Jon Dudley examines the box office performance of Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and asks, why has it not been a box office hit?
Edgar Wright’s latest film, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, was made on a budget of around £38.5m [$60m], but as of today (28th Sept. 2010) has only accumulated a worldwide box office total of just over £27m [$43m]. Granted it has not been released in every territory as yet, but considering it had a marketing budget of between $20-40m why has it not drawn in the masses?
One of the most exciting things for me about living in London is meeting a wide variety of people. I am proud of the different groups of friends I have and how well I get along with them all. However, whilst watching Scott Pilgrim I couldn’t help but think to myself that the group of friends I went to see it with (a self-confessed collection of geeks) were the only people I knew that would find the story, the jokes, the references and the general look of the film genuinely appealing. My other friends - football friends, drinking friends, old work colleagues and school mates, would not have any interest in seeing the film in the first place let alone sitting through the entire movie, which I personally thought was slightly long. When I told an old work colleague of mine that I had seen Scott Pilgrim recently he simply remarked “well I hope that wasn’t your choice.” If I’m completely honest it wasn’t, but my former colleague is a huge film fan so why his shock at seeing a film such as Scott Pilgrim?
The key to any good film is its story. Audiences want to be able to emotionally engage with the people they spend their money to watch for two hours at a time. An interesting quote in a review of Scott Pilgrim on IMDB says “those who look for purpose in all the pop-up graphics and visual shenanigans will have trouble seeing the point in all this.” This suggests that the movie itself is a homage to video games and pop culture rather than a film likely to attract the mainstream. If you are unfamiliar with the story, Scott Pilgrim gets himself a new girlfriend and has to defeat her seven evil exes in order to have a relationship with her. When he successfully defeats one of her exes they burst into coins ala Mario games of the past. Millions of people grew up playing Mario games, myself included, and they are still as popular as ever having recently celebrated 25 years on our console screens. But people watching it that don’t have a particularly enthusiastic passion for classic games may find themselves thinking “hey, that’s like Mario games. OK, so what happens next in this ‘story’?” - well, that’s what I was thinking anyway!
I have to say that Scott Pilgrim’s gay room mate Wallace, played brilliantly by Kieran Culkin, was very funny and in my opinion stole every scene he was in. And yes I will also admit Michael Cera’s performance was very humourous and showed he has in fact got more than one dimension to him. Since Superbad he has essentially played the same character who’s novelty has gradually worn off (akin to his Superbad buddy Jonah Hill). Both actors have bounced back this month however with performances that show they still have strong comedic screen presences - Cera as Scott Pilgrim and Jonah Hill as the titular character in Cyrus.
In an interview on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film podcast Michael Cera is asked to explain the comics on which the film is based. Comic book adaptations are among the highest grossing and visually stunning films in recent times - Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men to name just three - but a film based on a comic that is no where close to the internationally recognised superhero films whose stories and reputations exceed the movie releases is never really likely to appeal to the majority of cinema goers.
In the same interview Edgar Wright says of the video game references that they are “musical motifs and sound effects designed to provoke a Pavlovian response.” If these were his techniques to engage the viewers then they most certainly worked... but only with it’s niche audience. In his personal movie blog Mark Kermode makes a couple of very interesting points, none more so than when he compares Scott Pilgrim to Howard the Duck. “They both aim for a wide audience,” he says, “but demonstrously they both fail to achieve.” Kermode also goes on to say that although not commercially successful this film will probably go on to gain long term cult success - I whole heartedly agree.
In a film that appears to be all about references rather than relying on a strong and engaging story I couldn’t help but compare it to Edgar Wright’s sitcom Spaced. Spaced was a cult phenomenon and it is still one of my favourite British sitcoms of all time, but where Spaced subtly references all manner of things from zombie films, Star Wars and other classic movies I felt that Scott Pilgrim was an overload of homages just thrown in to get the geeks drooling. It did very successfully, but unfortunately for the film makers and financiers of Scott Pilgrim, geeks are in the minority. In the review of the film by Helen O’Hara for Empire she says that “this is not a film of style over substance but a film about taking responsibility, learning to see the effects your own actions have on others, and ultimately growing up. It’s that coming-of-age story that ultimately makes Scott Pilgrim work, and it’s that that will make it resonate long after the dazzle of its innovative filmmaking has faded.” Unfortunately I disagree with her.
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17 minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.