Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009: #12: America Rejects Paleolithic Era
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
December 29, 2009

Still wondering where the hidden Immunity Idol is

During a scene in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Jack Black had a cameo as an angry biker who drop-kicked the titular character's Spanish-speaking puppy, Baxter, off a bridge. He then relished the pain of the grieving character played by Will Ferrell. If you imagine both of these comedic actors as Baxter and North American television audiences as the kicky biker, you have a good idea of how the summer played out for both celebrities.

Sometimes, the first impression is the correct one. For years, the idea of making a movie adaptation of the 1970s television staple, Land of the Lost, had been tossed around but generally discarded as a bad idea. Sure, audiences may be looking for a Jurassic lark (sorry), but it seems unlikely. Keeping this in mind, a decision to make not one but two movies of a similar theme and inflict them upon movie goers is, well, the problem with the Hollywood studio system.

We see it time and time again when a pair of titles enter pre-production at roughly the same time with each group vaguely if not explicitly aware of the existence of the competition. Sometimes, it works out well for both parties, as was the case with Deep Impact and Armageddon. Mostly, the situation plays out like Mission to Mars and Red Planet wherein the films have combined production budgets of $165 million only to earn back about $100 million less than that. Were professional pride and ego not a factor in the industry, this sort of situation would be avoidable. Since it's Hollywood, the cycle continues to repeat itself every few years.

This iteration is a step back on the evolutionary scale, especially in comparison to the exploration of Mars. This time around, Hollywood took a page from Mel Brooks and decided to focus on the history of the world. What no one was willing to accept is that there are only so many fire and wheel and *gulp* Cain and Abel jokes that can be made before people start throwing popcorn at the screen. But this is an industry that is going to force feed consumers a product whether they want it or not. In these instances, audiences clearly checked the Do Not Want box.

Land of the Lost was the first to enter theaters on June 5th. Universal banked its hopes for success upon two factors: the love 30-somethings have for the ill-costumed villains of their youth, Sleestaks, and the star power of Will Ferrell. The mistake in expecting Sleestaks to draw in consumers is self-evident. The Will Ferrell aspect is more understandable. Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Elf, Blades of Glory, and the afore-mentioned Anchorman are all successful, fondly remembered comedies. Sure, the box office failure of Semi-Pro offered concern that he may be approaching his expiration date as a box office draw (comedic actors are notorious for having hot stretches followed by long instances of mediocre fare). The $100 million result from Step Brothers afterward largely alleviated those concerns, though. Ferrell isn't perfect, but he's generally well regarded by consumers and has developed a level of trust with them, not just as a principal lead but also as a supporting player in films such as Old School and Wedding Crashers. He's generally reliable.

What went wrong with Land of the Lost? Everything is a bit of a cop-out answer, but it's also applicable here. The hefty $100 million production budget dictated that this release perform as a blockbuster. Its icy 25% critical reception at Rotten Tomatoes is indicative of a different outcome altogether. By the time the movie finally entered theaters, it was something of a fait accompli to the point that some studio execs expressed non-satirical satisfaction with its $7.1 million opening day debut. A weekend result of $18.8 million confirmed that the title would never approach profitability, but in combination with foreign receipts and home video revenue, it would avoid the fate of being one of the biggest bombs of all-time. When the bar is set that low and a film barely clears it, you know things have gone wrong.

Amazingly, Year One found itself looking up at that result. Part of this can be traced to timing. Only two weeks after Land of the Lost failed to impress with its box office debut, a second horrific looking caveman film was released into theaters. Why? Only Sony can answer this question. What is certain is that greenlighting the project in the first place was a mistake while pushing it into theaters fresh on the heels of a similarly themed title was bordered on financial suicide. It's as if Sony was saying, "Didn't you hate that movie that just came out? We have one just like that, maybe even worse!" The sales pitch needed work and it didn't help matters any that reviews for Year One left it looking on with envy at its predecessor, Land of the Lost. Year One is currently 15% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the most reviled releases of calendar 2009.

Other than timing, where did Year One go wrong? I am of the opinion that Jack Black is like Mexican food. When it's good, it's delicious. When it's not, well, I'll let you complete the thought. Lately, his entire career seems to boil down to North American audiences deciding it's better that he is heard and not seen. Is he a well intended martial artist panda? Fine. A shark with daddy issues? Sure, why not. The instant you put him in a loincloth toga, however, the local villagers have their torches and pitchforks on full display. And it doesn't help any that Michael Cera hasn't evolved any as an actor. If you can differentiate between his characters in this film, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Juno and Superbad, you are a more loyal fan of his than I. This is particularly troubling to those of us who are Scott Pilgrim fans and want that movie to succeed.

The good news for Cera is that he is only now 21, giving him plenty of time to find a second personality trait other than socially awkward. That ship has sailed for Jack Black, who has one bullet in his gun and if you don't like the brash pinhead persona (at least I think it's a persona), you're out of luck. In the case of Year One, all of us were out of luck. It's one of the worst films of the decade, and I can confirm this personally by indicating that I watched the damn thing on an installment plan. About 20 minutes a sitting was all I could stand. I cannot imagine the suffering experienced by those who witnessed this abomination in a theater.

In combination, Year One and Land of the Lost cost $160 million to produce plus roughly another $100 million to market. Neither of them earned $50 million domestically; they had a combined North American tally of $92.7 million, not even half of their combined capital outlay. Both titles were a bust on the global scene as well with Year One earning only $14.3 million and Land of the Lost sputtering to $19.3 million abroad. In a year without any truly epic box office disasters, cavemen were the biggest failures on the whole. Whether either film could have survived in the absence of the other is a theoretical debate that can never be settled. What is clear is that the combined stink of failure that permeated throughout both releases actively drove consumers away from theaters. Judging from the quality of each release, this is a lucky break for consumers, although bad news for Universal and Sony. Next time, just let the other side win when you are debating dueling, similarly themed projects. When you don't, Jack Black winds up in a toga and nobody wants that. This was demonstrated empirically over the summer.