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Sundance Award + MTV Exposure = Disappointing Grosses

Sundance Award + MTV Exposure = Disappointing Grosses

“Murderball” and “Hustle & Flow” have a few things in common: both wowed viewers at Sundance where they won this year’s doc and dramatic audience awards, both were released in conjunction with MTV, and both are facing tough times at the box office. Neither movie has been able to cash in on the magic of that storied MTV partnership with Fox Searchlight that saw “Napoleon Dynamite” soar last year (it made nearly $45 million in theaters).

Whether or not there is a box office slump, one would have assumed that an audience prize at the country’s most important film festival coupled with national exposure from the cable network that targets a coveted demographic would be enough to guarantee solid grosses. Not so fast…

As Scott Macaulay notes regarding “Hustle” and the Washington Post finds with “Murder”, both films are facing tough times. The pimp with a dream film lost 50% in its second weekend for an estimated $4 million on more than 1,000 screens (an estimated $14.5 million so far), while the wheelchair rugby movie has made about half-a-million in four weeks (with a modest per screen average this weekend in its expansion to 75 screens). Clearly, neither movie is catching on quite as expected.

Macaulay and the Wash Post offer a number of guesses. In the case of my own informal polling, the inspiring side of “Murderball” doesn’t seem to be getting across. As someone told me last night at a wedding, they were turned off by the film’s poster and title, which portrayed the movie as an action/sports pic. “Is the movie about people in wheelchairs trying to kill each other,” the person asked me yesterday. While in the case of “Hustle & Flow,” those who have seen the movie can’t seem get over the fact that they really don’t like the striving pimp, even though they love Terrence Howard’s performance. And people I’ve spoken with don’t care for the role of women in the movie. Riding on the subway this weekend, I noticed a Midtown platform poster defaced with the word “sexist” written across the chest of DJay.

Also worth noting is that perhaps the expectations created by big-budget MTV exposure for anticipated wide releases after Sundance this year have set up the two movies for a fall. Last year’s Sundance audience award winners were considered hits, achieving considerable year-end acclaim despite modest grosses. “Born Into Brothels” won the doc audience prize made $3.5 million and “Maria Full of Grace” won the dramatic audience award and earned $6.5 million.

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