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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Wanna 'Meet Dave'? Nope.

July 15, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

EDDIE MURPHY has pulled off an almost unprecedented achievement with "Meet Dave." He's delivered a movie that even 20th Century Fox couldn't market.

Buried in bad reviews, the Brian Robbins-directed "Meet Dave" barely grossed $5 million over the weekend, making it a contender, along with "Speed Racer," as the summer's top flop. For the last several years, Fox has been the marvel of the movie industry, having had more success with more awful movies than anyone in Hollywood. As I noted in my blog Friday, with the exception of this spring's Dr. Seuss movie, "Horton Hears a Who," Fox has released 16 consecutive movies since last summer that have earned such awful reviews that they haven't even hit the 50 mark on Rotten Tomatoes, the minimal grade the online review aggregator gives for an average movie.

Fox has made money -- or at least avoided losing its shirt -- with all sorts of dreck over the last year. The critics dismissed "Alvin and the Chipmunks" as dim-bulb fare, but the holiday season film was a huge hit. "Jumper" was written off as barely comprehensible action fare but had a great opening weekend and performed well, especially overseas. More recently, Fox did a perfectly good job of opening the dumb comedy "What Happens in Vegas" and has kept M. Night Shyamalan's hapless thriller "The Happening" alive, so alive that it's managed to top the $140-million mark in global box office.

There have been movies that were so dreadful that they pretty much disappeared without a trace, notably the anonymous thriller "Shutter" and the Hugh Jackman vehicle "Deception." But Fox's investment in those films was minimal, so it avoided taking a bath. "Meet Dave" has a steeper price tag, costing somewhere in the $75- to $80-million ballpark. Even though Fox has a partner on the film, New Regency, it will be hard pressed to make back any money. Fox Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos bravely told Variety that "Meet Dave" was a "seven-day movie -- families can go all week; that's the beauty of summer." The seven-day part was right. After seven days, exhibitors will be falling over each other to boot "Dave" out of the theaters.

Murphy must've seen what was coming, since he was a no-show at his own premiere. In true Hollywood fashion, everyone made excuses for him, with one of his producers saying he was busy working on another film. The only problem, as various online accounts pointed out, was that the director of that other film, "Dave's" Brian Robbins, was at the premiere. So Eddie's alibi didn't exactly hold up.

So what went wrong with "Meet Dave"? And what does it portend for Murphy's career? Here are a few theories:

Even though they're madly envious about Fox's ability to turn lemons into lemonade, rival marketers say Fox made a rare but fundamental misstep with "Meet Dave" by running away from the film's concept. The idea may be dumb -- Eddie Murphy is actually a spaceship from a distant planet visiting Earth, taking the form of, well, Eddie Murphy -- but at least it's a viable comedy premise, offering Murphy the chance to be a comical fish out of water, doing stranger in a strange land bits of business.

But people who saw the ads had virtually no idea what the movie was about. Whenever I quizzed various potential moviegoers about the film, I got a lot of puzzled shrugs. Even people who'd seen the trailer or the TV spots couldn't grasp the premise. Fox had ignored a primal marketing law: If you have a concept, market to the concept, not away from it.

But Fox seemed uncomfortable marketing the idea of a sci-fi-based comedy. In fact, the studio ditched the film's original title, "Starship Dave," for that very reason, even though the title made it far more clear than "Meet Dave" what the movie was about. Fox's reluctance to promote the film's sci-fi nature is actually in keeping with studio Co-Chairman Tom Rothman's long-held belief that sci-fi films and films set in the future are box-office poison. In 2006, the studio had Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and filmmaker Jay Roach all signed up to do a big comedy called "Used Guys" but got cold feet, killing the project.

Why? Rothman thought it was too expensive. But more important, the studio chief was worried about the subject matter -- it was a sci-fi comedy about men living in a women-ruled world. Not long after the project was axed, when I was having lunch with Rothman, I asked him why he was so adamant about dumping the film. He threw a question right back at me. "Can you name one sci-fi comedy that's ever made any money?" When I couldn't come up with an answer, he said, triumphantly: "See!" (I was halfway home before I thought of the perfect comeback: "Men in Black.")

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