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'Killing Them Softly' box office: What went wrong?

December 03, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik

Brad Pitt's "Killing Them Softly" suffered the kind of deadly hit at the box office this weekend that its protagonist might have admired. A wide opening from The Weinstein Co. yielded a paltry $7 million, barely enough for seventh place in a crowd of holdovers. It was one of the lowest-ever wide openings for Pitt, and could wind up as his second-lowest grosser in nearly 20 years.

If dismal attendance wasn't enough, the people who did come out to "Killing" wanted to whack it: The movie averaged a rock-bottom "F" CinemaScore.

Few in the movie industry were surprised by the numbers, which had been forecast for several weeks. But even in flop-itude, a movie can carry some lessons. What went wrong with Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" and what can be inferred from its failure? We break it down.

Genre bloodiness: Genre generalizations are, well, general. But "Killing Them Softly's" problems may be part of a larger malaise faced by the violent black comedy. Time was, we couldn't get enough of these types of films, from "In Bruges" to anything Guy Ritchie did.

But lately the form has felt played out. "Killing" is part of a larger group of violent black comedies we haven't much wanted to see, including "Seven Psychopaths" and "Kick-Ass."

Critical clout: Reviewers may not carry the clout they once did, but for a certain kind of art-house movie, they're still essential, potentially lifting a movie that is under-marketed (and sinking a film if the reviews turn chilly). They were lukewarm here: "Killing" garnered a 66% positive score on Movie Review Intelligence and 68% among Rotten Tomatoes' top critics -- decent but not nearly enough to rescue a desperate case.

Flawed blitz: If your polarizing movie is a niche art film -- but has a big star and a recognizable genre -- you can save it from disaster by essentially cheating the opening. Go big quickly, suck up the bad word of mouth and make what you can in a few days before going away. (Exhibit A for this: Anton Corjbin's slow and quirky hit-man movie "The American," featuring George Clooney, a few Septembers back.) But the tactic doesn't always work -- and it didn't here. (Of course, it's far from clear a slow build would have saved this film either.)

Gashed by final cut? It's hard not to make some inferences from "Killing" about Megan Ellison's much-scrutinized Annapurna Pictures --t he choices it makes and the large degree of freedom it offers. As with this movie, the financier's previous two investments, "Lawless" and "The Master," were similar auteur-gone-wild exercises that could verge on the indulgent. It's hard to imagine saying this, but yes, there can be such a thing as too much creative control.

Star power: Pitt has lifted the box office of art-house movies before -- "Babel" in 2006 or even, to a smaller extent, "The Tree of Life" last year. But stars don't mean what they used to, and even Pitt's ubiquitous mug didn't move the needle. In fact, it's fair to wonder if Pitt's star power worked against the film, attracting the wrong kind of audience -- the kind that was expecting "Ocean's 13," and that turned hostile when they didn't get it.

Director doldrums.  It may all come down to the director, as it often does. At least this movie outgrossed (if it didn't out-review) "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Dominik's previous film and, despite a fair bit of acclaim, one of Pitt's all-time biggest financial disappointments. Still, that's small comfort for a movie whose total box office will probably barely get above $10 million. Last week, Dominik said in an interview that he had the humble goal of not wanting to make a bomb. It remains unmet for now.


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