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Why Funny People's Opening Weekend Is Pretty Okay

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There is really only one story at the box office this weekend. I'll go into the other tidbits later in the week when the finals are announced. Pearl Harbor was never going to open to $100 million in four days over Memorial Day, 2001. Blair Witch 2 was never going to open to $30 million in October, 2000. King Kong was never going threaten Titanic's box office crown in December, 2005. Watchmen was never going to open to $85 million last March.

It happens over and over again. Rival studios and/or clueless film pundits toss out over-the-top predictions for a given movie. Then, when the given movie doesn't open to their preconceived or out-and-out false figure, the film is labeled a failure by the press. I've always said that many of these 'pie in the sky' numbers are tossed out by rival studios as a form of preemptive character assassination. Politics works the same way. Democrats and the GOP always trade numbers about just how much their national convention should affect poll numbers ("What, they only went up 10 points, not the expected 15? I guess their message isn't connecting with the American people!"). Never give credence to what rival studios project a given movie will gross on opening weekend or any other weekend. It is in their complete best interest to raise expectations, often to a level that the film cannot realistically meet. And even if a movie should meet those raised expectations, the rival studios still win as said box office victory is now 'as expected' rather than a big surprise.

Point being, Funny People was never, ever going to open at $40 million. But you had various pundits tossing out the $40 million figure (from rival studios of course) and then chortling about the under performance based on her own delusions. So a perfectly reasonable $23.4 million opening weekend is at risk of being considered a failure. Yes, 2.5 hour, R-rated dramedy (with an emphasis on drama, according to every article written about it) about a comedian dying of leukemia only opened to nearly $24 million. It opened about $10 million better than Duplicity, State of Play, My Sister's Keeper, and any other drama this year. It opened about $6 million below Knocked Up, which was sold as a pure comedy with an obvious marketing hook (slacker/loser accidentally impregnates professional hottie and they try to make it work). Put aside all the drooling articles about Judd Apatow ruling the world, this film opened exactly where it needed to, give or take a million. This was marketed and viewed as a slightly more serious variation on the usual Judd Apatow staple, so it should never have been expected to open at the top realms of his work. Nor should anyone have expected a more serious Adam Sandler film to open anywhere near the likes of Don't Mess With the Zohan, The Waterboy, or Anger Management.

So what we have is a pretty decent opening for a challenging movie (which cost too much at $75 million) that is likely to be turned into a would-be disaster story. Because the world loves taking down their would-be idols as quickly as they placed them on a pedestal. Because it's a far sexier story to proclaim the collapse of the Apatow comedy empire than just admit that the picture opened slightly below realistic expectations. Because the narrative of the year is that Universal can do no right. Bruno (a disliked movie that again should never have been expected to do Borat numbers) opens to $30 million, but ends up with just $60 million domestic and $120 million worldwide on a $45 million investment... HORROR! Public Enemies at $93 million edges close to Michael Mann's highest-grossing film (Collateral's $101 million) and is by far Johnny Depp's highest grossing film not involving Jack Sparrow or Tim Burton... FAILURE! Land of the Lost... well, you've kinda got me on that one (although the whacked-out humor will make it a college favorite for years).

So while Universal's slate is lacking a gazillion-dollar blockbuster this summer, there are two big variables. First of all, the insanely successful Fast & Furious ($72 million opening weekend and $155 million finish) was moved from summer to spring, which likely earned it an extra $30-$50 million by making it the only event film in town after Watchmen flamed out. Secondly, it's the only major studio whose summer output is lacking in sequels, toy-adaptations, comic-book films, and remakes. Aside from the above, Funny People is an honest-to-goodness mainstream dramedy, and Drag Me To Hell (a domestic underperformer in relation to quality) is a terrifically engaging old-school horror show. I didn't even like Land of Lost or Pubic Enemies, but I'll take their flawed ambition over the autopilot junk like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

So what went kinda-sort wrong with Funny People? First of all, the advertising campaign was surprisingly honest. It was not sold as a laugh-a-minute yuck-fest with a few serious spots. It was a mournful story that happened to involve people who where humorous by trade. Second of all, and this is a common thread, pundits have got to stop expecting every film by a given star or director to open at the absolute peak of their prior records. Not every Adam Sandler film is going to open to $40 million. Not every Judd Apatow film is going to open to $30 million. As for the much discussed 145-minute running time, it was only about ten-minutes longer than Knocked Up. Yes the running time may have been an impediment to casual viewers. It was something that prevented me from seeing the film this weekend. But I didn't see Knocked Up in theaters either. Third of all, quite a few articles went into the weekend comparing the film to the works of James L. Brooks. Well, Mr. Brooks has never had a movie over $13 million... ever.

I'm not pretending that the film doesn't have an uphill battle. The Cinemascore grade was a mere "B-", meaning that word of mouth is not so hot and that legs will be an issue. And the likely stories of failure will not help the film, especially with the wave of 'it's surprisingly not terrible' reviews for GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra likely to flood in during the week. A word of warning though... the usual pattern for Adam Sandler films is for them to drop like rocks in the second weekend (around 50 percent), only to have them rebound and have healthy runs for the next month as they become the 'second choice' for casual moviegoers. So don't take a heavy second-weekend plunge as a sign of anything at all. The third weekend will tell the tale as summer will unofficially be over (unless summer for you was all about The Final Destination or Halloween 2), so we'll see which leftovers the moviegoers end up discovering. But for now, Funny People was a difficult-to-market deviation from the norm that opened just a bit below what would have been the norm. What a shocking development!

For more on the similarities between Washington DC and Hollywood, the art of massaging expectations, just what happened at the box office this weekend last year, and more, visit Mendelson's Memos.