Last weekend saw a battle at the box office between movies targeted at three different archetypes. There was the Julia Roberts romance, Eat Pray Love, which was expected to have no competition for its target audience. Then there was The Expendables, the all-star action movie so manly that the ads said it would give you a "mangasm," which went against Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a movie targeted at an audience of nerds and gamers.
Monday morning, Expendables took the top box office spot with Eat Pray Love a respectable second. Scott Pilgrim came in fifth at $10 million, a sixth of its budget. Ordinarily when a movie as heavily promoted as Scott Pilgrim does that bad off the bat, you call it a bomb, but in this case I'd hold off on that title.
Bombs are usually movies that do poorly on opening weekend, never have hope of finding an audience and usually start with the words "a film by M. Night Shyamalan." I don't think this holds true for Scott Pilgrim. Instead, I think this is just a sign that the business model that was kicked off by Jaws, where a movie's success is determined entirely by its opening weekend, is moving on.
Scott Pilgrim may not have gotten a lot of viewers, but those that saw it clearly loved it. As I write this, it currently has an 8.3 rating on the IMDB and an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, (compared to Expendables' mere 42%.) That's the response of a movie that gets multiple viewings from its audience. Maybe they all won't go see it again in theaters, but they will rent it, buy it, quote it, dress up like characters from it and overall keep it in the public consciousness for years to come.
That means the money it didn't get from the box office, it can still get from home video sales and rentals, not to mention all that sweet, tasty merchandising money. Sure, some of that money won't show up for years down the road, but look much money Disney is still making from selling Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise. That's a Christmas movie that came out 17 years ago, and people are still buying merchandise from it year round. That's the power of having a true cult classic in your film library.
But if Scott Pilgrim is so loved by its fans, why did it do poorly at the box office? It was a cult classic by design. Almost every frame of the movie is an in-joke for nerds of all types, whether they're gamers, comic fans, film buffs or just Canadian. It never tries to cater to an audience beyond this and shouldn't be faulted for it. Imagine what the Expendables would have looked like if they tried to include a deeply spiritual romantic subplot to try and draw in some of the Eat Pray Love crowd.
In all fairness, the whole premise of the movie doesn't even make sense to a lot of non-nerd types. Many of my friends who heard about the movie couldn't seem to wrap their head around the fact that they never explain how any of the characters suddenly get super powers, (except for the one guy who has telekinesis because he's a vegan.) Oddly enough, these are the same people who accept without question that Scarface somehow gets access to a magic machine gun with a nearly unlimited supply of bullets in a movie supposedly set in the real world. As for Scott Pilgrim, I can't explain it any more than saying it's like a cartoon and just accept it as is.
Based on the word of mouth I've heard on The Expendables, I don't expect to hear much about it in coming years. It sounds like if I really wanted to have a man-tastic cinema experience, I'd be better off watching Die Hard, Total Recall and The Transporter back to back.
As for Scott Pilgrim, sure it might not have done well now, but it will stick around. Ten years down the road you'll see some girl walking out of Hot Topic with Ramona Flowers shirt (Scott Pilgrim's love interest), and she'll clearly be way too young to have seen the movie when it first came out. She'll tell her friends they need to see this great gamer movie that came out a decade ago. The Expendables will be bundled into a Stallone movie boxed set along with Cop Land, and Get Carter, perpetually on sale for $10. We'll see which movie is still making money then.