It was the quintessential Hollywood disaster film. But not the way you think. This Christmas disaster wasn't on-screen but at the box office.
Gleeful pundits didn't even try to keep the holiday twinkle from of their eyes. The L.A. Times had two separate articles already burying The Polar Express after only its opening weekend. Dead on arrival. The Polar Express was a colossal, unthinking debacle.
One little problem. The movie's worldwide box office ended up at $301 million.
The point here isn't whether the terribly-expensive The Polar Express was a hit. That's for video rentals and accountants to determine. Nor is it to debate whether the movie was any good. Rather, the point is that Hollywood and its lapdog press love leaping to conclusions, and often wrong ones.
Does it matter? Why even care?
Once upon a time (the way all good tales begin, but most especially tales about myths), I addressed this in an article which appeared originally in the Huffington Post. The reasons why it does, in fact, matter, or why there's a reason at all to care still hold true.
Realize that when Hollywood gets scared off by the false perception of some failure, it means that deserving, similar films won't get made -- even though audiences (you) actually loved them. Filmmakers who made those movies may have a difficult time making others. Studio executives involved with approving "The Polar Express" got fired early on -- long before the reality of the $301 million box-office figures were in. (Not to mention DVD rentals.) If you don't think getting fired puts a chill on Hollywood decision-making, just know that there are studio executives now who probably won't approve a movie if it even has the word "polar" anywhere in the script. So, not only do filmmakers suffer, but audience s(you) suffer, as well.
Of course, sometimes the perception does fit the reality. Tom Cruise was an object of ridicule when Mission Impossible III was released, so it was simply fun to keep piling it on when his movie died. Ask anyone. Just don't ask them how much it made. Worldwide, that would be $381 million. (Surprised??) Hmm, okay, so then this isn't one of those times when perception matched reality.
Film industry misperception and its perpetuation by the Hollywood press have long gone hand-in-hand.
Part of this is due to a provincial view in Hollywood so limited that it doesn't recognize existence of an area known as "the rest of the world." Part is the Hollywood love of Schadenfreude, German for "taking joy in the failure of others." Part, too, is because Hollywood is made up of freelancers, even at the executive level, always looking over their shoulders, terrified. But most is because of a crushing lack of interest in a bothersome concept known as "Facts."
Consider two movies that the myth of Hollywood perceived into disastrous flops. One is even perceived as a flop of epic proportions.
That would be the second Charlie's Angels. After the massive success of the original film, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle flopped so horrifically that it literally destroyed the franchise and any thought of future sequels. Right? I mean, right?? But -- well, surprise. The sequel actually grossed a quarter billion dollars around the world! That is only $5 million less than its megahit original.
The other disastrous flop was the sequel to the wildly-successful Bridget Jones' Diary. That sequel made a paltry $40 million in the U.S., barely half what the original took in. It was dismissed as a disaster of numbing embarrassment. The problem is that Hollywood is so egocentric that it forgets something called "other countries" exist outside of the American landmass. In truth, the worldwide box office for that pathetic flop, Bridget Jones' Diary: The Edge of Reason, was a monumental $262 million!
Perceptions are lovely. And Hollywood perceptions are an art form all their own. Hollywood is an industry that is about myth-making, after all. So, who cares if perceptions aren't true?
Let's go further. After all, actual facts really, truly are preferable to fake Hollywood Theories that the Wags draw out of thin air, or crevices of their lower extremities.
People love to sound esoteric by saying that "Perception is Reality." Then they puff on their mythic pipe. I like to add, "Except that reality is actually reality."
Here are some other realities -- false perceptions aside.
Van Helsing, Kingdom of Heaven and King Arthur were three recent extravaganzas that the myth of Hollywood perceived into disastrous flops, and this helped put a hold on other such historic epics being made. However, worldwide, "Van Helsing" actually grossed $300 million -- and "Kingdom of Heaven" made $212 million.
As for King Arthur, we know that it wasn't just a flop, but a laughable one. After all, it only made $52 million in the U.S. Except -- its worldwide total was $204 million. Yes, it was laughable, all the way to the bank.
Did any of these make profits? Studio bookkeepers alone know (and, of course, don't tell) -- but regardless, the point is that those impressive totals are clearly far from the empty-wallet "disasters" people perceive. Yet even more important to remember, all of these figures don't even include massive video/DVD rentals and sales, pay-per-view and cable deals. How massive? According to an industry spokesman in USA Today, the home market is three times that of theatrical release and "drives most of the profit for studios and films."
Let's repeat that clearly: as huge as these worldwide theatrical grosses are -- the home market is three times bigger, on top of that. And studios don't have to split what they make there with movie theaters.
Okay, pull up a chair. Here's a noteworthy illustration of how these misperceptions affect the movies that the audience (you) sees. And therefore, why it matters:
The aforementioned Charlie's Angels 2 was the cornerstone of perhaps the finest example of Hollywood's myopic perception problems ever, the famed Deadly Summer of Sequels, the summer of 2003. Tomb Raider 2. Legally Blonde 2. Charlie's Angels 2. It still gives Hollywood shivers. "Expert" pundits declared the sequel dead-dead-dead. The L.A. Times had articles about how audiences don't want to see sequels anymore. Studio Executive Panic burned rubber peeling away from anything that even had a number in it, or smelled sequelish. No More Sequels!!
As you may have surmised by now, there's one tiny difficulty with this misperception. (Or more accurately, myth-perception.) The problem is that the same summer the following sequels were also released:
The Matrix Revolutions ($424 million). X-Men 2 ($380 million). Spy Kids 3-D ($192 million.) And of course Charlie's Angels 2 ($253 million). In fact (ah, that pesky word, "fact"), even Legally Blonde 2 made $125 million around the world, a mere $17 million less than the first -- which was considered a Big Hit.
In truth (ah, "truth"), of those six sequels that summer, only "Tomb Raider 2" did poorly. Just possibly, just maybe ... its single failure may not have been because people simply didn't like any sequels. Maybe -- maybe they just didn't like Tomb Raider 2.
Hollywood analysts like easy answers because...well, they're easy. It doesn't require research. Or even thinking. It only requires calling up other Pundits and reading other Wags and repeating what they said, making it the Conventional Wisdom. Yet it's not remotely wise.
And so the misperceptions linger on. Studio execs joyfully dance on the graves of competitors, whether anyone is actually dead or not. And then Hollywood pundits take these myths and pass them on as facts.
It should also be noted that it's in the studios' best interest for its industry to think it's failing. Whenever contract negotiations roll around, the studios always -- ALWAYS -- claim they are losing money. How many of you think "Hollywood" is losing money? Hands? Anyone? You studio executives in the back don't count.
Oh, by the way, remember that flop remake of King Kong that the Hollywood myth machine told everyone to ridicule? Sit down, are you ready?. It actually grossed $549 million.
Finally, it's worth noting the reverse, as well. After having buried sequels just four years earlier and delivered their mournful eulogy, the L.A. Times is now falling over itself in article after article raving about the unearthly, ungodly, record-breaking success of sequels from Shrek to Spiderman to Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter and now The Bourne Ultimatum, as well as describing how the number of summer sequels have dramatically risen specifically because they're "safe." Their explanation now, after having killed sequels off in 2003? "Hollywood makes sequels for one good reason: They make money."
And the reality is -- yes, finally ... finally...this is true.
Except for those that don't make money.
Ask the producers of Baby Geniuses 2 ($9.4 million.) Basic Instinct 2 ($27 million, compared to $353 million for the original.) Miss Congeniality 2 ($81 million, down from $212 million.) And Blair Witch 2 ($48 million, after $249 million.) Agent Cody Banks 2. City Slickers II. Species II. Weekend at Bernie's II. Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Caddyshack II. The Sting II, Tomb Raider 2. And on and on and on...
Hollywood. The land of hits and myths. It's dangerous out there: think first.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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