I know that all of America was queasily captivated by the bizarre "is it real or isn't it?" Balloon Boy escapade. But here in Hollywood, heads are being scratched over an equally puzzling mystery: How did Fox Searchlight, which has easily the best box-office batting average of any specialty film company in the business, get stuck with a turkey like "Amelia," which earned a disappointing $4 million at the box office this weekend?
A cloyingly earnest historical drama based on the exploits of Amelia Earhart that arrived in 800 theaters Friday, the film features Hilary Swank as the daring aviatrix who suddenly disappeared in 1937 over the central Pacific while trying to fly around the world.
The reviews have been awful, with the film having earned a paltry 17% freshness rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Times critic Betsy Sharkey said it was a "disappointing rendering of the remarkable life." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum described the movie as "square, still and earthbound," and Variety's Justin Chang called it a "dismayingly superficial" film full of "inspirational platitudes."
Before it opened, the box-office tracking for the film, directed by Mira Nair, was grim. According to numbers from the OTX tracking service, younger moviegoers had zero desire to see the movie. And even older moviegoers, who would normally make up the largest segment of potential ticket buyers, were unenthusiastic. The film's "definite interest" numbers among over-30 females, the niche most likely to see the film, were a mediocre 19%, even less than the number of over-30 women eager to see "Saw VI."
Searchlight, which normally gives its films a platform release, clearly decided it should get as much as it can out of the movie as quickly as possible before the bad buzz spreads, hence the 800-screen release last weekend. But how did Searchlight get caught holding the bag with such a stinker? No one is talking on the record, but my sources close to the production say the company made a rare misstep -- it got involved with a production it didn't control.
As it turns out, most of the funding for "Amelia's" roughly $40-million budget came from Ted Waitt, co-founder of Gateway computers, who had a personal fascination with the Earhart saga. Just before the film went into production last year, Searchlight acquired worldwide distribution rights, putting up a minority stake in the budget and footing the bill for the film's marketing expenses. At the time, judging from the script co-written by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, the studio believed "Amelia" could be a historical drama with the kind of uplift and emotional intensity of a film like "Out of Africa." Searchlight also had strong relationships with the film's talent, having released Nair's "The Namesake" and Swank's "Boys Don't Cry."
But movies are all about execution, not just expectations, and by the time Nair delivered a finished film, it was clear she'd missed the mark, at least when it came to uplift and emotional intensity. Searchlight still believes it can woo over-50 women into seeing the film, even with the lousy reviews. Its execs make the argument that older women still came out in droves to see period films such as "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "Changeling," which received mediocre reviews but had strong female characters. However, a comparison to "Changeling" seems like a big stretch, since it had the cachet of both Angelina Jolie and director Clint Eastwood, not to mention considerably better reviews (earning a 61% freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes). "The Other Boleyn Girl" is a better model, but it made only $26.8 million in its domestic release.
Searchlight believes that if it could do a similar mid-20s number in the U.S. it could come out OK, especially if it could attract good business in foreign markets. I think they're being overly optimistic. Judging from the reviews and its dismal opening weekend, "Amelia" will end up being another in a long list of examples of historical films shunned by today's moviegoers, who appear less interested than ever in movies whose stories are firmly rooted in the past.
This article and others about movies and pop culture can be found on the Big Picture blog.