On the other hand, what was Warners to do? If you have a Christmas movie, you can't wait until Christmas to release it, because after the holiday your business drops off a cliff. Warners could've waited until Thanksgiving weekend, but that would have given the film a shorter run and put it opposite another holiday film, "Christmas With the Kranks." Although it seems hard to believe, Warners was actually more concerned about coming out after "SpongeBob" than "The Incredibles," in part because the studio thought the Pixar film might underperform. Warners' thinking may have been influenced by the fact that "Incredibles" director Brad Bird's last film, "Iron Giant" (1999), was a flop for Warners, which perhaps made it easier for the studio to take a dim view of his new film.
Warners is putting a brave face on things, saying it's way too early to declare defeat, noting that exit polls have been strong for "Polar Express." Studio executives also point to "Elf," a New Line film that had a $31-million opening weekend last year, yet went on to make $173 million in domestic grosses. Alas, "Elf" cost about $140 million less than "Express" and got far better reviews. Warners discounts the high-profile bad reviews for "Express," saying that elite media publications like the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly (the Time-Warner-owned magazine that gave the film a C-plus) are out of touch with heartland moviegoers.
However, a quick search turned up negative reviews in such towns as Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. Writing in the Charlotte Observer, Lawrence Toppman said that while the film "would have made a superb half-hour TV special, Zemeckis has created a steroidal monster with a heart about one size too small."
What really seems like wishful thinking is Warners' belief that the film's box-office performance will somehow improve as the holidays grow near. This ignores the fact that studio tent-pole movies don't build an audience from word of mouth, the way independent films do. Warners doesn't grow its movies; it uses marketing to create an opening-weekend juggernaut, knowing the audience will drop off steeply immediately afterward when some other studio shells out $40 million to seduce moviegoers into seeing their blockbuster. Since the first "Harry Potter" film arrived in November 2001, Warners has released 10 Big Event movies. All 10 have dropped off at least 36% in their second weekend; seven of the 10 have dropped off at least 49%. Not one of them had as low an opening-three-day-weekend total as "Polar Express."
The overseas prospects for "Express" aren't especially encouraging, even though Warners' "The Last Samurai" (2003), which was prematurely labeled a flop by the media, ended up making a ton of money across the globe. Christmas movies don't travel so well. "Elf" made $173 million here, but only $46 million overseas. "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000) made $260 million in the U.S., only $80 million abroad.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? Not really. No matter how poorly "Express" does, it will hardly be Warners' biggest flop, a distinction, at least recently, that belongs to "Looney Tunes," a would-be franchise financed entirely by the studio that showed up dead on arrival at almost the same time last year. Hanks may be in a slump, but if he survived "Joe vs. the Volcano," he'll surely survive this.
Bing may have ignored the oldest maxim in Hollywood -- never spend your own money -- but he has plenty more money to lose.
It could be argued that it's crazy to spend $170 million to make a movie, but you can always point to "Titanic" as proof that the most extravagant bet can sometimes pay off. "Polar Express" simply stands as yet another reminder that, no matter how much today's sprawling media giants try, they'll never be able to take the risk out of the movie business.