Geeks on a bad streak at box office

'Scott Pilgrim' numbers reveal a fanboy fickleness

Geeks might be less dependable than gals but not necessarily less desirable.

That's the industry consensus after the simultaneous misfire of a fanboy movie and impressive launch of what only can be described as a chick flick. "Eat Pray Love" enjoyed a boxoffice feast served up by overwhelmingly older-female audiences during the weekend, and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" fought a losing battle to put geek butts in theater seats.

Lionsgate's older-males magnet "The Expendables" topped domestic rankings with a $34.8 million opening, but Sony's book-based "Love" debuted impressively in second place with $23.1 million. The big love for "Love" followed lucrative outings by 2008's "Sex and the City" and "Mamma Mia!" --which fetched $153 million and $144 million in their respective campaigns -- and last year's "Julie & Julia," a $94 million domestic grosser.

The trifecta success of such female-targeting films makes it plain there is boxoffice gold in the gender genre. (Opening audiences for "Love" were 72% female, with 60% of patrons 25 or older.)

So niche pics can be lucrative. But what's up with the penny-pinching geek squad?

Universal's "Pilgrim" traveled to just $10.6 million in a fifth-place launch. The studio puts the pic's negative cost at $60 million after accounting for $25 million in tax credits.

"If that film had been made for $15 milion-$20 million, nobody would be crying," an executive at a rival studio said Monday. "But you have an offbeat movie with an offbeat title starring somebody who is sort of a niche-targeted guy to begin with."

Michael Cera's topline turn in the comics-spawned "Pilgrim" followed his roles in indie fare including this year's "Youth in Revolt," a $15.3 million domestic performer for Dimension, and "Paper Heart," which took in less than $2 million for Overture after unspooling in August 2009.

Even Cera's pairing with Jack Black in Sony's $43 million grosser "Year One" last summer represents mere chump change compared with his $144 million and $122 million outings among the ensemble casts of Fox Searchlight's "Juno" and Sony's "Superbad," respectively, in 2007. By contrast, "Love" boasts the marquee magic of Julia Roberts and is based on a best-seller.

But the question remains: If all creative and marketing considerations are equal, is the audience for a geek-seeking pic as big as that for a chick flick?

"'Watchmen' opened to $55 million, so I think the answer is yes," a distribution executive mused. "Geeks can still rule, no question about it."

With a production budget estimated at $130 million, Warner Bros.' comics-based "Watchmen" was considered a disappointment in fetching less than $108 million last year during its domestic run. But its big opening hinted at the enormous potential of fanboy movies that can tap into broader groups of moviegoers via positive word-of-mouth and mount leggy theatrical runs.

Warners' "The Matrix" did just that. The 1999 Keanu Reeves starrer rang up $171 million domestically and spawned two sequels.

"You can get lucky and hit like a 'Matrix' or a 'Watchmen,' or you can get unlucky and have a 'Scott Pilgrim,' " one industryite said with a shrug.

The latter pic is expected to struggle to get past even $30 million domestically after opening so poorly. Its lack of commercial appeal might be conceptual in part. Directed by Edgar Wright ("Hot Fuzz"), "Pilgrim" displays a quirky campiness that played well with critics but calls to mind the critically lauded but commercially limited "Kick-Ass," the Nicolas Cage starrer that Lionsgate unspooled in April and fetched $48 million in total U.S. and Canadian coin. That put the modestly budgeted actioner into profitability but lagged prerelease expectations for the fanboy romp.

"Pilgrim" is about a teen who must battle his girlfriend's seven evil exes to win her heart. The film co-stars include Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans and Jason Schwartzman.

One film producer suggested the pic would have been better served offering more of a date-movie vibe and leaning less on "geeky, kung fu movie" elements.

Still, not even the core audience is guaranteed to show up if geek-seeking pics fail to heed fanboy sensitivities in transferring characters and story lines from the comic book page to the silver screen. To wit: Warners' Josh Brolin starrer "Jonah Hex" took in less than $11 million overall domestically after triggering fanboy ire this summer.

Promoted heavily at Comic-Con, "Pilgrim" played well with its core audience but drew few outside the fan base. Opening audiences skewed 64% male, with 58% of patrons under 25.

"They made a movie that was too niche, too geeky and too hipstery," an exec at a rival studio said. "You can't count on the comic to draw the audience."

Borys Kit contributed to this report.
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