Last weekend’s box office, Hollywood's worst October in 15 years, is yet further validation of Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman’s observation that when it comes to Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” He continued: “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.&rdquo.
Hugh Jackman as a swashbuckling pirate; Sandra Bullock as an ethically-challenged political consultant; Bill Murray in his first flat-out starring comic role since “The Man Who Knew Too Little” (18 years ago!)—Who wouldn’t want to see those movies?
Very few as it turns out. Over the last two weekends, seven movies, most of which were star vehicles for some of Hollywood’s most popular A-listers, flopped. “Our Brand is Crisis” starring Bullock, earned $3.2 million in its opening weekend against as $28 million budget. It was her worst opening since “Two if By Sea” in 1996. .“Burnt,” starring Bradley Cooper as a disgraced chef, served up only $5 million in its opening weekend. And Murray’s “Rock the Kasbah” earned just $1.5 million, also a career worst for films in which Murray was the star.
The Wrap, a Hollywood news website, reports that the total box office grosses for October were $432.5 million, the lowest for the month in 15 years. “Rock the Kasbah” and “Jem and the Holograms” were two of the five-worst wide-release openings of all time.
There has been much Monday-morning quarterbacking and trend-speculation in the trades about this October surprise: A-listers are losing their power to open movies; bad timing (the market was overcrowded with movies for adults; franchises trumps stars.
But all seven of the movie flops had one thing in common: They each received generally bad reviews; which suggests that film criticism is not dead. It may have been devalued by newspaper publishers and democratized by the Internet, but professional film critics can still have an impact. With ticket prices over $10 and pricey concessions, film critics are the tipping point for people on the fence about whether a movie is worth their time and investment.
"The Martian” starring Matt Damon. He’s a big star, but in a good movie. It earned $183 million. Not coincidentally, it also earned very strong reviews. (Ken Levine, who wrote for "M*A*S*H," "Cheers" and "Frasier," joked on his blog that "moviegoers would rather watch Matt Damon grow potatoes than Bradley Cooper whipping up a souffle." This kind of stuff must keep studio executives up nights).
"Goosebumps,” based on the bestselling book series that haunted a generation, earned $57 million. It was a family friendly fright film released around Halloween. But it, too, received very positive reviews, which may have goosed parents to bring the kids. “Bridge of Spies” has Steven Spielberg behind the camera and Tom Hanks in front of it, but it’s a Cold War drama with a 2 ½-hr. running time. Solid reviews have helped earn the film a respectable $45.5 million thus far.
And poor “Pan?” It earned just $15.3 million in its opening weekend against a $150 million budget. Hugh Jackman is a big star, too, but critics overwhelmingly gave “Pan,” the hook and did moviegoers.
A critic’s impact is, as ever, situational. Even if the upcoming “Star Wars” earns a 0 critical score on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation website, the faithful will still camp out a week in advance to make sure they get in on the very first screening.
And don’t discount star power: “The Intern” stars Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro and despite middling reviews, is a solid box office hit that has outearned “Black Mass” starring Johnny Depp.
So what will Hollywood learn from this? Probably nothing, because, you know, Goldman.