Hollywood Psych
By Sean Collier
August 21, 2009

It looks like this shoot is going well.

Pulp Fiction is, to date, Quentin Tarantino's only $100 million film. Despite an ad blitz, positive reviews, and perhaps the biggest star ever to work with the quirky auteur, Inglourious Basterds will not be his second.

Over his 17-year career, Tarantino has helmed only six films: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof (his half of the Grindhouse double-bill) and Basterds. Not only is Pulp Fiction the only big earner of the group, none of the others came particularly close; the two seperate halves of Kill Bill came the closest, at $70 million and $66 million respectively. Reservoir Dogs was critically acclaimed and a home video/DVD sensation, but pulled in less than $3 million during its theatrical run; neither Jackie Brown nor Grindhouse cracked $40 million.

The reasons for this are not hard to identify. Tarantino's films are always hyperviolent, vulgar and brutal, the very definition of the "Hard R," a tough-to-market distinction. They are almost always genre films; since Pulp Fiction, none has really had wide mainstream appeal. Quentin's stars aren't always B-List, but they are often the bottom rungs of the A-List – Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth. Appropriately, the biggest marketing point on Tarantino films is that they are just that – directed by Quentin Tarantino.

It was Pulp Fiction that made Tarantino a household name, but his reputation outshines his popularity. Everyone knows who he is and has a good idea of what his films are like; far fewer, at least among mainstream audiences, have actually watched more than one or two of his films. His reputation is largely self-made and marketed, with a big assist by an endless parade of fawning critics. For a director with extremely limited commercial appeal, much of his success is pure Hollywood; actors love him, producers love him, other directors love him.

This widespread admiration has delivered Quentin his biggest star yet. Brad Pitt, as southern enforcer Lieutenant Aldo Raine, has been the primary focus of Basterds' heavy marketing campaign. Indeed, Pitt is the most sellable thing involved; the plot is violent and complex and the other actors are not exactly superstars. The Weinstein Company would like to believe that Pitt will push Basterds out of Quentin's normal opening range ($10-$25 million) into the more comfortable $35-$40 million range. Sadly, they didn't notice a similar situation last year.

The Coen Brothers, fresh off of a Best Picture win, had diverted to a smaller project – the quirky ensemble comedy Burn After Reading. As with Basterds, acclaimed directors were working on a somewhat offbeat film, but had Brad Pitt to use as a selling point. The marketing for Burn After Reading focused extensively on Pitt, despite his relatively small role in the film. In spite of the star power and strong reviews, however, Burn After Reading opened under $20 million, and finished just barely north of $60 million. And oh yeah – that movie had George Clooney, too.

Pitt is far from a guarantee, especially on smaller films; note too The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ($4 million total,) Babel ($34 million,) Spy Game ($62 million,) and The Mexican ($66 million.) While highly respected and fairly consistent in terms of performance, the variety in his choice of roles prevents him from having the guaranteed built-in audiences that stars of his stature usually posess.

So Tarantino usually opens small and finishes okay, and Brad Pitt isn't going to save him. Will the film itself be enough of a hook to push Basterds into Pulp Fiction territory? At the risk of sounding too definitive – uhh, no.

It's hard to find a point of comparison for Basterds – there aren't too many comic action epics about World War II these days – but here's a shot. Bryan Singer's Valkyrie had roughly the same general concept as Inglouious Basterds – that being "let's kill Hitler." While Tom Cruise is not the draw he once was, he's still an A-List star, and reviews were generally positive. By all accounts, Valkyrie was a more marketable film than Basterds, and had a better shot at becoming a hit. It opened to a fourth-place $30 million over Christmas weekend, before settling at $80 million. Meanwhile, yet another Nazi-fighting flick, Defiance, barely made back half its budget in the winter of 2008, scraping together $28 million, despite help from James Freakin' Bond.

Basterds will likely open right around $25 million, maintain Tarantino's reputation as a gifted and praiseworthy filmmaker, and settle in right around Kill Bill's $70 million mark. It will not, however, take Pulp Fiction's slot, despite the 12 years of inflation it has on its side, nor will it significantly broaden Tarantino's appeal. For a director like Tarantino, the box office returns are not the main goal; one wonders, however, if the Weinsteins would eventually like to see a larger return on their investments.