Tales of the box office: Why retro '80s action works -- and 'hip' marketing to the kids doesn't

expendables-eat-pray-loveImage Credit: Karen Ballard; Francois DuhamelIt’s not every weekend that finds three major Hollywood movies in competition, but this weekend’s triple threat of The Expendables, Eat Pray Love, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was more or less perfectly arranged to appeal to three separate — and, in theory at least, equally powerful — slices of the demographic pie. What resulted probably looks, in hindsight, like it was all too predictable. But the eternal fascination of the box office horse race is that nothing in Hollywood is ever truly foregone. (Especially the retro-lug appeal of Sylvester Stallone.) Here’s what the success, or lack of success, of these three movies tells us.

* * * *

Now that the numbers are in, the popularity of The Expendables seems, in every sense, a no-brainer. Extravagant big dumb action movie. With a dozen veteran machos. Including the formerly hot (Sylvester Stallone), the newly hot (Jason Statham), the still sort-of-hot (Bruce Willis), and the once-hot-then-not-now-hot-again (Mickey Rourke). All served up with a cheeky dash of self-deprecatory Man, we’re old! nostalgia. The result? A $35 million opening weekend gross. Like, duh. But let’s get real: The relative smash-hit opening of The Expendables was not, by any means, a sure thing. Though I personally thought that the movie delivered the goods, the reviews, on the whole, were middling, if not downright hostile. And in a summer where a movie as stoopid/clever as The A-Team foundered, this latest meathead retread of The Dirty Dozen looked as if it might have an even more severely limited appeal to women. What The Expendables was selling, however, wasn’t just action, it was ’80s-action nostalgia. The success of the movie delivers the same message that the success, back in the ’80s, of movies like Stallone’s Cobra did: that when it comes to blowing stuff up real good, it’s hard to aim too low. These are the kinds of pulp-vengeful, smash-slice-and-blast fantasies that Robert Rodriguez spoofed so exquisitely in his Grindhouse trailer for Machete (and, one hopes, in the upcoming feature based on it), and what evolved in the Reagan era is that this sort of picture moved, for the very first time, from the grindhouse to the multiplex, with bigger stars to sell it. (Cobra was like Machete starring Rocky.) That the formula still works to the degree that it does, and with a movie as grimy/fun/disreputable as The Expendables, is proof that tastes haven’t changed — if anything, they’ve just grown more resolutely devolved.

* * * *

The very solid chick-flick opening of Eat Pray Love may seem even more of a “Duh!” than The Expendables. Instead of simply taking it for granted, though, let’s remind ourselves of what it means: that Julia Roberts is, I would argue, the one truly mythological female movie star of her time. This summer, Pretty Woman turned 20, but after two decades of rapidly escalating American princess culture, that movie is still the cornerstone of Roberts’ career — and what it has meant to an entire generation is that Julia Roberts, beyond all her skills as an actress, represents something large and almost ineffable: the woman that a great many women still want to be. The Ideal. In Eat Pray Love, that mythical aspect of Julia carries through once again. I completely concur with Lisa’s eloquent mixed assessment of the movie, yet what matters in the marketplace is that Eat Pray Love is Pretty Woman Goes Around the World, finding herself. It almost doesn’t matter — in fact, it’s part of the appeal — that Roberts looks as if she never really lost herself in the first place.

* * * *

Those who didn’t care for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World may be chortling a bit about the fact that it came in fifth at the box office. I would say that the movie, with its culty-cool Ghost World– meets–Kick-Ass vibe, was never meant to be a huge smash — that it was probably destined to find a culty-cool audience, and therefore a limited one. Still, one could reasonably ask: Given the generally excited reviews (including mine), the whiz-bang marketing, and the sneaky appeal of stars like Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman, why didn’t Scott Pilgrim find a bigger audience? Was it too clever for its own good? Did it have too much kung fu fighting and not enough bubbly confessional freshness? I think the answer is simpler, and something that we might, by now, refer to as the Reality Bites principle: When a movie is targeted, relentlessly, at what Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny would call “the yutes,” and when the marketing attempts to flatter those same yutes by telling them that the movie will appeal to them because they’re the very sort of hipsters who are too cool to be marketed to…well, that’s the single fastest way to turn off a generation of moviegoers. Years after Reality Bites was scorned, to a large degree, by the very twentysomethings it was aimed at, it remains a terrific film, one of the best of its kind, and Scott Pilgrim, I suspect, will have a vibrant and influential pop cultural life long after its opening-weekend box office mini-disgrace is forgotten. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the real world, numbers matter…except when they don’t.

So which movie did you see this weekend? Or do you plan to see next weekend? And how well do you think that the success (or lack of it) of any of the week’s three major releases was correlated to its quality?


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  • kyle

    “that Julia Roberts is, I would argue, the one truly mythological female movie star of her time.”

    I disagree with that completely. She’s not the ONLY one. Jodie Foster for example is destined to be seen as a legend in the future for her career.

    • Matt

      I might be mistaken, but I think the “mythological” sentence is not a comment on her acting abilities but on the public’s perception of her and her unique status in the American psyche.

      • Shiny

        Matt is right; Owen is describing a true Movie Star, which was cemented in the opening scenes of Notting Hill where she literally plays a Movie Star.

    • thin

      You’re not mistaken. He’s not saying she’s the greatest actress, he’s saying that she is the quintessence of “movie star” in a way that none of her peers are.

    • Mac

      I would say that Julia Roberts is the only female “movie star” of her generation. Although she has been overexposed in the past, she’s intelligently tried to keep a bit of mystery about her by not confiding her every secret to the world. I think there are a few younger starlets that are emmulating her, people like Rachel McAdams and Reese Witherspoon, and will be held in high esteem later on if they stick to their secretive ways.

    • Andrew

      Jodie Foster? Are you serious? When was her last hit? She was in one film that mattered, that people truly remember her in, and she wasn’t even the best or most memorable part of it! Anthony Hopkins won a lead Oscar and wasn’t on-screen twenty minutes! For better or worse, Julia is the only female movie star who’s held it down for the last twenty years. She’s been consistent, not mysterious, which has made her bulletproof, in a lot of people’s eyes. While Meryl will always be considered the better actress and Sandra’s making more money now, Julia will always be indelible in people’s memories, like your first kiss or your wedding day. Plus she’s a global icon who, when attached to a project, ensures it’ll be made and have a strong opening. Now whether said project is, ultimately, considered a success is up for grabs, but, with Julia involved, your halfway home. And for all those doubting that “Eat, Pray, Love” had a strong opening, compare the budgets and returns of the three movies in question. Or put another way, how many action stars does it take to beat up a “pretty woman”? And we’ll see who, in the end, has the “legs” to outlast the others!

      • kyle

        one film that mattered? She was in two films that are far more legendary and memorable than anything Juila’s done (and in the top 100 greatest films…where is a Julia): Taxi Driver and the Silence of the Lambs. To have two iconic roles is the stuff of legend. And she is an icon for young actresses who want to have a long career and make a great transition. And her last hit was Flightplan 5 years ago. Julia’s last one was 10 years ago. Both actresses don’t work very often because they spend time with their families. I’m just saying both will be remembered as legends.

      • debrah

        You clearly don’t know much about Foster’s career. Taxi Driver, The Accused, and The Silence of the Lambs definitely mattered and will forever be remembered. She also one Oscars for the Accused and the Silence of the Lambs. The only thing Julia Roberts has made that will be classic is Pretty Woman- a mushy, generic romance tale. Jodie Foster is the gold standard for child stars who made the transition to adult roles. So her whole career matters.

      • Gwynneth

        Julia Roberts as “mythological”? Come ON! She is a mediocre actress at best and her “cuteness factor” wore off shortly after “Mystic Pizza” (she annoyed me in that, too). Only in “America’s Sweethearts” was she plausible and only because she was so much easier to like than Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character. Also, John Cusack falls in love with her, so that’s a prop for any actress’ career.
        But, yes, Foster WAS great. Nobody mentioned her stunning performance in “Nell”, with Liam Neeson and the late Natasha Richardson. She was even good in “Panic Room” (check THAT out for a preview of Kristen Stewart’s obnoxiousness, later to be forced on teens everywhere by “Twilight”!).
        Meryl Streep? She can do no wrong. From the intense, thwarted lover in “Bridges of Madison County” or “Out of Africa”, to the elusive neurotic “French Lieutenant’s Woman”, to the hilarious, aging stars in “Death Becomes Her” and “Postcards from the Edge”, to the drug-addled, spaz in “Adaptation” (also well worth seeing if just for Nic Cage’s dual role as twin writers), she is versatile, unaffected, bursting with talent and imagination…and still gorgeous. Can you see Roberts filling even ONE of the roles mentioned above? No way.
        MANY other actresses come to mind as more “mythological” than Roberts or Bullock: Emma Thompson, Judi Dench,Kathy Bates and Joan Plowright (none of them sexy but great actors!) Diane Keaton (as “Annie Hall” or the tightly-wound playwright, Erica in “Something’s Gotta Give”–she can do almost anything), Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie (both are gorgeous AND can act, including period to action), Sharon Stone (if you doubt her ability, re-view “Casino”!), Winona Ryder (so versatile), Michelle Pfeiffer–think longevity, Helena Bonham-Carter (again: diversity rules; from Burton’s main squeeze to the staple of Merchant-Ivory period pieces and even a chain-smoking tough in “Fight Club”), Judy Davis (the ingenue tomboy in “My brilliant Career” to the withering countess in “Marie Antoinette” or jaded politico in “Asolute Power”, , Glen Close (too many to name), Laura Dern, Diane Lane (staying power: cute in “The Cotton Club” and still amazing in “Tuscan Sun” and “Unfaithful”), Keira Knightly (not just a pirate–see “Pride and Prejude” and “The Duchess”!), Cate Blanchett (From Queen Elizabeth 1 to Queen Galadriel-not bad!). Vanessa Redgrave is legendary and beautiful. (“Camelot” “Blow Up” to “Howards End”) My choice for “mythological” is Julie Christie. She stunned moviegoers with her beauty in the mid-60’s (“Darling”, “Dr. Zhivago”, to the 70’s “Shampoo” and “The Go-Between”) and is still beautiful and powerful.

  • Allison

    If I had unlimited time I would go see a double-header of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Expendables.” I didn’t get to go the movies over the weekend, but today I’m going to see EPL because I’ve read the book 10 or so times, I’ve been to Bali and Italy and Javier Bardem looks very yummy as Felipe. But I’m looking forward to “Expendables.” “Scott Pilgrim” I’m not as sure about.

    • Miki

      I saw All 3 EPL on friday and the ohter 2 saturday. My Results:

      1) Scott Pilgrim (Very trippy but surpisingly good story)
      2) The Expendables(Action was great,Blah Blah Plot)
      3)Eat Pray Love (Okay,Book was way better)

      • Tony

        I Agree with Miki Scott Pilgrim was surpringly good, saw it with low expectations cuz the commercials looked kinda corny, But its worth a watch. Im Sure it do well on DVD

  • Deb

    I went to see Scott Pilgrim, because my teenage daughter was dying to see it. I thought it was fine, but not anything I am into. I am dying to see Eat Pray Love (I am its target demographic probably) and actually really want to see The Expendables because I am a child of the 80s and love the nostalgia of Stallone and Willis in a big, dumb action movie! By the way, my daughter LOVED Scott Pilgrim.

  • jfms777

    I do not understand how you can claim
    EPL’s $23M is so solid. It is a summer movie–it should have opened bigger. And will it have “legs”? I doubt. I am happy for Roberts, but Bullock and Streep are more on people’s minds.

    • K.Clay

      That was my reaction also. Since when is a 23 million opening proof of “mythological” status.

      • Tami

        I do not understand how two can be such idiots… your reading comprehension level must be very low.

    • Mac

      EPL-type movies cost far less to make than huge action-fests like The Expendables. If these romance movies are even close to liked, then they have legs to last a couple of months in the multiplexes. Action flicks tend to experience a steep drop in audience week after week.

      • Sana

        I keep hearing Sucker Punch is pedeer or more thoughtful than the trailers make it look, but if that’s the case, the fact that people are forming opinions on it before seeing it means the fault lies with the marketing department and not the audience. If all the trailers and promo material presents a movie that looks like just another T-n-A KABLOOEY-SPECIAL-EFFECTS-WAHEY extravaganza like I’ve seen a thousand times before, you can’t really be surprised if I don’t want to go see it.It’ll probably wind up in my Netflix rotation at some point, but all the underlying subtext in the world can’t save a movie that’s trying so hard to draw in the action/special effects afficianados that it ignores the rest. The right trailer can mean life or death for a film at the box office.

  • tvgirl17

    I saw Inception again, because I loved it. Scott Pilgrim looks like I could either love it for its uniqueness and wit or hate it for its hipsterness and video gamer ADD qualities. I’ll rent it when it’s on DVD. I’m not going to spend money on a movie like The Expendables, but will definitely rent it someday. I love a guilty pleasure action movie, but not enough to pay full theater price for it. Maybe I’m just weird, but I don’t go see movies “too see if they’re good or not.” I see movies that I’m pretty darn sure I’m going to like, and rent the rest later.

    • wildwest

      40-something female here. Scott Pilgrm is worth the $$ to see on the big screen. And it fits on the big screen quite nicely. Thoroughly enjoyable!

      • wildwest

        And I saw it with a 55 year old, 20-year old, 21 year old, and 23 year old. Every one of us really enjoyed this movie. The folks at the theatre laughed throughout and many applauded at the end. THAT GOOD!

  • Gustav Swenson

    I aggree with Klyle.

  • poop

    All right, I’m not going to lie. I’m a teenager. I wasn’t alive in the 80’s. But hell did I want to see the Expendables. Honestly, I love 80’s action movies. And the Expendables definetly seemed like my cup of tea (it was). Scott Pilgrim on the other hand did not look like it appealed to me in any way and therefore I skipped on it as it seriously doesn’t look that good.

    • d

      i was sp v the world and it was honestly one of my favorite movies of all time! do yourself a favor and see it!

  • Twila

    I saw both Expendables and EPL, a trade-off with my husband. I am a child of the 80s, but Expendables was just a tad too “dumb” for me, could not get past it, Though I loved seeing Sly and co. Thought EPL was just OK, most of my friends felt the same way. Nliked Julia much, the media ignores it but she is quite a nasty person and does not match her celeb persona. Overrated for sure. Of all the summer films, my husband and I agree that “Salt” and “The Other Guys” were the most enjoyable.

    • Rumplestiltskin

      Haven’t we exhausted the guys out of their prime movies? Space Cowboys, Wild Hogs, Expendables, etc. We get it, viagra makes them think they’ve still got it. YAWN

      • Clarissejanebello

        As a male geek (close taxonomic rtlieave of the common nerd), I had a similar first impression. Oh look, yet another big budget movie trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator by cramming together all the worst aspects of geek and nerd culture. Stereotypically attractive jailbait femme fatales versus various no-name faceless threats like zombies, nazis and robots. Sounds generic? Mediocre? Possibly even insulting or outright offensive in some ways? People tell me it’s not that bad. Eh. I’m of the opinion that if a movie doesn’t interest me from the trailer onward, it’s probably not much of a loss to miss it. If people afterward start telling me it really is fabulous, I’ll give it a spin, but with films like this, reviews are mixed enough that I can tell it isn’t outright good it’s just not utterly bad is all.To be honest, I’m sick of Hollywood. For every watchable film that millions and millions of dollars go into creating, there could be funding for dozens or hundreds of independent films. Or if you wanna stick to major professional productions, for every forgettable action flick that comes out of Hollywood, we could have a handful of Amelie level shows, a half dozen The Man Who Planted Trees short films, or perhaps a Paprika or two, easily.~D.

  • Al

    I like the Scott Pilgrim books and I like Michael Cera, but I think he’s completely wrong for the role and have no desire to see the film.

    • Diggity

      I am just kind of tired of Michael Cera playing the same part over and over andover again. Challenge the kid and I’d be happy to go see him.

      • taylorisagirlsname

        Why does it matter if he plays the same type of character? Lots of actors play the same types of roles in every movie.

        Michael Cera is GREAT at playing the types of roles he does, so why shouldn’t he play them? The character would have the same characteristics with or without Cera playing the roll, so why does it matter if he plays it well?

  • Twila

    that is i never like julia much, sorry!

  • John

    I saw Scott Pilgrim and I am 48. My friend that saw it with me is 49. We BOTH loved it. I’m sure I missed a bunch of the “in” references. But I KNEW when I saw it that it was going to be a current flop / future midnight movie hit. Why? Because that’s what I love anyway.

    • Jay

      John I totally agree with your comment, but I am also inclined to feel that a lot of those references were aimed at people our age, 48 also. Good movie.

      • Hannah

        I completely agree as well. I am 15, and saw the movie with my 51 year-old mother. There were some references that I missed, and others that she did. But we both loved the “Seinfeld-“style scene. Honestly, I think that anyone would (at the very least) like this movie. When I was trying to get some of my friends to come with me, though, only one was interested in the film. That is puzzling. Oh, and I was dragged by a friend to “The Switch” a few days later, and it was AWFUL! How did Jason Bateman fall so far? His son George-Michael did not.

  • Vectrex

    Cinemassacre > EW

  • Scott P

    Saw Scott Pilgrim and absolutely loved it.

    I think there’s one more thing to factor in about the lack of “success” for this movie: A large chunk of the intended audience for this movie probably downloaded it or streamed it through illegal means on the internet. The audiences of the other two movies are most likely not as web savvy as those of SP, so it wasn’t as big of a factor.

    • sparkle the gym bag

      that’s racist..sexist..and ageist…just kidding but it is a bit ageist

      • Joseph

        I don’t know about you but Scott P has a very good point, plus the younger generation usually waits after the 1st week, I hate crowds.

      • Katyo

        I’m not exactly the “younger” generation, but yeah I’m going to see it this weekend. Opening day crowds are not for me.

  • anonymous

    Except for the fact that Jodie doesn’t have the same box office appeal as Julia. When Julia stays in her element, her movies are a huge success, only when she branches out do they “flop” in numbers.

    • Diggity

      Jodie has quality over quantity on her side. She also has more Oscar noms/ wins. I think she will be thought of as legendary. Julia rarely does anything quality.

    • kyle

      Jodie has box office appeal AND critical acclaim and iconic roles. Jodie has opened several films to hits on her own too. She just doesn’t get as much press so people forget. And she doesn’t do romantic comedies the way Julia does to get hits. She does action/thrillers and she’s more mysterious and low key. I think both women will be remembered in the future. But Roberts will be remembered as America’s Sweetheart. Anytime a young actress comes out with a good performance she’s compared to Jodie Foster.

      • Rumplestiltskin

        It would be difficult for Foster to carry a rom-com owing to the general knowledge about her orientation.

  • Lisa Simpson

    I didn’t find any of the three appealing. I hate dumb action flicks, I’m not into chick-flick navel-gazing, and I’m not a teenager. I’m more of a Fall movie person.

    • d

      im not a teeager either and i loved scott philgram

      • d

        whoops, sorry,
        “I’m not a teenager either and I loved scott philgram”
        guess there is no such thing as a “teeager” (yet)

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