By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 26, 2010 at 04:50 PM EDT

Image Credit: DreamWorks AnimationRemember when movies had legs? For those (few) of you who don’t know the term, that’s Hollywood/insider/Variety-speak for what happens when a movie sustains its popularity — and its box office grosses — over a whole series of weeks, drawing bounteous and enthusiastic new audiences week after week after week, so that its connection to the public effectively takes on a life of its own. Okay, you say, big deal; it’s a very standard term — and a very common thing. People talk about movies having legs all the time. Well, yes, they do. But how often does it really happen? I would argue: Not nearly as often as we think, or say, it does. I would also observe that the relative scarcity of good old-fashioned movies-with-legs says something about where our heavily hyped movie culture is now at.

It did happen over the last month with How to Train Your Dragon, the DreamWorks Animation hit that, in a rare feat of sustained popularity, just topped the box office in its fifth weekend of release. There were, to be sure, other factors at work. The Back-up Plan, Jennifer Lopez’s return to romantic comedy after five years, performed below expectations, and so did one other new movie, the stuff-blows-up-real-good comic-book revenge pulper The Losers (though in that case, the expectations may have been nowhere but in the heads of the film’s producers). Nevertheless, Dragon‘s grosses have remained dazzlingly robust, so that it’s now getting ready to cross the $200 million mark. And that wasn’t necessarily predicted. The movie had to battle Clash of the Titans for 3-D screens, and because it didn’t receive the kind of media love-in that Pixar films do, it had to work harder to earn the perception that it’s a terrific, inventive, rousing movie (which it absolutely is). But audiences have fallen for it, and they keep going.

Why do I say that this doesn’t happen more often? Because the way that our blockbuster movie culture now works, the vast sums of money that movies make are more or less orchestrated to be frontloaded. Movies can still win crowds by word of mouth, but they no longer need to; saturation advertising does the trick nearly as well. And that means that even when a movie makes a lot of money, it can be hard, if not impossible, to measure how much those grosses truly reflect audience enthusiasm.

As an example, take How to Train Your Dragon vs. Clash of the Titans. Dragon, in its opening weekend (March 26-28), made $43.7 million. Clash, in its opening weekend (which was one week later, April 2-4), made $63.9 million. In other words, Clash, by all obvious and objective data, looked like the far bigger movie — and, just as significant, the one with more heat. But now that close to a month has passed, and Dragon has, in fact, made a grand total of $33 million more at the box office than Clash has (in the end, the difference between them will probably be even greater), my question is this: What did those initial boffo grosses for Clash of the Titans really measure? Genuine enthusiasm for the movie on-screen? Or an initial eagerness to see it that wasn’t necessarily matched by the word of mouth that followed? And yet the lack of ultimate enthusiasm for Clash was effectively camouflaged by that tidal wave of money during its first two weekends. Clash is a bona fide hit, but it is not, in any organic, old-fashioned sense, a movie with legs.

So why does this matter? Because knowing which movies people genuinely love, as opposed to the ones that they simply line up for in a rote way, has always been an essential part of popular movie culture. The universe of independent and specialty films makes it a lot easier. There, with far less advertising in play, movies, almost by definition, have to earn their popularity or die, and the films that have legs benefit dramatically from that fact. They go wider, enjoy a longer theatrical life span, and make more of a dent in our cluttered media landscape. With big Hollywood movies, though, it’s increasingly easy to feel that the system has been gamed, that popularity is something that can be bought. What can’t be bought, or conjured through advertising, is true audience love. Money can’t buy you legs.

So which movies can you think of that have genuinely had legs? And which movies have been huge without legs?

Clash of the Titans

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 106 minutes
  • Louis Leterrier