We’re less than a month away from the Academy Awards, one weekend away from Ryan Reynolds’ and Deadpool and something curious is coming out: a Coen brothers film. You’d expect it to already have been out and in contention for awards; the Coens are a known commodity and when they make a movie it’s usually a lock for awards contention. Considering this is a screwball comedy involving old Hollywood, and the studio system, you’d think that Hail, Caesar! would be working its way into a wide distribution in a platform releasing pattern.
The fact that it’s going wide now, in February, is a curiosity that bears exploring.
It’s not a January release, which is the “we’re doing this so we don’t go direct to video, just a couple weeks to video” kiss of death. Mainly January serves as a time when people watch the remainder of the Oscar releases that are just finding their way into wide release or the big hit of December. The latest Star Wars is still a top five grossing film as it rounds third en route to $900 million domestic and grossed an inordinate amount of that in January. It’s slowing down but the fact that it’s not advertising and still grossing more than a number of wide releases tells you everything to know.
February begins the cinema year, properly, and the month roars out with two anticipated films. Hail, Caesar! is one of them, with Deadpool being the other, and it feels off because it shouldn’t be making its debut so early in the year. This should be a film finally going wide in anticipation of the Oscars and yet the Coens are having their film dropped so early in the year. By the end of 2016 no one will remember it for awards consideration, most likely, either.
It leads me to think there are a couple things going on.
The first is that Universal thinks this is a stinker and is trying to avoid the taint of a January release. Films don’t really start getting serious until March, when the Man of Steel sequel kicks the year into gear, and thus anything before Deadpool that wasn’t 13 Hours will probably be long forgotten by the end of the year. If this is a bad film then it’ll be forgotten quickly. There’s a tacit acknowledgement among film fans and the creators of cinema that the first three months of the year will contain more misses than hits because the focus is on the summer and winter. The summer pays the overhead, the winter is about the spoils of prestige and we all kind of accept it.
The only exception is that around Christmas is a sort of mini-summer for the most commercial of prestige releases, of course, but Hollywood operates in seasons. And the first two months of the year is a toilet that someone forgot to flush; usually it smells and we all pretend it never happened. So dumping the film here, after January and avoiding the stink of “wait for it on DVD in February,” feels like an attempt at minimizing the pain. No one will remember it if it’s bad, of course, because a bad February film doesn’t quite feel as awful as a bad January film.
It’s like the difference between drinking a Miller Lite and a terrible microbrew. You kind of expect the Miller Lite to be terrible because it’s the kind of beer mouth-breathing idiots’ drink. You’re disappointed in the micro brew but they tried, at least, to make something good. You’ll forget about it because we all have experiences with bad beer from a small company. You never forget having to drink a Miller Lite because it’s all they had in the same way people bought tickets for Ride Along 2 because they had a little cabin fever and needed to get out of the house. You know a Miller Lite is going to be terrible going in, like Ride Along 2, and the goal is to just suffer in silence.
You can suffer through a bad February film, like if Deadpool winds up being a stinker, because it least it didn’t have a summer blockbuster hype machine behind it. They’re at least trying harder than going “Hey Kevin Hart, want some money?”
The other thing I keep thinking is that someone thinks this is more of a commercial release than a critical one, aiming to try and find the sweet spot before the spring kickoff of blockbuster season and the end of The Force Awakens being a box office gorilla to find a place to make a ton of money. But here’s the thing: Screwball comedies set during that time period generally don’t draw a ton. Which is why trying to posit this as an alternative to the garbage of January and the 2015 holdovers is a potentially curious one. The screwball comedy hasn’t really found an audience as of late.
The last one that hit box offices en masse was Leatherheads, also starring George Clooney, and it had a respectable $40 million plus gross all told. It lost money, a whole ton of it, but it was a fun little film. People just didn’t want to see a screwball about the origins of professional football like Clooney thought they would. So a screwball comedy about old Hollywood doesn’t feel like it’s going to be doing gangbusters at the box office, either.
It leaves Hail, Caesar! in an interesting spot. I’ll be very curious how it winds up by the end of the year.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .
Tags: Coen Brothers, George Clooney, Hail Caesar!, Monday Morning Critic