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precarious since 1997 | by maryann johanson

weekend box office: ‘Poseidon’ goes belly-up

Mayday, indeed. Poseidon, the cheesy sorta-remake of the cheesy 70s disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure, hit a box-office iceberg on its maiden weekend voyage, earning a little over $20 million, $4 million less than Mission: Impossible III did in its second weekend out — certainly considered disappointing for a film rumored to have cost more than $150 million. And so now the real fun starts: watching studio executives squirm. Like Dan Fellman, president of distribution for Warner Bros., Poseidon’s parent, who is quoted at Box Office Mojo insisting that “it’s too early to assess the financial viability of the movie at this moment.” Why? This may be one of the greatest examples of spin/self-delusion ever: “I think cruising is an international activity, and [director] Wolfgang Petersen has had great success overseas.” Does he honestly think we’ll honestly think that he honestly thinks that Poseidon is a movie about cruising? Perhaps X-Men 3 will achieve great success worldwide because it’s about genetics and absolutely everyone who’s anyone has genes.

The only reason for real movie lovers — as opposed to wonky industry watchers — to be concerned about box office numbers is in their impact upon what kinds of movies get made as a result, not for the numbers themselves. Which is why it’s so much fun to see guys like Fellman tripping over themselves to try to pretend that what qualifies as failure by the rules of the game they themselves set in motion isn’t really failure. Look, we, the audience, weren’t the people who decided that if a movie doesn’t earn back its production costs over its debut weekend, it’s a flop — you, the studios, got yourselves into this ever-crazier spiral of competition and made it impossible for you to achieve the wild goals you set for yourselves. Make better movies, and space them out a bit more, give them some room to breathe and for word to get around and for people not to be exhausted by a film’s advertising before the damn thing even opens. You know, like how Hollywood used to work not that long ago.

All you need to do is take a gander at how some of the weekend’s smaller releases did. The documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry may have earned only $17,400 in its first three days, but it earned that on only two screens, for a per-screen average of $8,700, way more than MI3’s $6,039 (on 4,059 screens). The French romantic dramedy Russian Dolls made $17,700 on three screens, for a per-screen average $5,900, more than Poseidon’s $5,717 (on 3,555 screens). Now, granted, per-screen averages are not a measure of absolute popularity: Russian Dolls on 3,000 screens would have made the same total amount, for a per-screen average of a little under six bucks. And it would be crazy to open a movie like MI3 on only three screens. But saturation screening clearly doesn’t work, either. It doesn’t mean Hollywood has to radically realign itself. Spend slightly less on production, market just a tad less obnoxiously, open only a little smaller, and — assuming you’ve made a movie people will really want to see — the audience will find you.

Look: Transamerica, the little transgendered movie that could, is still chugging along almost six months after its release, and earned a tidy $1,323 on each of 21 screens this past weekend, which is more than, oh, Silent Hill made on each of its 1,888 screens. And it’s not like Transamerica is a great movie — it’s sentimental claptrap with a showy, overly mannered performance at its center. But by allowing time for word of mouth to spread — for the film does undoubtedly have appeal — and giving its potential audience — however big or small — the chance to catch up with it, the movie has earned back its budget nine times over. Even if Poseidon and MI3 had been the enormous blockbusters their studios had deluded themselves into believing they could be, they were never gonna earn that kind of return.

[box office results via Box Office Mojo]

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