Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
What Went Wrong?: Vol. 15 – Indie Films Edition
October 10, 2012Posted by on
Box office is not generally an accurate measure of success for an independent film. Most independent films don’t gross very much money, but many of them don’t cost very much to make and produce in the first place. For a lot of indie films, exposure in the public conscious, or critical awards recognition are more accurate measures of success. There are exceptions to this, of course – Juno (2007) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) went on to be huge hits, out-grossing many of the over-produced summer blockbusters released in their respective calendar years. Generally speaking, of course, independent movies just don’t do that well in theaters and it just plain doesn’t matter all that much. Some indie films, however, have the ability to become notorious bombs. These are the films we’re going to discuss today.
Jim Field Smith’s Butter is a movie that combines all the hard-fought action of the 2008 vice-presidential race with all the drama of the well-documented butter-sculpting competitions that are currently taking America by storm. Joking aside, Butter is actually a serious movie about a Sarah Palin-esque character (played by Jennifer Garner) who joins a competitive butter-sculpting competition, hoping to crush a young butter-sculpting upstart (played by youngster Yara Shahidi). Long considered one of the best unproduced screen-plays in Hollywood (by whom, who knows?), Butter also stars Ty Burrell (Modern Family) as Garner’s husband, as well as comedian Rob Corddry (The Daily Show, Hot Tub Time Machine), 90s screen legend Alicia Silverstone (Clueless), X-Men’s Hugh Jackman, and Twilight’s Ashley Greene. This is not a bad cast by any stretch of the imagination, despite the obviously ridiculous premise. So, what exactly went wrong?
Where to begin, really… First of all, Butter lampoons one-time vice-presidential candidate and political punching bag Sarah Palin as well as the entirety of the 2008 vice-presidential race. I’m not sure the filmmakers are aware or not, but it is currently 2012. Sarah Palin would have been a topical target to lampoon four years ago (I’d even go three years just to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt), but no one really cares about Palin anymore. Even the late night hosts don’t bother harping on her anymore. As a film, Butter’s cultural awareness would be like making a Titanic joke in 2002, or making a Twilight joke right now – it just doesn’t matter, to quote Bill Murray, and nobody cares anymore. Butter reminds me a bit of the “classic” 80s drama Over the Top, which was a Sylvester Stallone movie that combined the drama of divorce and child custody with the gripping world of underground arm wrestling, except that Butter is a story that revolves around competitive butter sculpting. Good lord, who cares? It doesn’t help that Butter was screened to a dismal audience reception at a 2011 film festival, and was then shelved for nearly a year before opening to less than tepid reviews (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) and absolutely dreadful box office numbers (#43 this past weekend with a hair over $70,000 in gross receipts). All of these factors combine to make Butter one of the biggest indie train wrecks of all time.
Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (2011)
Speaking of train wrecks, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is the Paul Johansson-directed adaptation of Ayn Rand’s still-controversial novel about the greatness of capitalism and the intrepid men who tout it. When industrialist and innovator extraordinaire John Galt (Paul Johansson – how partial of the director to cast himself as the most important figure in the movie) abandons a dystopian, run-down America, the rest of us plebeians must take care of ourselves and whatnot, until we learn the true value of the captains of industry and how important they are to us and then rise up and demand they continue to rule us as kings. Rand’s novel, first published in 1957, had long been one of the unadaptable, unproduceable projects kicking around in Hollywood. Considered for everything from a TNT mini-series to a Lions Gate Films pet project, many actresses had been considered for the lead role of the Dagny Taggart main character, including Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron. The project finally came together in 2010, when filming began just days before the rights were set to expire. The project was subsequently completed and released in April 2011 to stagnant box office and terrible reviews. So, what exactly went wrong?
I’m not opposed to an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel. The filmmakers just handled it extremely poorly. Like the aforementioned Butter, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is also ridiculously out of date. The novel, written in 1957, is firmly rooted in that era. This is ok, because the novel is obviously a product of its time. The film adaptation, however, would have us believe that trains are still a primary method of transportation for most Americans (even more ridiculous, the movie is set in 2016 for some reason). This is laughable in and of itself – trains haven’t been the primary method of transportation in our country for decades and decades. Even in 1957, this premise was probably seen as stupid and mildly out of date. Additionally, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1’s marketing (what little there was of it) revolved around the question “Who is John Galt?” What the filmmakers didn’t expect is that nobody cared. It didn’t help that the film received almost universally negative reviews (11% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes). Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 finished its domestic box office run with just under five million dollars, or less than a quarter of its production budget. Somehow, despite all logic, a sequel, Atlas Shrugged: Part 2, was green-lit and is set for release on October 12th. I can’t imagine it’ll do much better than the first.
Special Bonus Coverage: Zyzzyx Road (2006)
In the summer of 2005 in the scorching Mojave Desert of California, filmmaker John Penney spent 1.3 million dollars of somebody else’s money to make Zyzzyx Road, the lowest-grossing theatrically released movie of all time. Starring Kathryn Heigl, Tom Sizemore, and someone named Leo Grillo, Zyzzyx Road is an independent movie that serves as the story of two people (Grillo and Heigl) who, after a week-long affair, inadvertently murder Heigl’s scumbag ex-boyfriend (played, appropriately enough, by a drugged-out Sizemore, more on that later) and bury his body along Zyzzyx Road in southern California, an area somewhat famous for its hot-springs and unpronounceable road names. Chaos follows, as Heigl and Grillo are chased and nearly murdered by a malevolent, secretive figure that is probably totally Sizemore who I guess did not actually die or something. So, what exactly went wrong?
Zyzzyx Road was screened once per day in one theater in Dallas, TX during its sole week in theaters in February 2006. It ultimately grossed only thirty (30!) dollars, of which ten dollars was refunded. This distinguishes Zyzzyx Road as the lowest grossing theatrically released production in the history of film. Grillo, who produced in addition to starring, was not exactly keen on releasing the film domestically, but was obligated to do so under strict Hollywood regulations regarding professional films. This is partially what lead to the low gross, in addition to an absolutely horrid title, virtually no reviews or marketing to speak of whatsoever, and a laughably clichéd premise (really, we’re still making films like this? I Know What You Did Last Summer and its bazillion sequels and imitators weren’t enough?). Kathryn Heigl and Tom Sizemore aren’t exactly go-to leads for a movie (Heigl in particular is just an awful actress, and Sizemore’s personal problems are legendary in Hollywood), and Leo Grillo is a virtual unknown to mainstream audiences. It should be noted that Sizemore, who continually failed drug tests during the 18 day production (he couldn’t even go two and a half weeks without drugs – why was he not in rehab?), was arrested during his time on set for violating probation for drug offenses. Zyzzyx Road, it turns out, may actually one day become profitable, as the Red Box is exclusively carrying the film as of September 2012. I may actually go out and rent it out of nothing more than sheer morbid curiosity. Based on all the shenanigans surrounding Zyzzyx Road, I imagine it will live up to its title of lowest grossing film in history and then some.