As predicted, The Dark Knight Rises continued to hold audiences in its grip this weekend, easily defeating a duo of new releases including The Watch and Step Up Revolution. Although both debuts opened to unimpressive numbers, The Watch was the biggest loser of the two. The star-studded sci-fi comedy, which finds a group of suburban middle-aged men having to fend off an alien invasion, grossed a disappointing $13 million, a result that almost guarantees that the film will not recover its $68 million production budget. Although raunchy R-rated comedies had a tough season this summer, The Watch’s trio of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill seemed destined for success, having all succeeded in the realm before with hits like Tropic Thunder, Wedding Crashers, and Superbad. With Seth MacFarlane’s breakout hit Ted finally slowing down, the boys seemingly had the perfect opportunity to capture the adult audience with little disturbance. Here’s what went wrong for the action comedy at the box office:
1) Marketing hell
In a rare occurrence, the Watch became the second movie in a row this summer to be negatively impacted by national events. But while TDKR had to contend with a tragedy on the day of its release, the Watch was doomed by a single news story from several months ago.
The February shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood patrolman George Zimmerman occurred just several weeks after distributor 20th Century Fox unveiled the minute-long teaser for the movie, then called Neighborhood Watch. The controversy that awakened nationwide dominated the news cycle for weeks, sending the studio into a creative tailspin.
The trailer, which featured the stars scaring off neighbors in a suburban vehicle to the tune of a gangsta rap soundtrack, was quickly yanked. The film’s first poster, a bullet-riddled safety sign with a crossed-out burglar, was also abandoned.
The incident left marketing with a mess it was unable to work with. After all, how do you market a movie about a neighborhood watch group when you can’t use the words “neighborhood watch”? How do you sell the flick’s satirization of the vigilante culture when the same topic is drawing protests nationwide?
But the executives are not free from blame either. Their inability to chart a consistent course with the film’s new message ensured The Watch was going to be a box office bomb. The behind-the-scenes drama itself reflects the indecisiveness of the execs. On one end, the title switch from the more enticing Neighborhood Watch shows Fox’s fear of offending the wrong crowd. On the other hand, the studio’s decision to keep the film’s original release date, despite what was guaranteed to be a tricky 3-month marketing campaign that did not offer adequate time to attract an audience, demonstrates a confidence in the picture. Now, both of those decisions look increasingly poor.
The basic marketing principle of keeping a consistent message was violated repeatedly in The Watch’s pitch. Switching the name three months before release is bad enough. But with a message that was first “a neighborhood watch comedy”, then “sci-fi comedy”, and finally “another Stiller / Vaughn / Hill movie”, audiences had no way of figuring out what they were in for. What’s worse, The Watch earned an awful “C+” rating from the audience polling service CinemaScore, which suggests word of mouth will be not be able to save the picture.
If anything, the indecisive marketing of The Watch shows the danger in basing business decisions on a news cycle in which stories rarely live past a week. The decision to pull the controversial trailer and poster had to be based (at least partially) on the Internet’s outcry. Controversies will always be replaced by more controversies, and the Watch should have continued with its original pitch as soon as the Martin story subsided.
Just a week ago, with The Watch expected to debut as high as the mid-20 millions, boxoffice.com editor Phil Contrino expressed doubt about whether the shift in message was the right decision. “When it first came up, the pressure from the public probably felt intense. It was a huge story and they felt, ‘Better safe than sorry.’ But the way news cycles run, everything gets about 15 minutes of attention when people are hot and bothered about a story — and then they forget about it and move on to the next thing.” Audiences will be quick to forget The Watch and move on to the next thing here as well.
2) Comedy actors don’t sell in bulk
OK, so maybe the marketing was all over the place and a savage takedown by the critics further damaged the chances of the R-rated comedy. But Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill are still considered reputable stars who can guarantee a healthy audience. Isn’t stacking a bunch of high-grossing actors who perform well individually into a single picture a formula for success? Not necessarily.
The problem is that audiences for comedic actors tend to overlap rather than bring in more people to theaters. As one executive remarked in Variety, “When you look at those three guys…you’re not getting 1+1+1 equals three, you’re getting the same person.” It explains why the studio’s focus on the actors instead of the comedy failed to catch fire.
The same problem plagued Adam Sandler – Andy Samberg vehicle That’s My Boy earlier in the summer. Marketing bet on the two comedians capitalizing on their favorability with older and younger audiences to woo moviegoers but the flick flopped miserably.
The entire summer has seen dependable performers debut to disastrous numbers, and The Watch will be another nail in the box office star coffin.
Written by Boris Paskhaver