimately, a good thing, though; not only was Miller's movie credibility weirdly inflated considering both his limited involvement in the movies of Sin City and especially 300, but an end to Hollywood enabling his starfuckery may see him finally given some creative impetus to move beyond his schtick that has been tired for the last decade or so.
It'll be interesting to see if Miller's Buck Rogers deal still happens in the light of the Spirit box office. If it does, then we may have to give up hope that the movie industry can learn any lessons from its failures - and resign ourselves to another shitty noir movie with a love affair for greenscreen.