Scott Pilgrim vs. the World‘s bottom line comes down to the same problem that has faced a long line of Universal projects. It was an indie movie that cost too much to be successful inside the studio paradigm and should have been produced and released on a smaller less ambitious scale at the studio’s specialty division Focus Features, which could have nurtured it and sent it into the world on a more limited basis and built on the film’s strong word-of-mouth from its narrow base. To them a $12 million gross would have been fine. To Universal, it’s less than the film’s marketing budget. (A funny mash-up of Scott Pilgrim vs. The Matrix is below.)
What did they have to sell? Michael Cera isn’t a big marquee draw. The costly VFX may have played well, but didn’t seem to draw people in. Edgar Wright means something only to indie filmgoers, and the comics played to an even narrower Comic-Con slice of the world. Universal marketed the hell out of this movie (I don’t think they could have done much better, and they probably overspent) but it only played for the young smart demo. That’s the Focus demo.
If you spend too much (in this case, the movie cost somewhere under $85 million, less some tax incentives, plus marketing) you are forced to open a movie wide. Other Universal movies that in hindsight could have been handled differently in less expensive mode: Green Zone, Robin Hood, State of Play, Duplicity, Funny People, Bruno, Public Enemies, Drag Me to Hell, Frost/Nixon. It’s hard to say no to players like Imagine, Working Title, Ridley Scott, Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sam Raimi, Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass, who demand budgets to go with their visions. But sometimes a studio has to do what a studio has to do.
Edgar Wright: he could have played in the indie playpen.