Almost twenty-five years ago to the day (I wanted to save it for the November anniversary, but there were too many other good topics, and it's a quiet week), I was browsing magazines at a Barnes & Noble, flipped through the Entertainment Weekly that week, and read one of the most elusive, unexpected lightning-bolts of accidental GENIUS I had ever read about movies. I don't even think the columnist quite knew what he'd hit upon either.
But twenty-five years of quoting and expanding upon the theory later, it was probably one of the first great influences that set me on the road to Movie Activism, and not following the crowd of entertainment-newsthink. It was like the movie-nut equivalent of the Theory of Relativity.
Video columnist Ty Burr (now critic for the Boston Globe) had been handed the home-theater review for 1991's "Hudson Hawk", only a few months after it'd become one of the biggest theatrical money-losers to date, and since he hadn't already seen it, tried to find a "hook" that would liven up the column.
Trying to put aside the cheap "so bad it's good" angle--which it WASN'T--he asked the simple question, is a Flop a "flop", and if so, how do you know for sure? Maybe it's just "misunderstood"?
For all those years, until the miracle of Google, the Internet and magazine-website archives, I thought I'd never find it again. And now you can read it too:
EW.com - Video, "Hudson Hawk", November 22, 1991
A quick summary for the Too Long, Didn't Read crowd:
A "Box office disappointment" is an otherwise reasonably watchable movie that didn't fare well for reasons beyond its control--bad timing, poor marketing, being put up against tough-competition weekend, etc.--and might be rediscovered later on video.
A "Flop" makes its own mistakes through bad creative decisions at the highest production level, and has no one but itself to blame. And because they have a bad habit of making the same mistakes over and over, you can judge a Flop by testing it against the bad decisions made by other more famous established Flops:
- "The : Is the movie’s very concept ridiculous?test
- The : Was the director given insane license to splurge?test
- The : Is it vanity fare from a star no one dared say no to?" test
For some reason, I remembered the article as being longer. Over the years, every time I quoted the article, more 80's "tests" seemed to crop up in my recollections of EW's '91 column, like:
Moving on from the innocent screenwriter-80's into the corporate-franchise big-studio 90's, 00's and 10's, I was able to apply other more specific tests, like:
- The Godzilla (1998) test: Was a familiar property handled in a willfully wrong or inaccurate tone compared to what the core audience expected? (See also: Batman & Robin, Dark Shadows, Green Lantern, Jem & the Holograms)
- The Lone Ranger test: Was the studio/director so confident that a hit director was reuniting with his star from a previous hit, they tried to change the new film to incongruously copy the earlier one? (See also: Battleship, The Wild Wild West)
- The Green Hornet test: Was a major big-budget studio genre film for a wide mass audience instead given to a director of small, quirky cult films? (See also: Fantastic Four (2015), The Dukes of Hazzard)
A Box-Office Disappointment raised your hopes about it, and circumstances disappointed you.
A Flop, onomatopoetically, trips over its own feet.
Last summer we had a bit of confusion with two of Disney's underperforming movies, which was already news considering they had the monopoly on almost every other hit film that year:
July's "The BFG", directed by Steven Spielberg, had an almost non-opening in fourth place, followed by August's update of "Pete's Dragon" which struggled in third behind two front-loaded cult-films before disappearing without a trace.
In entertainment headlines, that's the stuff that gets reporters to pass the popcorn--The need to validate all good and bad box-office figures as "true", for obviously being the movie's own fault, had analysts dancing around the fires. And when Spielberg's "BFG" unexplainably did poorly, it was a time for vanity-bonfires and crackpot theories.
Variety and other industry sites jumped on the unexpected headlines with bloodlust claiming "Spielberg can't make a summer hit anymore! Is his career over?" (Hey, got a little drool there, might want to...)
It's not a bad film, actually. In fact, it's rather cute: Spielberg had wanted to film the script adaptation by "E.T."'s Melissa Mathison for years, and the project suggests a labor of love after Mathison had passed away during production. JK Rowling had once mentioned wanting Spielberg to direct the first Harry Potter movie, and here, she almost gets her wish--Spielberg gives Tom Hanks a rest and puts aside his usual Jewish/wartime agendas of his past few films, lets Mark Rylance as the title character transform Roald Dahl's nonsense-word jabberwocky into a natural North-country dialect, and turns the keeping-calm and carrying-on of British-fantasy whimsy up to eleven to give us, basically, the Early Harry Potter movie he never made.
So why did the movie do so badly? Here's where we get into the theory of what makes a Disappointment different from a Flop:
First, it had just about the year's worst release date imaginable--Maybe Disney was modestly not expecting their own Pixar's "Finding Dory" to be the year's biggest box-office hit to date, but it certainly couldn't have helped Spielberg's film to be released two weeks later. Many who saw BFG felt it would have done better later in August, when less competition in theaters finds it easier to attract parents with back-to-school kids, as well as end-of-summer audiences who've spent out the tentpole blockbusters and are willing to try something different. Unfortunately, Warner's "Suicide Squad" had the same second idea, and Disney had tried to steer clear...Not to mention, they'd already saved that slot for their own other summer oddity.
Second, the marketing was difficult, as Disney was overestimating the children's-book literacy of the audience--Roald Dahl's book is a staple in England, but over here, not too many Yanks past their fourth-grade reading lists know their Dahl apart from classic Gene Wilder candymakers, giant peaches and smart telekinetic waifs. No one quite knew what a "BFG" was (a Big Friendly Giant, in case you're wondering), and groused that it was the movie's fault for not telling us in the trailer. Thus, they wondered who the funny-looking character with the big ears was, since they had no idea that Rylance's CGI-enhancement had been crafted to resemble Quentin Blake's well-known illustrations from the book.
Do any of these complaints have to do with the movie itself? No. They have to do with the audience, the studio, and the pre-release marketing. And when a movie unfairly suffers for the crimes of the audience and the studio, that's, well...DISAPPOINTING.
Disney's remake of "Pete's Dragon", although it doesn't quite extend far enough into the "mistake" territory of the Flop (at least not as much as the bizarre downbeat bait-and-switch of Disney's flop "Tomorrowland" did the summer before) did rather puzzle its intended audience:
An old-school singing-and-dancing 70's-Disney musical set in a 1900's Maine town was instead turned into a serious realistic TV-styled contemporary non-musical drama--with gripping action climax--with no resemblance to the sentiments of the previous movie, except for the baby-boomer money-title and central concept of a boy and his invisible dragon. Parents wooed by childhood Disney nostalgia were disoriented, and kids who hadn't grown up with their parents' DVD's had to take a relatively generic movie at face value...Along with an even stranger all-CGI virtual-character than just an old grandpa with elephant ears.
Neither movie seems to outright fail any of the Flop Tests, and yet we're left with the sense that Dragon was the guiltier party of the summer--
Many Disappointments find amnesty years after video, with their theatrical numbers long forgotten, while a Flop is when the central reasoning or appeal of the movie itself doesn't make sense, and causes every audience to ask basic questions any normal audience member would ask--Like, "The Lone Ranger rides a freakin' elephant??"
(Or, in the case of Disney's summer movie, "Who the heck ever heard of a FURRY dragon anyway? Seriously. That's like...no. That's even stranger than the 'no musical' thing!")
The point is, every Flop and every Disappointment has to be taken on a case by case basis, and some even manage to have their "criminal records" cleared. The trick is just in knowing which questions to ask.
Years from now, who knows, experience may provide us with even more new tests like,
"- The Fantastic Beasts test: Did merchandising shift and misdirect story focus to minor side franchise characters/details that held no interest for the main audience? (See also: X-Men Origins: Wolverine)", etc., but the theory remains.
The science of forensically testing our "flops" will help determine the Innocent from the Guilty.