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When Unrealistic Expectations Attack: Kick-Ass Opens to $19 Million Debut Weekend

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To the surprise of many who obviously had no idea how the movie business works, Kick-Ass did not in fact set the movie-going world on fire this weekend. Despite all the foaming at the mouth by geeks for the last year and the wagging fingers of moral indignation over the picture's somewhat taboo content, the movie performed like a high-end Lionsgate release with a $19.8 million first-place finish. As I wrote yesterday when discussing the $7.5 million opening day, Lionsgate films generally have a ceiling at this point in time. Sure the Tyler Perry films and the Saw sequels can and often do open above $30 million. Madea Goes to Jail cracked $41 million last year. But if you take out the Saw sequels and the Tyler Perry melodramas, Lionsgate's highest-grossing opening was the $23.9 million debut of Fahrenheit 9/11. After that, you have last year's surprising $23 million debut of the PG-13 horror drama The Haunting in Connecticut. After that, it's all $21 million and downward. The critically-acclaimed Russell Crowe/Christan Bale western 3:10 to Yuma couldn't crack $15 million. The much buzzed-about return of Stallone's Rambo couldn't break $19 million. So anyone who thought that a Lionsgate-distributed, original, R-rated action comedy based on a generally unknown property and aimed at a specific audience (young, comic book-worshiping males) would somehow open to $30 or $40 million just wasn't doing the math.

While Lionsgate deserves much artistic credit for its diverse and sometimes challenging line-up (the same studio that release Saw and Madea's Family Reunion also released the masterpieces Away From Her and Akeelah and the Bee), it is not quite a major studio yet. It does not have the marketing might of Warner Bros or Disney. Lionsgate paid $50 million to acquire, distribute, and advertise Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass partially as a call to arms that they could play in the big-budget genre sandbox too. Unfortunately, they picked a film that was inherently limited in its break-out potential. Unless you were predisposed to like the picture on principal, the marketing materials looked crass, stupid, and very much aimed at the lowest common denominator. That the movie is smarter and more thoughtful than the controversial trailers is beside the point. Opening weekend is all about quality of marketing and the trailers made the movie look like a cheap-looking, overly smug, adolescent male fantasy in the worst sense of the phrase ("Ooh, we've got a ninja 11-year old girl who swears and kills people!" "Relax nerds, just put on tights and Lyndsey Fonseca will bang you outside of your favorite comic book store too!"). There was little-to-no crossover potential for older males or any females who weren't already nerds. The film was specifically targeted at young males, many of whom were too young to get in due to the R-rating. Point being, if you didn't already love the film after hearing about it last year, the previews were not likely to inspire you to check it out.

This opening, disappointing relative to inflated expectations but perfectly fine in hindsight, brings to mind the 2006 $13.8 million debut of Snakes on a Plane. Viewed objectively, a $13 million debut for a $30 million comic thriller about well, snakes on a plane, was a pretty solid result. But, endlessly pumped up by internet nerds who had not even seen the film, the hype caught on in the mainstream media and expectations were through the roof. As the Tea Partiers of the movie business, the geek demo makes a lot of noise and gets a lot of attention, and the media often tries to sell their opinions as mainstream buzz. But those opinions are meaningless when it comes to making a film into a mainstream success. Look, a $50 million acquisition just opened to $19 million. It likely won't have legs due to the PG-13 action picture The Losers opening this coming weekend and the far-more mainstream R-rated Nightmare on Elm Street remake the weekend after that. But the film should crawl to $55 million and at least top $80 million with worldwide receipts. And the inevitable director's cut DVD/Blu Ray will do big business and the film will eventually make a profit. This is more of a serious ego-bruiser for Lionsgate than anything else. If they can't open The Expendables to numbers past their general $18-22 million spread this August (good luck with that lousy trailer), they may have to take serious stock regarding what kind of studio they can be with the present marketing muscle.

Most of you came to read about Kick-Ass, but for more box office info, including the weekend's surprising number two film, the solid opening of Death at a Funeral, and the theoretical final weekend of Avatar, check out the rest of this article at Mendelson's Memos.