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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I legitimately hate the word “hipster.” It is an overused, absolutely clichéd word that, in addition to losing all meaning years ago, also implies a sort-of snobbishness that I hate. Having said that, there is essentially no other way to describe a film like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World than as hipster garbage. The film is essentially the story of an uninteresting, early twenty-something slacker named Scott (Michael Cera at the height of Michael Cera overexposure) who must battle the seven evil exes of manic pixie dream girl Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, uncharismatic in what should be a charismatic role) to win the right to date said girl, even though Scott himself is already dating a much more compatible and interesting girl (Knives Chau, perhaps the most interesting character in the film).
With a massive budget of 90 million dollars (reduced to something more like 60 million after tax incentives) and a huge marketing push from distributor Universal, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had the nerd credibility, the lucrative summer release date, and the muscle of a major studio behind it. It also had the talents of internet darling director Edgar Wright, whose previous films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz garnered much acclaim online. Fans of the original comic book series also cheered the casting of Michael Cera, who seemed perfect for the role of Scott. The film debuted with a thud, however, ending up essentially dead on arrival when it debuted in theaters in August 2010, grossing a paltry 10.5 million dollars over its first weekend. So, what exactly went wrong?
It was pretty obvious Universal expected Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to be a huge success. The studio held a massive panel for the film at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, a convention best known for being a launching pad for Hollywood’s biggest film and television projects. Scott Pilgrim was also heavily advertised, with individual lobby cards in theaters to represent its many featured characters (including Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, and Brandon Routh as three of the evil exes). Tie-in merchandise was also everywhere, with a well-reviewed video game version debuting on services like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade to critical acclaim. Additionally, retail outlets like Hot Topic carried a plethora of Scott Pilgrim t-shirts and other ancillary products (many of which featured obnoxious internet catch phrases such as “Epic Win”).
As noted earlier, internet darling filmmaker Edgar Wright directed and edited the project, and it shows – the editing is actually really fantastic throughout the running time. The film was also fairly well-reviewed, scoring an 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich was responsible for the soundtrack, which is also good. The film was unfortunate to release, however, during a massive Michael Cera backlash phase. Cera had, since 2007, starred in something like six movies (including big hits such as Juno and Superbad and smaller films like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Youth in Revolt) where he portrayed almost exactly the same character in each film. Since this was essentially the same character he played in Arrested Development, which began airing in 2003, it is pretty easy (and accurate) to say that Cera had been playing the same character for almost seven years. Much like Seth Rogen in the recently discussed Observe and Report, audiences had kind of grown tired of this schtick.
In the end, I think where Universal mainly went wrong was on relying on massive internet buzz and hype to carry the picture to box office success — something that has yet to work. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was always going to have limited box office appeal despite a huge internet presence. It is in this manner similar to 2006’s Snakes on a Plane, which Fox also over-marketed to a widely disinterested audience despite a huge presence online, as well as 2013’s Pacific Rim, a very fun Warner Bros. summer movie that relied on a similar word-of-mouth internet marketing campaign that also didn’t live up to box office expectations.
This sort of online marketing has never truly worked the way film studios keep imagining it should, as the internet echo chamber is not at all indicative of the tastes of the movie-going public at large (additionally, the internet echo chamber is probably much, much smaller in reality than it seems to be, for reasons Nick and I should really cover in a podcast). It didn’t help whatsoever that to the average theater-goer, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World looked like hipster garbage that disappeared up its own asshole with its twee, undeveloped characters and slacker sensibilities. Even if I don’t find that to absolutely be the case (I actually kinda like Scott Pilgrim, mostly for the tech side of things, like the editing and special effects), I can definitely see why the film didn’t click with a mainstream audience, despite Universal’s muscular backing.