Sunday, August 15, 2004

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The merits of mindless movies

Matthew Yglesias pans Alien vs. Predator, and I have every reason to believe him. Alas, a lot of Americans either disagrees or something, since it opened with a $38.3 million take this weekend -- roughly 50% more than the much-praised Collateral from last week.

On the other hand, AVP does have one virtue -- it prompted Dalton Ross to write a really funny Entertainment Weekly story on how other sci-fi movie franchises would do pitted against one another. Alas, its subscriber only, but here's his take on which movie is better -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back:

A battle fierce enough to divide even the least partisan chat room -- the two best films from the two biggest sci-fi franchises. And both are sequels, to boot. So let's divide away. ''The Wrath of Khan'' is a fantastic movie, more than making up for the disappointment that was the first ''Star Trek'' feature. With his blond mullet and uncovered chest, Ricardo Montalban may look more like a member of Dokken than an intergalactic madman, but as Khan, he makes the perfect revenge-seeking lunatic to pit against the now Admiral Kirk. Yet, let's be honest -- he's no Darth Vader. Even with his wicked brain bugs, Khan can't match up to a dude with a lightsaber. And Kirk's emotional reunion with his long-lost son is a nice touch, but it simply can't compare in the family-subplot department to Luke Skywalker sucking face...with his own sister! Pretty much everything in ''Empire'' is operating on a different level. The battle on Hoth, the introduction of both Yoda and Boba Fett (at least before George Lucas went back and gratuitously inserted the bounty hunter into ''Episode IV''), Luke's duel with Darth -- it's what has made ''Empire'' the standard by which not only other ''Star Wars'' flicks but all science-fiction films are judged. One area in which ''Trek'' trumps its rival: the emotional Spock death scene (and not just emotional because it leaves Kirstie Alley as the only Vulcan -- yikes!). It's a bold move, killing off one of your franchise's most beloved characters, even if you do cheat and bring him back one picture later (a trick ''SW'' also pulled with Obi-Wan Kenobi). It makes the contest closer, but even a scruffy nerf herder could tell you who wins this battle.

Winner: "Empire"

Let the great geek debate commence!

UPDATE: The Associated Press suggests why Alien vs. Predator will not be raking in a lot more bucks:

Audiences shelled out $16.8 million to see Alien Vs. Predator on Friday, but the movie's gross fell to $12.5 million Saturday, a steep 26 per cent decline. Most new movies do better business on Saturday than Friday.

That's a sign that Alien Vs. Predator could follow the pattern of Freddy Vs. Jason and other horror tales, which tend to open well then plunge in subsequent weekends.

LAST UPDATE: David Edelstein has a paean to "versus" movies in his review of AVP in Slate:

Thirty-odd years ago, along with many prepubescent horror fans of the '60s, I also stayed up past midnight to see Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, in which Frankenstein (or, to be a geek about it, his monster) did not actually meet the Wolfman until the last five minutes, whereupon both were promptly swept away by a pathetic miniature exploding dam. I risked a barrage of peashooters to line up to watch King Kong square off against Godzilla and Godzilla square off against, well, anything. I suffered through Dracula vs. Frankenstein, an unbelievably tawdry Al Adamson film cobbled together from spare Z-picture pieces, in which Dracula (or the curly haired, goateed dork who passed for him) pulled the giant Play-Doh Frankenstein monster apart limb from limb. And, of course, I savored every stupid minute of last summer's Freddy vs. Jason, which set a world record for arterial spray and still couldn't manage to avoid a cheat ending. (No one really won—no one ever really does.) The appeal of the "versus" genre is no mystery. It's the same as Celebrity Death Match: We want the baddest cats to be humbled. We want the World Series of baddest cats.

posted by Dan on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM


If you like that sort of thing, check out the WWWF Grudgematch website

Same sort of thing, and VERY funny.

posted by: David Schraub on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Why are opening sales statistics treated as indicators of the movie's success? People pay for their ticket before they see the film. Opening sales indicate only the quality of the title, cast, and advertising campaign.

posted by: brent on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Why is it that thy use $$$ instead of the number of people going to see the movie, they use to judge the popularity of a movie?

posted by: David Obst on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

The best indicator is the level of fall off after the opening weekend, that indicates word of mouth.

Hands down, Empire. Away put your weapons.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Personally, I think a better comparison would be Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales v. Star Wars: The One With The Ewoks (yeah yeah, Return of the Jedi).

Or how about Star Trek V: The One Where They Let Shatner Direct v. Star Wars Episode I: The One They Should Not Have Let Lucas Direct.

Now there would be two interesting discussions!

To answer the other questions, the opening box office reflects how much people a) wanted to see the story, b) like the stars and directors, c) how good the marketing efforts were. Hollywood doesn't make films they think are "good", they are only interested in how able they are to market product effectively before the truth comes out either way. The mark of the quality of a film is the percentage drop off from first to second week. The most important part is how strong and successful the marketing effort was.

posted by: Kate on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Just follow Reihan's advice and go see Harold and Kumar. It's still playing in Chicago this week at the Biograph. Fun movie at the place where Dilinger was shot - it doesn't get much better than that.

posted by: Independent George on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

The One With The Whales was clearly much better than The One With The Ewoks.

But ST5 vs SW:Ep1-- *that's* a gruesomely fascinating and tough case. SW:Ep1 was worse-than-expectations by a vastly bigger margin, but there were much higher expectations. I'd watch them back-to-back to try to evaluate, but that would require watching them again.

(I hereby register my dissent from EW's casual dismissal of ST:TMP, which is *vastly* underrated. But I suppose anyone who cares to have an opinion on that question already has a pretty settled one.)

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Contrary to the Associated Press, it is entirely expected that a movie like AvP would drop (or at least fail to significantly increase) on its first saturday. That's true of any friday-opener summer blockbuster targeted at a school age audience.

The reason is obvious if you think a bit. Friday has the advantage of being opening day, which particularly helps an event film like AvP. Saturday has the advantage that people who work during the week have all day to go the movies as opposed to just the evening. So for adult-oriented movies throughout the year, and teen-oriented movies while school is in session, opening saturday tends to be bigger than opening friday. But for teen-oriented movies opening during summer and winter breaks, you tend to get an opening saturday drop.

Some other movies this summer with opening saturday drops include Dodgeball (7% drop) and Harry Potter 3 (18% drop). Dodgeball actually had very strong legs for a summer movie (3.75x final gross to opening weekend multiplier), and while HP3's legs were not very good (2.5x multiplier), they weren't too bad for a blockbuster 3rd sequel with a dwindling but devoted fanbase.

Freddy vs. Jason did suffer from a bad multiplier, but, again, that was entirely predictable based on its mid-August release date: as the weeks went on its audience steadily diminished as schools went back in session. Freddy vs. Jason was actually a huge success, grossing over 6 times as high as 2002's Jason X. The fact that it was heavily frontloaded is pretty irrelevant to the degree of its success.

Of course the same will be true for AvP (they opened on the same weekend a year apart). Freddy vs. Jason is probably a very good proxy for AvP, and an $85m total for AvP is probably about right. Dan will be happy to know that that number could certainly be in range for Collateral, particularly after its strong 35% weekend-on-weekend drop.

If you're looking for reasons why AvP would outgross Collateral opening weekend, they're not hard to find, even without moralizing about the quality of the respective films. Like the fact that AvP is PG-13 and Collateral is R, or that AvP opened in 5% more theaters and on probably 15% more screens.

But the whole complaint seems a bit silly. Since when has popular success corresponded to artistic merit?

posted by: Dave H on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Why is it that thy use $$$ instead of the number of people going to see the movie, they use to judge the popularity of a movie?

So that they can continue to set new records, of course.

Seriously, while the refusal to inflation-adjust box office may seem preposterous to anyone with the slightest economics training, there are some interesting structural reasons not to. Remember that as of, say, 25 years ago people had neither cable nor VCRs on which to watch movies after they'd ended their box office runs. Once a movie was out of the theaters, there was no opportunity to see it ever again (or so people thought). Plus a lot fewer movies were released every year. Hence per-movie ticket sales were much higher despite the lower population, fewer movie theaters, etc.

Nor has that trend completely run its course yet: the transition to region-coded DVDs has meant movies can be released to video much sooner without interfering with ticket sales in overseas markets where the film may not have been released yet. So movies get much shorter theatrical runs to try to maximize DVD sales (which are now worth more than box office receipts) while the movie is still hot--all of which means more frontloaded movies and fewer ticket sales per movie.

posted by: Dave H on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Kirstie Alley should have stayed a Vulcan. Comic actresses on television have a tendency to let themselves go, which in Alley's case stepped on her appeal as a sex goddess in addition to being really unattractive on general principles.

In the entire history of Star Trek there has never been a fat Vulcan.

posted by: Zathras on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

And Kirk's emotional reunion with his long-lost son is a nice touch, but it simply can't compare in the family-subplot department to Luke Skywalker sucking face...with his own sister!

Luke and Leia's relationship is not confirmed until the next movie, although it quickly became the best-guess solution to Obi-Wan's "There is another..." line (as well as her ability to "hear" him call her when he's hanging underneath Cloud City).

posted by: DonBoy on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

Haven't seen AvP, but I really wish they'd stuck close to the original "Aliens vs. Predator" Dark Horse comic book written by Randy Stradley and pencilled excellently by Phil Norwood (and I still have my copy stashed in a box somewhere). It was set in the future and not on Earth, so I don't recall there were any blatant continuity problems.

posted by: fling93 on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

The Empire Strikes back is definitely better than The Wrath of Khan. It is one of the only movies in Hollywood history in which the bad guys win.

A better matchup would be Star Wars I: The Mistake v. Star Trek V: The Apology.

posted by: Larry on 08.15.04 at 11:13 PM [permalink]

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