Audiences Flock to District 9
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
August 16, 2009
Over the past 15 years, the period from the middle of August until Labor Day has become a dumping ground for Hollywood's less favored film projects. With five releases scheduled for this weekend, there was little reason to expect a fundamental difference from past summers. In recent days, however, buzz grew to deafening levels for a relatively unheralded science fiction film produced by an industry icon and a uniquely sci-fi romantic title also garnered attention. Combined with the North American release of another instant classic from Studio Ghibli, three of the five titles this weekend offered intrigue to consumers while the other two pulled a Hans Gruber and died hard.
Just a couple of years ago, Fox and Microsoft had laid the groundwork for the most tantalizing of film projects for 18-49 year –old males, Halo. Months were spent in pre-production for what was anticipated to be a tent-pole action film of epic proportions. In a stunning reversal of fortune, Fox got cold feet and bailed on the project. They had huge concerns about the percentage of up-front revenue Microsoft was demanding for their iconic property. The bigger worry, however, was that storied director Peter Jackson had decided to produce the project rather than direct. He had made the bold but honest decision that one of his protégés, a 27-year-old wunderkind named Neill Blomkamp, could make a better movie than he could. A refreshing decision in an industry long lamented for its massive egos and insecurities, this choice was unacceptable to Fox. If they were spending seven figures on a monumental production budget, they wanted the guy who helmed Lord of the Rings running the show rather than this South African kid who had been getting his coffee on the set. Blomkamp tried to change their minds by filming a series of shorts that placed his talents on display, but it was simply too big an expenditure for risk-averse Fox and frankly an understandable decision.
Having wasted half a year of his young life, Blomkamp's reputation was bloodied. Undeterred, he did what the best of us always do in the face of defeat. He rebooted and made the correct determination on how best to proceed. After further conversations with his mentor, Jackson, Blomkamp decided that one of his live action shorts, Alive in Joburg, was a good choice for a feature length project and while he claims it was not a conscious decision, he also repurposed some of his ideas for Halo action sequences and weaponry into his new effort. Jackson used his pull with Sony to get them to invest a modest $30 million on the production, an imaginative combination of Aliens, Cloverfield and Alien Nation. While this amount is small for a major science fiction release, it's still rare for a first time director to be blessed with such a large amount of capital for a mainstream debut. Such is the benefit of being Peter Jackson's protégé.
Fast forward two years to now and Fox has to be kicking themselves over what might have been on the Halo project. District 9 has just won the weekend with a spectacular $37.0 million result at a blistering $12,135 per location, putting the film squarely in the black after only 3 days in theaters. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that unlike last weekend's $54.7 action winner, G.I. Joe, District 9 looks to be a box office factor for a while to come. Reviews are nothing short of glowing. In point of fact, the 89% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes screams end-of-year awards contender rather than large budget summer science-fiction movie. District 9 somehow managed to look fresh and original without giving away any of the plot.