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Tales from the box office: The unbearable profitability of bad chick flicks, and does the 'Oscar bump' still exist?

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bounty-hunterImage Credit: Barry WetcherThis weekend, children ruled at the box office, as they so often do. Alice in Wonderland continued to prove that its boisterous, overstuffed, clattery fairy-tale landscape is a giant hit with audiences, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with a very impressive opening, made good on its feisty promise of a socially awkward, quick-brained nerd’s dreams of acceptance. Right now, though, I’d like to take note of a few of the other stories that the box office told this weekend. Stories that aren’t necessarily pretty, but that take the temperature of today’s moviegoers in revealing, and even fascinating, ways. So here goes:

If you build a bad romantic comedy, they will come (sort of). We’re obsessed in this culture with “winners” and “losers,” so the big news about The Bounty Hunter is that it was “beaten” by Diary of a Wimpy Kid (i.e., it happened to make four-fifths of a million dollars less). To me, however, the real news is that another cookie-cutter synthetic-screwball dud, with the charming Jennifer Aniston being abused by the charmless Gerard Butler, the two of them skulking through the rituals of romcom banter like grim soldiers being put through a drill, managed to withstand a fusilade of lousy reviews to do — big surprise — just fine in the marketplace. The point? That when moviegoers, like so many of you on this site, complain, “Why can’t the studios make a romantic comedy that isn’t a borderline insult?” the answer is: “Because the romantic comedies that are insults have no trouble finding an audience.” That said, I do buy the argument (or, at least, I would like to believe) that if The Bounty Hunter had actually been a good movie, it might have done even more business. Does anyone remember Jennifer Aniston’s very first romantic comedy, Picture Perfect (co-starring Jay Mohr), from 1997? It was terrific! I’ve been waiting for her to make a romantic comedy that good ever since, but if The Bounty Hunter holds on (which, of course, it may not), she’ll have that much less motivation to break out of the ghetto of ersatz chemistry and plastic squabbling.

In movies, rock & roll may be sexy, but it’s so not money. This weekend, there were a lot of hopes pinned on The Runaways, and not just because it co-stars a certain actress from a certain popular downbeat Harlequin vampire saga. Dakota Fanning has a fan base too, and the subject matter itself seemed cool enough to be regarded as solidly marketplace-friendly. But The Runaways, let’s not mince words, was a major disappointment, a big mainstream bomb, a total non-event. Yes, it opened on just 244 screens (which may have been a mistake), but its per-screen average of $3,291 was low enough to express an audience sentiment that can be summed up in one word: indifference. What was the problem? I think it comes down to this. Just about everyone I encountered who saw this movie, wanted to see it, or posted a positive message about it had a significant thing in common: They had fond memories of the Runaways. And if you have fond memories of the Runaways, then there’s one thing that can definitively be said about you: You are old! The Runaways rocked out about a million years ago. (In addition, at least to me, they really did have only one good song.) They are, in essence, a novelty act from an ancient time, which is why I can absolutely believe that the target audience for this film — girls who like Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning — couldn’t have cared less about it.

What Oscar bump? Last weekend, March 12-14, was the first weekend after the Academy Awards. Two of the movies that won big, The Hurt Locker and Crazy Heart, were both in theaters. (The Hurt Locker, though already out on DVD, was re-released on about 300 screens in the weeks leading up to the awards.) So you might guess that each of them would have benefited at least a little bit from those monumentally coveted, high-profile victories. Not a chance: The Hurt Locker, last weekend, enjoyed a per-screen average of just $2,372, and Crazy Heart, on 1,361 screens, had an even lower average: $2,208. This weekend, those already low numbers were cut in half. I think these numbers are particularly striking in the case of Crazy Heart, which isn’t out on DVD and had just started to fan out to theaters across the country. It may be no exaggeration to say that five days after it happened, Jeff Bridges’ big Oscar triumph barely sold one ticket to Crazy Heart. The fabled “Oscar bump” hasn’t completely gone away, of course. It’s there, most prominently, in DVD sales and rentals. The Hurt Locker will surely do much more business now than it would have done without its Oscar juggernaut. Still, the lack of passion to go see these movies in theaters, even right after they won those awards, is sobering. It’s a sign of how the game in Hollywood, and among audiences, has changed, and not necessarily for the better.