Edgar Wright’s action comedy “Baby Driver” (Sony) opened Tuesday night to a strong $2.1 preview gross, a promising start with a shot at spreading word of mouth going into the pre-holiday weekend. All of that is standard operating procedure for an offbeat film, but that’s also reason to hope it could be one of most significant and gratifying results of the 2017 movie year. Here’s why.
It Could Be the Rare Original Film to Succeed
In a year full of franchises, sequels, and variations thereof, domestic audience reactions this summer range from lowered interest (“Transformers – The Last Knight”) to disdain (“The Mummy,” “Baywatch”). However, one of the year’s stellar hits has been Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” with its $175 million domestic gross on a production cost of just $5 million.
Similarly, “Baby Driver” has three strikes against it: It’s a standalone film, an original screenplay, and it’s more complex than the simple concepts studios favor.
“Get Out” succeeded much as some streaming hits do today: It became a social media phenomenon, and then a must-see as word of mouth spread. Thirty or 40 years ago, that pattern was familiar for movies like “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” too. Today, that’s not the gameplan. Everything banks on a huge opening weekend followed by long-term play with small dropoffs. If “Baby Driver” clicks, it means executives will be less likely to view “Get Out” as a fluke.
Edgar Wright Has a Brand, and Sony Didn’t Try to Change It
Wright has something in common with recently dumped “Young Han Solo” directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller: He was hired with great fanfare, then fired. (In Wright’s case, during preproduction for Marvel’s “Ant-Man.”)
In both cases, producers saw strong, popular work from young talent, and wanted a piece of that for their franchises. Then they realized the people who created groundbreaking work were self-confident, determined creative types, uninterested in aligning their approaches with frameworks that supersede individual contributions.
Of course, there’s another way: Take proven iconoclastic talents and back them for what they do well.
Wright’s work didn’t gross as much as the Lord-Miller hits (two “Jump Street” movies, “The LEGO Movie,” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”), but “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and other films established him as someone who combined a strong visual sense with edgy smart humor to create a distinctive vision.
“Baby Driver” builds on that. Its budget ($35 million-$40 million is the estimate) isn’t minor, though less than his sole flop (“Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World,” a graphic novel adaptation that became a cult hit that grossed under $50 million worldwide). The cost is manageable and doesn’t require the hundreds-millions gross required for most studio releases. If this breaks out, it boosts the stock of many talented quirky directors.
Comedies Need the Vote of Confidence
Summer comedies “Airplane!,” “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters,” “City Slickers,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “Austin Powers” were among the top five successes of their respective years. However, all of them were released in the last century and since then it’s been slimmer pickings. Over the last two summers, only four live-action comedies (“Ghostbusters,” “Bad Moms,” “Spy,” and “Trainwreck”) managed to cross the $100 million domestic gross mark, and none of them were among the 20 biggest hits of their years.
Studios have other reasons to be disenchanted with comedies; they’re tough to market worldwide. (Animated films, of course, often fill this void, and add older audiences along the way.)
There’s another R-rated comedy this weekend, with Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler effort “The House;” tracking has been poor. Still, there’s room for more than one, and if either or both click, maybe it will jog producers’ short-term memory and they’ll remember summer as a prime territory for humor.
Great Reviews Would Rise as Something to Desire
“Baby Driver” has the highest Metacritic score of any wide studio release this year at 85, one point ahead of “Get Out,” with “Logan” and the upcoming “War for the Planet of the Apes” slightly lower. It’s higher than five of last year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees. In other words, a strongly critic-backed film.
Should this do well, perhaps studios will stop complaining about bad reviews killing movies and realize that it can be smart to create worthy, smart, and original films rather than relying on the the brand to lure viewers.
Next page: The welcome reappearance of the young male audience.