Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's it like to have your movie flop at the boxoffic

There was an interesting article this week by Sean Hood, the screenwriter of CONAN THE BARBARIAN on what it’s like to have your movie flop at the boxoffice. A number of my readers emailed me asking how I handled major failure – the assumption of course being that I must have experienced that… probably often. Thank you for thinking of me. But the truth is, I have had my share of misfires. All writers do if you’ve been in the business long enough. The trick is not to have them first so you are able to be in the business for more than a cup of coffee.

But the short answer to the question is:  IT SUCKS!!!  

I will say this: it’s harder to weather failure now because there is so much more scrutiny. Websites and blogs make note of every step of every career and project. If a movie pitch is sold it’s a headline in the trades. That used to be a complete non-story. Today if you sell a pilot pitch and get a script commitment that warrants an entire article in Deadline Hollywood. It's just a script deal. Each network will make hundreds of them, and most of those projects won’t live beyond the second draft. An article for every one? So you’re always in a fishbowl. Yes, friends congratulate you when they see your name on Nikki Finke's site, but then they also see that ABC decided your pilot script was a piece of shit and junked it.

And if you’ve written a movie that tanks at the boxoffice, there’s nowhere to hide. Larry Gelbart used to get out of the country whenever one of his movies opened. If it were today he’d be getting texts in Addis Ababa and the one TV station in Ouagadougou would be showing ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT.

The only commodity more valued than hype in show business is schadenfreude, and now with the information highway, we can have both anytime anywhere, magnified to IMAX proportions. So a Friday movie tanking carries the same weight as a government junta.

My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote VOLUNTEERS. It was supposed to be released in late June of 1985. Unfortunately, RAMBO was a big hit so theater chains didn’t want to let go of it. Our release date was pushed back to August 16th – the dregs of the summer. Our studio, Tri-Star had the worst distribution. We couldn’t get into the major theaters in big cities. For example, in Los Angeles, you wanted to be in Westwood. That’s where all the Hollywood premieres you see are held – not in Hollywood. The Fox, Bruin, Avco – those were the primo screens. VOLUNTEERS opened at the Picwood, which was two miles from Westwood on Pico Blvd. next to a bowling alley and some furniture stores. We didn’t have a chance, despite some excellent reviews. You’d think Tom Hanks would be a draw. But another movie he had made, THE MAN WITH THE ONE RED SHOE – a true stinkburger – had opened and flopped just the week before. Great timing on our part. 

I walked up to the Picwood on Friday night at 6:30 and there was a line for our movie. I was excited. That excitement lasted maybe two minutes. Inside the lobby I encountered our producer, Dick Shepherd. First thing he says to me is, “We’re dead!”

I was stunned. “But what about the line…?” “Dead!” he repeated.

Early boxoffice returns from the east coast were average. That meant ‘dead’. So I went into the theater, the lights went down, and even though a sold-out house was roaring with laughter, all I could think of was “We’re dead. Will we ever get another movie assignment? Is our feature career over? Am I going to have to give back the Tri-Star jacket?” For years I dreamed about the day when a movie I wrote actually made it to the big screen and when that day finally came I couldn’t enjoy a moment of it.

Today, not only would I know the movie was dead but the audience would too, having received texts and RSS feeds and E! updates. They would have gone into the experience already with a preconception that what they were about to see wasn’t very good. I bet they wouldn’t have laughed as much. Same movie, same jokes, different mindset.

Dick Shepherd proved to be only half-right. VOLUNTEERS was not a big hit. But it broke even. And for whatever reason, does great on television. You still see it popping up all over the dial, which is pretty damn good for a 26 year-old movie.

Now MANNEQUIN TWO, that was a fucking disaster. On opening night there were two people in the theater. It was such a flop that word of its flopness did reach Ouagadougou that Friday, and this was before the internet. But I was braced for it. And like I said, failure comes with the territory. It’s just more of a public pantsing these days.

The advice Sean gives is the same I give – shake it off and just start working on something else. Go back to basics. I became a writer because I have this need to express myself. My ultimate goal wasn’t to see my name in print or get invited to one of the many Kardashian weddings.

There’s also another alternative. Sarah Palin’s film also opened to two people in the theater on opening night. So if your movie flops, either go back to the drawing board and begin work on a new project, or consider running for President.

Tomorrow is Friday question day.  But on Saturday I'll discuss dealing with rejection in greater detail.  So don't hang yourself just yet.  


Andrew Wickliffe said...

Didn't Mannequin Two open against Robot Jox? That must explain it...

And I'm pretty sure there were five people (myself included) in the theater opening night.

Which beats Weekend at bernie's II... which had three.

Roger Owen Green said...

Hang myself? What do you think, that I'm on some reality TV show or something? Yeesh.

Mike Botula said...

It's not bad being in a near empty theatre. At least you don't have three hundred people all talking during the show. But if there are two other people in an otherwise empty theater, you know they'll both be talking on their damn cell phones.

Nathan said...

I swear I didn't know you wrote it when I used Mannequin Two as an example of a superlatively bad movie on my blog last Tuesday. If that movie's IMDB rating went up last week, I get the credit. :)

YEKIMI said...

At least the studio didn't PAY theaters to show your movie. A theater I worked at back in 1988 was actually PAYED money by the film studio to show "Killer Klowns From Outer Space" just to say that it was in theaters. I thought it was an incredibly stupid but somewhat funny (and campy) movie. And now it's been announced that "The Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D" will film in 2012. Because the first one did so well! {rolls eyes}.Truly another sign that the Apocalypse is upon us! Those Mayans were so smart!

RCP said...

That's a poignant description of being in the theater when Volunteers opened, and not being able to enjoy it despite being surrounded by an enthusiastic audience. If an experience like this trains you to not be deterred by occasional failure, it's an invaluable lesson.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

It can't be a good feeling. Having all your work and effort be gone to waste. It takes real courage to pick up a pen and start over.

You mentioned Volunteers, which reminded me of a possible question. I don't know if you know the answer to it or not...

I saw a movie about 10 years ago called Pushing Tin, about rival air traffic controllers. It's also known as the film that brought Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie together. It starred John Cusack, and had a script written by The Charles Brothers, and directed by Mike Newell.

My question: Were The Charles Brothers still active in the late 1990's?

When I saw that film, it felt as if someone at Fox dug out the script from a vault and altered it to fit these particular actors. It didn't feel like a 1999 movie.

Unknown said...

Great post Ken. Thanks a ton.

This is one of those posts where you really speak to your audience and trust me we didn't ask you because we thought you failed at the Box Office or expected you to bring up Volunteers (which, by the way, now also makes me crave Coke every time you mention it. Bastard!), but rather because we wanted to know how you felt and how you dealt with audience reaction.

By the way, since I knew you wrote about Mannequin Two before, here's a link to that post:

Apologies if you wanted to milk that one for a repost on the weekend - not so many readers read the comments anyway, so if you ask me - repost the Mannequin 2 story anyway. It's ALSO a great read, and honestly, really, pinky promise, I didn't connect you with Box Office failure because my mind won't allow me to think that you bombed at the Box Office with a movie, because Volunteers is so great! *sip* *aaaah*

Anyway, next question: Everything is a remix! What's your take on ripping off things? Have you seen the "Everything is a Remix" videos on ?

Have you seen the video about how James Cameron ripped off Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits Ideas to create "Terminator"?

You know what? Because reading your stuff is so much fun I just bought a copy of your Book "Where the Hell Am I? Trips I Have Survived" in the German iTunes Store for just 1.49 Euro -

So there actually ARE upsides to the US losing their Tripe A rating.


Drive-By Posting said...

Re: Tri-Star having the "worst" distribution in Hollywood at that point.

"Rambo: First Blood Part II" was indeed, by some distance, the biggest hit of the summer of 1985. It was produced by Carolco, but distributed by...drum roll, please...


So they couldn't have been THAT inept...

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

I was invited to a private screening to an indie film by an actress friend who had a part in said film. The film was written, produced, directed, and starred a friend of hers. He had the film accepted to a couple small festivals, and this apparently was a new edit he was showing. The viewing was held in an artist commune/loft space downtown with people spread out over about 4 sofas and some old chairs which I only mention so you know understand just how indie and informal this "screening" really was.

As fate would have it, I ended up sitting next to the guy, and I realized just as the lights went down just how nervous he was, even though the 2-dozen audience was filled with friends and friends of friends.

I actually did think it was funny, but I found myself laughing a little harder and reacting a little more enthusiastically than I would have otherwise. It was the first time I really considered just how excruciating it was for an artist of any sort to put him/herself out there. He was as vulnerable and exposed as a newborn baby.

D. McEwan said...

According to Palin and the Teabaggers, her movie was "a hit". No one saw it, but it was a hit. Reality doesn't affect Palin's views on anything. If only they showed up at the polls in the numbers they show up in at the box office, for that and for ATLAS SHRUGGED PART ONE. (Given the utter flop that was, there will never be "part two." Heh, heh, heh.)

Little Miss, I has a similar experience, except I didn't know it until too late. At a sci-fi convention years ago, some friends and I saw a preview screening of some new, low-budget movie. It was awful, and though it was supposed to be scary, the audience was laughing and openly mocking it. My friends and I stopped whispering insults about the movie to each other, and began saying them outloud to get laughs from the rows around us. Everyone had a good time until the lights went up at the end, and I found out that I was sitting directly in front of the director, and most of the film's leads were also sitting in the row next after ours. Oops. (I forget what the hell the film was, but one of the actors from it sitting behind us was Mel Welles, the original Mushnick in Corman's Little Shop of Horrors.)

Ted said...

I seem to remember Variety reporting that opening weekend of Volunteers was decent enough.

Also, "E.T." premiered at the old Picwood theater and lanes a few years earlier, so you're not in terrible company. Hey, every seat was a "rocking-chair loge"

Last but not least, The old Picwood theater and lanes is now the Landmark, by my unscientific survey the most popular multiplex on the west side.

Frank said...

Maybe if Sarah showed some naked bits her movie wouldn't have bombed so bad.

Michael in Vancouver said...

Ken, here's my question. Why for the grace of God did you write Mannequin 2?! The first Mannequin must have been the most moronic movie ever conceived. It arrived DOA into the theatres. Then you get assigned to write the sequel to this unbelievably turgid floater. No matter how good your script may have been, it was still going to be Mannequin 2. Did you really expect it wouldn't flop?

Dan in Missouri said...

I disagree with the comment that Mannequin was DOA on arrival. I was working small town theatres at the time and it did very well. It was also an early hit on VHS and HBO.
Yekimi is right about the days when movies would be "four walled" - studios would pay theatres to play their films.
Even in small town American we played at least half a dozen films for a fee from the producers. They didn't care about the size of the auditorium or the time of the show, they just needed to note on the VHS covers that the film played in movie theatres.

selection7 said...

Michael in Vancouver, read the link Sebastian posted. In short, it was a rewrite done for the money with no more hope than maybe it would be harmlessly mediocre (the first one made good money apparently). In the end they didn't even want their names in the main credits ...and you can read for yourself how they attempted to dodge credit.

HogsAteMySister said...

You had me at Alan Alda.

Ron Rettig said...

As a child I lived in Cheviot Hills and watched many a movie at the brand new Picwood in the early 50s including House of Wax in 3D and the sneak preview of The Long, Long Trailer. After all it was just down the street for 20th and up the street from MGM. The east side of Pico was still a vacant lot and Clyde Beatty put up actual "Big Top" circus tents there. The few times I now visit the only thing I recognize at Pico & Westwood is the always great Apple Pan burger joint!

bevo said...

I saw the Man with One Red Shoe in junior high school, IIRC. It was pretty funny. Caught it on some no commercial movie channel. Yup. Funny again.

I saw Volunteers in the theatre during opening weekend on a date. I did not remember the theatre being packed. But I do remember my date and I laughing so hard we skipped making out. Terrible date movie, actually.

miles_underground said...

I like Volunteers. I bought it on VHS and on DVD, and there are things in that movie that still make me laugh today.

Mannequin Two I have no clear memory of, other than it had Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy) and the guy who went on to be Herman from Herman's head, who had a recurring role in the first two seasons of Justified.

I also vaguely recall Robot Jox had the guy who played the James Caan role in the tv version of Alien Nation.

I've wasted my life.