The Flip Side Of A Flop

Four days before the Walt Disney Co. opened "Monsters, Inc.," Attorney General John Ashcroft went on national television to alert the country of the potential for "additional terrorist attacks." The vague--and, to some, chilling--warning did little to deter moviegoers. Disney's computer-animated comedy surpassed the studio's projections by more than $20 million, grossing $62.6 million, the fifth-best opening weekend of all time.

Three weeks earlier, on the very Friday that MGM debuted "Bandits," the news media was in a frenzy over anthrax scares in New York, with anchorman Tom Brokaw's assistant testing positive for exposure and The New York Times evacuating a newsroom after a suspicious letter arrived with white powder. "Bandits," which had been forecast by its makers to take in as much as $20 million in its first weekend, collected just $13 million. Before the weekend was even over, MGM was blaming the lackluster performance of its Bruce Willis movie on fears of the dangerous spores. Bob Levin, MGM's distribution chief, told The Associated Press: "A lot of people just didn't want to go out of the house."

So how does a letter-delivered attack against a handful of people in the news media cripple one film, while a national warning of imminent violence have no discernible consequence on another?

MGM's critics say blaming anthrax for the meager returns of "Bandits" was desperate and embarrassing, noting that other recent films aimed at a similar adult audience--most notably "Training Day" and "K-Pax"--sold tons of tickets while "Bandits" struggled. Even a casual analysis of box-office numbers suggests that anthrax could not be solely responsible for "Bandits" generating but 65 percent of the business MGM expected of it. The total tickets sold by all the top 50 films was only down marginally the weekend "Bandits" premiered, from $91.4 million the previous weekend to $85.6 million. In other words, people kept going to the movies. They just didn't go to MGM's movie.

But others say the initial anthrax scare did indeed cut into attendance, especially on the Friday that "Bandits" debuted, Oct. 12. Says Jeff Goldstein, whose Warner Bros. released "Training Day" a week earlier, "We got hurt a little bit, particularly in Eastern cities, because of the day's news." The question, of course, is why anthrax would have hurt "Bandits" more than it hurt "Training Day." MGM believes that adult white moviegoers--the core audience for "Bandits"--were more likely to be affected by the news. "Training Day," by MGM's logic, appealed more to younger audiences and African-Americans, whom people within the studio say were less worried about anthrax.

Soon after "Bandits" opened, MGM conducted a telephone survey of moviegoers, trying to establish the impact anthrax coverage might have had on its film in its debut weekend. In the poll--the findings of which were not released to the public--the studio claims they found that 22 percent of general moviegoers didn't go to the multiplex that weekend because of current events while nearly 60 percent of people planning to see "Bandits" stayed home for the same reason. "To tell you the truth," says Ashok Amritraj, one of the film's producers, "I wouldn't have gone to a movie that weekend. I wanted to be with my family."

But even if you believe MGM's survey numbers, it doesn't fully explain why the movie fizzled. The real problem, it seems, is that "Bandits" wasn't simple-minded enough and became a round peg in Hollywood's square marketing hole.

Directed by Barry Levinson and written by television veteran Harley Peyton, "Bandits" follows prison escapees Joe Blake (Willis) and Terry Lee Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) as they return to a life of crime. The modern-day Butch & Sundance duo fall in love with a woman they kidnap (Cate Blanchett) as they don bad disguises and rob banks along the West Coast. While critics were mixed on the movie, "Bandits" did generate strong reviews from USA Today, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, Elle, Vanity Fair and Mademoiselle magazines. All the good reviews, however, couldn't overcome a fundamental "Bandits" problem: MGM never really figured out how to sell it.

When you have a stupid comedy like "American Pie" or "Scary Movie," it's easy to put together a trailer or a television ad to sell the movie: cut together some sex gags, throw in some hip music, and start printing tickets. The same is true for an action drama--just switch the T&A jokes for exploding cars and slow-motion martial arts. But what do you do when you have a smart action-romance-crime drama-comedy that may be too sophisticated for the mainstream?

MGM decided to focus on the film's laughs, which work in the context of the movie but make scarce sense in a 30-second ad. So the commercials trying to make "Bandits" look funny instead made the film look forced and ham-fisted. And people who might have been interested in a Bruce Willis action story took one look at the goofy ads and stayed away. In effect, rival studios say, MGM alienated its entire audience in one shot. According to "Bandits" audience interviews conducted in three cities by Cinemascore.com, a mere 28 percent of the "Bandits" audience "couldn't wait" to see the film. By comparison, 63 percent of those attending "Monsters, Inc." felt the same way about that movie.

So why did MGM's marketing department put the onus on anthrax? It's bad form in Hollywood to blame the movie, because by so doing you disparage the instincts and tastes of the studio's top executives and its filmmakers and stars. You also can't blame the marketing itself, as that would be admitting you didn't do your own job very well. Anthrax may have had a minor impact on the film's performance. But in the end it was more of a convenient explanation than a curse.