Monday Morning Critic – Mortdecai And Properly Interpreting The False Narrative of Johnny Depp’s Declining Box Office Prowess

MMC

One of the more interesting things to come out of this weekend has been the failure of Mortdecai, another in a string of recent failure at the box office for Johnny Depp. Domestically it bombed, horribly, especially in light of how profoundly American Sniper has been cleaning up at the box office. Sniper has been a black swan of cinema, something we haven’t seen sicne Paranormal Activity first debuted in theaters. People expected Sniper to do well but crossing $160 million in its first two weeks since going wide has been something entirely unforeseen.

It puts an even bigger emphasis on Depp’s failure, which marks his fourth flop in a row. As a lead actor Depp has had some high profile struggles as of late; he’s had a string of films that have failed miserably at the box office and Mortdecai looked like it was going to flop from the first trailer. Throw in a January release date and even with the film’s smaller budget it looked like a mercy release; Depp going direct to DVD would be even worse than flopping into theaters.

Hilary Swank has two Oscars and she’s become a regular staple there; those immune from DTV in Hollywood are few and far between these days. Joe Carnahan couldn’t get Stretch into theatres, having to go direct to Netflix. The list goes on and on, of course, but when you break that DTV the first time as someone of significance it gets much easier to do it again. It’s worse than a flop, I think, in today’s Hollywood if you’ve traditionally been an actor who you have to buy a ticket to see. It’s akin to someone like Floyd Mayweather Jr. going from PPV superstar in boxing to appearing on NBC on Saturday afternoons in front of 30 people in a suburb of Baltimore.

The pressure is on for his tentatively titled Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass right now. It has a release date this fall, and usually high profile crime films tend to be hits. Bulger is still relatively recent news and at a minimum a box office similar to American Gangster ($260 million overall, $130 million domestic) is fairly reasonable. Crime films released around then have a reputation of quality, older audiences will come out to see them and Bulger’s capture has made the film an intriguing one. The Boston mob hasn’t been explored as much as the New York version in biopics. Depending on the budget it might be the right film at the right time for him. But the fallout of another flop in Mortdecai, a screwball comedy seemingly in the Depp wheelhouse, has an interesting question coming out of the fallout.

“Is Johnny Depp still a movie star?”

By that we mean able to continually bring in crowds based on his name alone, something he hasn’t been able to do consistently since he first came into the public spotlight. When he first became famous he was wildly inconsistent in that regard, always the guy that should draw more crowds to talk about him than actually pay to see him. But, much like Tom Hanks in the ’80s, eventually people just accepted him as a drawing movie star because they were told it long enough.

He was always the guy that people liked en masse … but never consistently came out to see in theatres. He turned the corner right around 2001 in consistency, as From Hell kicked off a decade run where he only had one film as a lead actor that didn’t make a ton of money. And The Libertine wasn’t a misfire, just a prestige picture that couldn’t find an audience or a wide release. Depp rode the cinema wave of the 2000s into success that many had wanted for him for so long; he’s also been the highest profile actor to have been hit by the “franchises draw, stars don’t” trend as of late.

From The Rum Diary on Depp has not headlined a film that’s made its budget back. The Lone Ranger flopped … but international grosses kept it from losing an ungodly amount of money. It was the big story of the summer of 2013, of so many films flopping, but the one people didn’t realize is that none of those films lost as much money as we thought because of foreign grosses. They provide the bulk of Hollywood’s revenues and every film that flops in America generally tends to at least get comfortably back near the black because of overseas revenues.

With Mortdecai crashing at the box office the narrative coming out is one where Depp’s drawing power is openly in question now. But here’s the thing: Depp never was someone who drew massive audiences domestically on a regular basis. So to really call him a movie star has been kind of a misnomer because it needs a qualifier. So I’ve come up with one.

Johnny Depp is arguably the most popular and biggest drawing American actor of his generation … if you don’t include America in the equation.

When you look at all of the man’s biggest hits, you’ll notice an interesting trend. For all the big money they made domestically, Depp has traditionally been an actor who draws like gangbusters overseas. Taking a look at his career and you’ll see an interesting trend when you look at some of his hits, and misfires, you’ll see a trend where he mainly has an appeal overseas that has translated domestically on occasion. It’s crazy when you look at a couple examples.

Transcendence hit over $100 million in total revenues against a rumored $100 million budget (not including publicity, advertising and marketing costs) … and made $80 million of it overseas. It still lost a ton of money (a studio gets on average about 65% or so of total box office revenues before taxes) but without the foreign revenues it’s a much bigger loss.

The Lone Ranger hit over $170 million internationally against less than $90 million domestically. An intergalactic level flop, to be sure, but it became a much more manageable loss with its strong international audience.

— Every Pirates of the Carribean film has grossed more overseas than domestically, drawing more of its revenues overseas with each sequel. On Stranger Tides had more than triple its $241 million domestic gross overseas. Expect a similar or bigger disparity from the fifth film in the franchise, set for 2017. Interest in the franchise has waned, significantly, stateside BUT internationally the franchise is proving to have incredible drawing power.

Alice in Wonderland made more than 2/3 of its billion dollars in tickets from overseas viewers. It was a huge hit domestically and an even bigger one in foreign theaters.

Sweeney Todd notched Depp an Oscar nomination … and $100 million of its $150 million revenues overseas.

There have been films where the numbers are close, and in a number of films where he’s done better domestically than internationally, but through the bulk of his career he’s been an actor that’s more in taste internationally than domestically. When you look at his most recent past he’s done so much more internationally than domestically you have to wonder whether or not we misunderstood his appeal. He’s not the quirky movie star with a character actor’s desire to take challenging roles.

He was just the right actor at the right time to ride the foreign revenue surge of box office dollars. And now, as people are being more discriminatory with their ticket purchases, Depp is reduced to a tier slightly above someone like Chris Evans is right now. He’s able to draw more outside of just being Captain Jack … but he hasn’t shown it recently. He’s credited with a bigger performance than he actually has in Into the Woods, as well, so it’s hard to call that a film that relies on him to be successful.

Depp’s drawing power, and ability to take a film to high levels of profitability, mirrors Hollywood’s reliance on foreign revenues to balance the stat sheet. Looking at his resume, and box office receipts, it begs us to reconsider Depp’s surging to the top of Hollywood now that the storyline is one of Depp losing his box office drawing power. Let’s see the foreign receipts of Mortdecai before we declare him dead and buried.

Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq

Noyes tackled a Justice League DVD.

I tackled A Walk Among the Tombstones on Blu-Ray.

And now on MMC … messed up stuff involving KISS and J-Pop.

If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

Boyhood

This week’s DVD – Boyhood

You hear that? That’s the sound of inevitability in this year’s Oscar season. With American Sniper blowing up at the box office, and most of the races seemingly locked up, the big question remains who’ll be this year’s Best Picture winner. There isn’t a front runner and one sort of doubts that a film like American Sniper is going to win the hearts and minds of the Academy. So it leaves a big question in a fairly suspect field.

Boyhood feels like it should take the Oscar, if only because there isn’t any film that’s standing out this Oscar season so far. Selma hasn’t set the world on fire at the box office or with critics, among others, and nothing else in the lineup screams “THIS IS AN OSCAR WORTHY FILM.” Boyhood feels like the ultimate compromise film for a large portion of an Academy that might not have strong feelings towards any singular choice.

The film revolves around a simple gimmick. We see the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up from six years old until he’s an 18 year old college freshman. Except instead of different actors playing Mason Jr, et al, Richard Linklater got Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (Mason Sr. and Mason’s mom, respectively) to film scenes since 2001 per year as we get to see all three age over the years. The dynamics of their family, as Mason Sr. gets his life together and Mason’s mother tries to raise her children despite some good (and bad) choices along the way.

Boyhood is essentially a gimmick film in the vein of the Up series. We get to see Ellar Coltrane grow up, awkwardness and all, as he goes from a six year old to a young man. It’s the type of film that would take 12 years to make, as Linklater spent once a year with his cast to film a moment in Mason’s life for a decade plus, and is a once in a lifetime kind of film for Linklater. One imagines how much patience it took to keep the film moving this slow, with the age progression something being stuck to as Hollywood’s tastes and tastemakers have changed radically since the film began production during the first term of George W Bush’s presidency.

I saw it in theatres and didn’t think the hype behind it was warranted. It was good, at least then, but it wasn’t brilliant. I liked it enough to put it on my Amazon Wishlist but wasn’t going to spend any of my own money on it for full price. Thankfully I’m lucky enough to have family that raid that thing for holidays, thus I was happy to view it again. If only because something bugged me. Some films translate better on DVD, and translate better on a second viewing, and Boyhood is one of them.

On a second viewing there’s so much more about this film that just pops out to view. There’s an interesting dynamic in Mason’s father that really comes out much more. Ethan Hawke starts out as the sort of guy who’s the worst possible person to have a kid with. Unfocused, unmotivated, thinking he’s going to be a famous musician … but without any sort of drive. At the end he’s a young dad who’s ready to be a father for the first time in his life, filled with regret that he was a screw up to the kids he brought into the world. It’s a fascinating piece of work from Hawke, arguably his best performance outside of the Before series, as he slowly turns into a good father from a deadbeat dad. In the end he goes from trying to just be a “cool” dad to trying to be a father imparting what wisdom he has gained from the world onto him, hoping he makes the right choice in life.

There’s something interesting in hearing Mason Sr. tell his son that the man is now was the one his ex-wife should’ve had, not the one she got, and the genuineness of the moment can only come from a place deep inside an actor. One imagines how much the character changed in his mind, and from script to film, over the years as life changed him and the character Linklater both pictured when they took this endeavor on. There’s a sense in the film that the decade of life that everyone lived changed this film’s end point from the one in mind into something much different.

Recommended.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

Black or White – Kevin Costner has an interracial grandkid whose parents got all corpsey. Shenanigans ensue.

See it – Costner has been taking interesting projects as of late and this could be interesting.

The Loft – A bunch of rich, handsome and married guys all rent a loft so they can cheat on their wives ruthlessly. Someone winds up dead.

Skip it – This reeks of the old “someone got screwed over and set them up” cliche.

Project Almanac – Teenagers travel back in time and screw things up.

Skip it – Time travel films on the whole suffer from massive problems, usually, and this looks like one that’ll have them.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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