Grindhouse did not, as they say, open. It came in fourth with a $11 million gross on 2624 screens with a running time of three hours and 12 minutes.
What went wrong? Let’s list the ways. Grindhouse was a cult concept, with a cult following. It was the kind of movie critics praise (Metacritic gave it a very good 78) but it was beat by Ice Cube’s execrably reviewed comedy Are We Done Yet? (Metacritic ranking: 39). Many audiences said: “I don’t have three hours.” The Rodriguez half of Grindhouse was for horror fans, and was far too gross for women, who might have liked the Tarantino half, which is a total female empowerment flick. My friend in Chicago who eagerly took a pal on opening day reported about 30 people in the theater. Not a good sign.
The whole point of this exercise was TO DO IT CHEAP! The movie probably cost far more than the Weinsteins’ claim of $53 million. With total P & A costs the movie probably sneaks close to $100 million. What happened is what happens to all movie companies when name talent have the clout to hold their financeers for ransom. That is, the two directors spent beyond their combined $40-million budget because they wanted their movies to be as good as they could be. Performance anxiety trumps prudence. Rodriguez spent to make his trashy send-off of grade-B horror flix as gruesome as possible (he also melted down over the breakup of his marriage and the production had to shut down for a month; the Weinsteins ate that cost). And Tarantino shot and shot and shot to score the best possible car chase finale. Marrying those two movies into a digital internegative and final film print at the last possible minute wasn’t cheap either.
Ideally, the Weinsteins would have been at the top of their game, with a lot of clout behind them, and insisted that the directors file two movies at one-hour each. Which is what they were supposed to do in the first place. Doable. The movies would have been cheaper, easier to watch and sell.
But in their current guise, without a slate of hits behind them, the Weinsteins had no choice but to let the filmmakers do what they wanted. Both Rodriguez and Tarantino gave them a lot over the years and stuck with the brothers after they left Disney. The filmmakers wanted the movie to go out through Dimension and not MGM; they wanted the Weinsteins to book and sell and market and care, deeply, about making the movie work. There was plenty of awareness of this movie. That’s why it tracked so well. But on Easter Holy weekend, Ice Cube was a bigger marquee draw inside his market niche than an ensemble of stars few have heard of in a violent R-rated splatterfest homage to movies few ever saw–Kurt Russell was the biggest name of the bunch.
It’s also telling that the loud internet chatter didn’t translate at the box office. Young men and film fans are the easiest to reach on the web, but Grindhouse needed more. It should have opened in fewer theaters and built up an audience. But at that negative cost, the Weinsteins needed to go wide selling their brand-name directors–who were playing strictly to their core, with no crossover. The movie will plug along for a while, but the Weinsteins will have to make their money back overseas (where the films will be separate) and on DVD, where the running time won’t be an issue. In the digital home movie universe, more is more. UPDATE: Femme Fatale reacts to the opening, as does everyone and their mother on The Hot Blog. Other theories, anyone?
Here’s the WSJ story on the Weinstein’s $53-million marketing gamble (subscription required, see paste below).
Weinstein acknowledges it was “challenging” to market “Grindhouse” but says audiences are craving something new. The brothers made their name in the early days by working with filmmakers like Mr. Tarantino who created his classic “Pulp Fiction” in 1994 at Miramax. “This is the kind of thing we built our company on,” Bob Weinstein says of “Grindhouse,” which the company estimates cost $53 million to make.
Director Robert Rodriguez began plotting the film ‘Grindhouse’ after hatching this character’s image.
After making a 3-D version of “Spy Kids” for the Weinsteins’ Dimension movie label, Mr. Rodriguez says he wanted to create another “big theatrical experience that lured people back into theaters.” A fan of grindhouse cinema, he started working on a horror double bill, and intended on making both movies himself. Then one day at Mr. Tarantino’s house, he spotted the same grindhouse poster he had been using for inspiration for his project. A fellow fan of the genre, Mr. Tarantino offered to make one of the movies.
The directors have been intimately involved in figuring out how to sell their passionate interest in the genre to the public. A big part of the draw of exploitation movies historically was their posters and marketing. B-movie filmmakers would take a sensational aspect of their film such as a bizarre character or taboo theme and use that to draw in audiences. Mr. Rodriguez says they conceived the poster before they even started the movies. The image for his movie, “Planet Terror,” started with a sexy woman in a bra-top and mini-skirt with a machine-gun leg. The character went on to become the movie’s star — Cherry Darling, a stripper whose leg is chewed off by zombies.
They used a common catchphrase from 1970s double bills — “two great movies for the price of one” and spiked it with the kind of breathless language typical of the genre: “Together in one smash explosive show.”
When they sat down to plot a more extensive marketing campaign last year, Bob Weinstein says they realized they needed to do something very basic: educate the audience about the concept. Both directors have big followings of fans who embrace their unusual styles of filmmaking. But they needed to reach out to a broader audience.
They started by making a 22-minute special hosted by the directors in which they talk about the history of the genre and key features such as the “Badass Babes, the Girls of Grindhouse.” The special aired on various cable channels in recent weeks including MTV2, FX and Sci Fi. Later on, they ran two-minute clips from the special along with more traditional trailers. They also sponsored new shows like FX’s comedy “The Riches” and got Mr. Tarantino to talk about grindhouse for special TV double bills of his “Kill Bill” movies.
While such television efforts are key to raising awareness, they had an important tool that 1970s filmmakers didn’t have: the Internet. The surprise success of movies like “300” have hammered home the importance of that marketing platform: “300” built significant buzz by not only having a myspace page but sponsoring a feature upgrade on the site. Like “Grindhouse,” “300” was R-rated.
“Grindhouse” ran a four-month campaign on Yahoo Movies, which featured exclusives on its home page. They also had an exclusive deal with IGN.com, the site for avid video gamers as well as other youth-oriented sites like MTV.com. They gave downloadable versions of the fake trailers to some sites, which quickly found their way onto Myspace and YouTube.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]