Weekend Wrap-Up
Speed Racer Goes off the Tracks
By David Mumpower
May 11, 2008

Jack wanted to hide from the world after being revealed as one of the Oceanic Six.

Two new releases entered the marketplace this weekend, sharing the same goal. Each wanted to steal Iron Man's momentum after only seven days in theaters. Given the $102 million start Robert Downey's Jr. blockbuster had on the competition, this appeared to be an ambitious goal, but upsets happen at the cineplex. Was this to be such a weekend? Don't be ridiculous.

Jon Favreau likes to tell the story about how Downey came to be cast in Iron Man. The story goes that when the director was given a list of prospective actors to portray Tony Stark in the $135 million adaptation, he disliked all of them. When someone suggested Downey, Favreau promptly warmed to the idea. Then, he dismissed it out of hand due to the obvious overhead that comes with hiring a recently jailed actor with a well chronicled substance abuse problem. Over time, however, the actor/director came to realize that he had yet to hear a name that intrigued him as much as Downey, and he somehow managed to convince the people at Marvel Studios footing the bill to give him a chance.

The rest, as we say, has become box office history. Iron Man won its second straight weekend, following last weekend's $98 million (or $102 million depending on how we divide up the Thursday evening sneaks) performance with another $50.5 million. Its ten-day total stands at $177.1 million. After becoming the second best non-sequel opening of all time seven days ago, Iron Man has fallen a respectable 51% in weekend two. The obvious question is how this compares to other $100 million openers. Let's examine the data.

There have been ten movies to earn over $100 million. Here are how each of these titles performed in their second frames. Spider-Man 3, the all-time record holder, fell 61.5% to $58.2 million. Its original predecessor, Spider-Man, fell only 37.8% to $71.4 million. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest fell 54.0% to $62.3 million. Its direct sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, fell 61.5% to $44.2 million. Shrek 2 currently lays claim to the best second weekend of all-time. It fell an exemplary 33.2% to $72.2 million. Shrek the Third was less successful, falling 56.4% to $53.0 million. The only Star Wars film currently in the top ten openers, Revenge of the Sith, fell a solid 49.1% to $55.2 million. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire fell 46.5% to $54.7 million. So, this grouping of 50-60% is the range for acceptable to good performances. The worst holdover of the bunch is X-Men: The Last Stand, which fell 66.9% to $34.0 million.

As you can see, Iron Man is third from the bottom in terms of actual dollars, but that is okay given the fact that it was last in actual dollars last weekend. What is important is the percentage drop, and Iron Man is squarely in the middle in this regard. There had been hope that Iron Man was going to do quite a bit better than this, particularly given the glowing praise the movie has received from critics and audiences alike, but this second weekend performance should be more than acceptable to Iron Man. If we stand back and think it over for a broader perspective, this Marvel release has done about as much in its second weekend as both Fantastic Four films did in their first weekends. It has exceeded the openings of Daredevil and Ghost Rider as well, and all of these titles were considered hits.

The films in second and third place this week will be determined by actuals. Estimates separate the titles by only $200,000, and there is some question about how accurate the second place title's estimate is. Either way it bears out, the folks at Fox are dancing a jig while the kind folks at Warner Bros. are being talked down from various ledges.

Why is your average Warner Bros. exec debating whether suicide truly is painless? Don't act like you don't know. It's a big week for schadenfreude in Hollywood, though this isn't unusual. Folks do love their box office disasters, and Speed Racer appears to be meeting the qualifications. The movie with the $100 million budget grossed a lousy $20.2 million, giving it no chance to match its budget through domestic receipts. And that is not even factoring in the marketing expenses that go into a production's negative cost. Speed Racer's $5,605 per-location from 3,215 exhibitions slightly throws under the alleged third place finisher, What Happens in Vegas, but the difference in marketing budgets should have given it a sizable opening weekend advantage. Given that it lost not just to the behemoth of Iron Man's second weekend but also was matched by the relatively unheralded Fox romantic comedy means audiences have not forgiven the Wachowskis for the Matrix sequels. Putting their name in the ads appears to have hurt the product more than helped.

What else went wrong with Speed Racer? That is an interesting question. The special effects-laden project is the rare movie whose tracking worsened as release approached. There is every indication that the more audiences saw of the film, the less they wanted to pay money for a ticket. That's...not good. Marketed as a revolutionary new style of whiz bang visuals, Speed Racer clearly did not strike a chord with critics. 65% of them gave it a thumbs down with the general consensus being that the movie is too long and the action sequences are too sporadic and lacking in the visceral excitement that The Matrix (the first one) offered. In short, the criticisms seem eerily similar to the ones offered regarding The Matrix sequels.

In point of fact, the best comparison for Speed Racer is that it comes across as a live action adaptation of the Nintendo video game series, F-Zero. That series of games features high-resolution driving sequences that are so frenetic and energetic that is oftentimes impossible for the player to realize what is happening in the game. Speed Racer the movie has garnered similar complaints for how active its backgrounds are. The exotic racing sequences are so artificial in appearance that there is no perceptible difference between them and Pixar's Cars save for the fact that the Wachowskis do not have the built-in credibility of wizards of animation. Shiny clearly wasn't enough to sell this title to jaded consumers who have been burned before by pretty looking films with no discernible plot. Lost in Space, Starship Troopers, The Island, Stealth and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are examples of audiences slowing catching up to this sort of stylized but empty movie making. Audiences expect more these days and they have learned to vote with their dollars.

On a sliding budget scale, this performance is roughly equitable to the Evan Almighty disaster Universal experienced last summer. That title had a budget of $175 million, a negative cost in the $235 million range, and domestic receipts of right at $100 million. Even with IMAX receipts artificially boosting Speed Racer's box office, anything beyond $75 million appears to be a pipe dream. In fact, an opening weekend performance this poor squarely places the stink of failure on the project, meaning that its legs could be truncated before enough children get out of school for the summer and try to watch it. IMAX contracts will protect it to a degree, but there is little upside in the Speed Racer brand at the moment.

The third place result was almost the surprise of the top ten. What Happens in Vegas, a romantic comedy starring the doubly off-putting pair of Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, opened to an estimated $20 million. Released in 3,606 venues, the pseudo-successor to Kutcher's first relationship hit, Just Married, had a solid per-location average of $6,221. Reviled by critics, only 28% of whom recommend the movie at Rotten Tomatoes, What Happens in Vegas appeared destined to be a box office non-factor right up until its release. Alas, Kutcher and Diaz, both of whom have inexplicable box office appeal, somehow tricked movie goers into taking a chance on what is by all accounts a dreadful movie. The end result is that a movie with less than half the budget of the film estimated just above it in second place has matched its opening weekend performance.

Made of Honor, the Patrick Dempsey romantic comedy, falls to fourth place this weekend with $7.6 million. The middling 48% decline is relatively steep for a film of the genre. The attempt at counter-programming against Iron Man has been largely unsuccessful. Its ten-day tally of $26.3 million comprises the body of what the movie will earn domestically. With this production, Dempsey has failed to match the success Grey's Anatomy cast mate Katherine Heigl experienced with Knocked Up. It also will not even approach the $126.8 million that the original version of this premise, My Best Friend's Wedding, managed in 1997. The only good news I may offer Dempsey (and his agent) is that Out of Sight, the movie that put George Clooney on the map as a big-time romantic lead, earned only $37.3 million domestically. Even adjusting for inflation, Made of Honor should surpass that amount.

Speaking of comedies about pregnancy, Baby Mama rounds out the top five this weekend with $5.8 million. The movie that marks the reunion of former Saturday Night Live Weekend Update anchors Amy Poehler and Tina Fey falls 43% in its third weekend. The running total of $40.4 million is quite solid against a budget of $30 million. I was recently hospitalized for ten days and during this period, I found myself inundated by commercials for this movie. To be blunt, I have no idea what any of you who paid money to see this movie were thinking. In fact, I hope you all get canker sores as punishment for your transgression. Just watching repeated 30 second commercials of Baby Mama felt like a violation of the Geneva Convention to me.

Finishing in sixth and seventh place this week are a couple of quality comedies. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the latest production from the Judd Apatow factory, acquires another $3.8 million worth of receipts, pushing it over the $50 million barrier at $50.7 million. Given the lack of famous names in this film, this is another great result for Universal from Team Apatow. Similarly good news goes to Warner Bros. or at least it would if not for the above regarding Speed Racer. Their low budget, high upside project, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, earned $3.2 million this weekend. The 48% drop gives it a running tally of $30.7 million after 17 days. Sure, it's not going to recoup the budget of Speed Racer or anything, but this is a solid money maker for the studio, particularly given its inevitable success on the home video market.

Rounding out the top ten are The Forbidden Kingdom, Nim's Island and Redbelt. All three titles had relatively insignificant weekends of around $1 million. The Forbidden Kingdom, the first action film featuring action icons Jet Li and Jackie Chan, brought in $1.9 million, giving it a running total of $48.3 million. Like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it will break the $50 million barrier, but that will be the end of its run. Nim's Island earns $1.3 million, giving it a surprisingly good $44.3 million. Jodie Foster continues to prove herself to be a solid box office performer in this regard. Made on a modest budget of $37 million, this project has proven to be a moderate winner for Fox.

Tenth place goes to the other new opener of the week, Redbelt. David Mamet surprised a lot of people when he announced that his latest production would involve mixed martial arts, but veterans of the sport have indicated vast pleasure with his offering. They have also gushed with praise about Mamet's own abilities as a warrior, causing all of us to reconsider our perception of the foul-mouthed scribe. The movie, which had been in limited release in a handful of theaters last weekend, earns $1.1 million in its first weekend in wide release. This is a pretty good result for a Mamet film.

Box office for the top twelve was up 21.8% from 2007. The second weekend of Spider-Man 3 accounted for $58.2 million worth of domestic box office, which is more than all of this weekend's openers earned in combination; however, Iron Man largely canceled out its result, making the $40 million worth of openers enough to pull ahead easily. Box office for the top 12 combined for $117.3 million this year as opposed to $96.3 million last year, over half of which came from Spidey and his glorious jazz hands. Next weekend sees the release of what has been called the most expensive movie of all time, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. It hopes to follow the Iron Man pattern rather than the Speed Racer one.