Box Office Politics

Why do conservatives make such a big deal out of box office numbers? Over the past month conservatives have been discussing two moves: Bella and Lions and Lambs. They have used the box office numbers of these two movies as the basis for their arguments regarding Hollywood’s leftist-leanings and how it is ignoring the values of the American movies-goers.

Bella is a relatively small film about a young waitress who finds out that she is pregnant and now must choose between aborting the child or struggle as a single mother. She chooses to have the child and story unfolds. The movie has received rave reviews and won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. It had a limited release and all indications are that it is a very good movie and its average gross per screen indicates that it will be a financial success. The number of screens on which it is showing has increased steadily over the last 3 weeks.

Conversely, Lions for Lambs – which I had no interest in seeing – did not do very well at the box office as expected. Having three major stars (Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford), one would think that it is a blockbuster in the making. However, I saw the previews and there was no way that I was going to waste my time with it. Not because of its message, but simply because it didn’t look like a very good movies. Apparently, a lot of people thought as I did.

Do the success of Bella and the flop of Lions for Lambs reflect the values of Americans or their movie taste? I would suggest that it is the latter. If Lions for Lambs was a quality film on par with Heat (Al Pacino and Robert Di Niro) or Hotel Rwanda (Don Cheadle), it would have been a runaway hit. But the story was not interesting and probably and the previews left the impression that that director was heavy-handed in his excution - essentially, putting more energy in making a point than making an entertaining film.

There are some that argue that Bella could be a box office hit had “leftist Hollywood” had the courage to give it a wide release. However, as is the case like many independent films, it has to build a buzz as was the case with Like Water for Chocolate, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and the Sundance favorite, Hustle and Flow.

I do believe Hollywood pushes social commentary with its movies and television programming. African Americans fought the negative imagery and stereotypes portrayed in films and on television for decades. In many instances, we are still fighting negative portrayals of black people. But the success or failure of that fight is not based on box office numbers, nor should it be.

It would not be wise to praise the studios for their movie selections. The same studio that produced the atrocious Booty Call also produced the critically acclaimed Finding Forrester. In the case of Bella, it would not be wise to suggest that the studio has seen the error of its ways and is now supporting life affirming movies – as it is the same studio that has given us one of the most graphic slasher flicks with its Saw series.

There are very few movies that have a social intent other than attracting as many eyeballs as possible. Often times those intentions are well known as is the case with any Michael Moore movie and the Left Behind series. And they tend to do very well at the box office. Most movies, however, the box office numbers are a reflection of marketing, screen numbers and if the movies are worth the price of admission (and the ungodly cost of popcorn).


4 Responses to Box Office Politics

  1. Dee Says:
    I will concede that you make some good points here. Lions for Lambs got terrible reviews and looked like it wasn't well done. But I definitely think there is a sentiment that most Americans do not want to watch a movie that is supposed to be entertainment but instead get a politically correct lecture. One that bashes their own country.

    Most Americans want to believe the best about their country which is why Jimmy Carter failed so miserably and Ronald Reagan did so well. Carter was all doom and gloom and Reagan was optimistic about what potential America had.
  2. James Manning Says:

    you are absolutely right. a movie must be first and foremost, entertaining. there is always an artistic way of making a social commentary with a film, but it has to be subtle and not overtake the what should be an enjoyable 90 minutes at the movies.

    i don't think what someone thinks about america has anything to do with their movie selection. heck, some of the most popular movies in the middle east are american made.
  3. Bloviating Zeppelin Says:
    "Heat"? James, dude, THAT was moviemaking by Michael Mann! What an engaging, edgy, action-packed film!

    Here is what Hollywood doesn't understand: people attend movies to be ENTERTAINED or UPLIFTED; they DO NOT want to be LECTURED by people with Rolexes and bodyguards.

  4. sandy Says:
    BZ nailed it. I go to a movie to be entertained and not preached to.

    I do rely on word of mouth a lot but that also depends on who's mouth the word comes from.

    We all have different tastes and the movies you like may or may not be for me.