Box Office Special - Zombieland Needs No Bailout

After a little unscheduled break, the Box Office Special is back. And after a messy streak of flops, horror looks to be back too, with "Zombieland" flying out of the gates with a number one finish in its opening weekend. Let's catch up with a handy little chart:

Since the end August we've been on something of a horror binge: six releases starting with "Halloween 2" and "The Final Destination," and culminating this weekend with "Zombieland." While "TFD" and "H2" got things off to a fine start by combining for over $43 million, audiences have shown a shocking lack of fatigue. First, "Sorority Row," a trite and bawdy slasher, barely cracked the $5 million mark in a sixth place finish. We all have off weeks though, and it's not like this was a particularly strong horror offering.

The bigger shock came a week later when the much-anticipated follow-up film of Oscar winner Diable Cody -- starring none other than the current "it" girl -- failed to set fans' hearts aflutter. It's tempting to say that mixed reviews hurt "Jennifer's Body," which seemed to have everything a horror film could need for success. Hell, the title and title-character herself were probably expected to carry this one. But if we take a 9/3 New York Times article about the development of "Jennifer's Body" at face value, there are some larger questions about the film's failure that present themselves.

Two quotes in particular from writer Michelle Orange's piece "Taking Back the Knife" interest me in particular. First, she writes, "Recent box office receipts show that women have an even bigger appetite for [horror] films than men." This fact is dropped without much support, followed by a couple of explanatory theories. Orange then quickly moves on to discuss both "Body" and other recent films, including "Halloween 2." While the substantive arguments presented throughout the article are certainly up for debate, if this audience make-up fact is accurate, it marks a pretty substantial shift in the horror-watching demographic.

Holding this thought for a second, the second quote is equally informative about "Body's" struggles: "Perhaps more familiar now with extreme horror films than with the genre's classics, most test audience members couldn't name a single movie analogous to 'Jennifer’'s Body' ..." While she goes on to compare it to De Palma's "Carrie," the point is already made: producers had a tall order on their hands with "Jennifer's Body." The fact that test audiences can't peg it as similar to something else means that the film was facing an uphill battle from the beginning.

Orange tries to pitch "Jennifer's Body" as primed for success (this was a full two weeks prior to release) based on the fact that it wasn't part of the horror trend she calls "like pornography, mainly a cinema of graphic escalation." Leaving aside this statement's accuracy, the problem is that while Cody and director Karyn Kusama may have been consciously attempting to step outside the horror mainstream, Fox was shoving the film back into it with the promotional campaign the pushed Megan Fox and bloody boys. The real question that should be asked, in light of the film's relative failure -- it was shot for $16 million, so it's not exactly a bomb -- is: was marketing to a "traditional" horror audience to blame for it's failure to connect with female viewers, or was the film itself simply not appealing to female horror fans? Did Cody and Kusama miss the point by aiming at a horror audience that doesn't exist? All of this is, quite literally, academic at this point. We're about two weeks from "Jennifer's Body" being off the map entirely, though it will be interesting to see if foreign audiences respond differently to the film than did the American crowds.

The final film in the run up to "Zombieland's" breakout was "Pandorum." There the failure to draw any semblance of an audience could be attributed to any number of things: poor reviews, serious lack of marketing, ambiguous genre clarification, etc. One thing that we definitely need to consider though is horror fatigue. At first, I was skeptical, but breaking down the sheer number of releases, it's easy to see how fans might be getting a little worn out, or maybe more accurately, spent-out. "Pandorum" was the 17th horror film to be released wide in 2009, give or take one or two depending on how you classify things. Compare that to last year, which saw a total of 14 wide horror releases all year. Of course, "Zombieland's" success flies in the face of any suggestion of fatigue. But what makes this week's release different is that it cuts through the genre with humor, something "Jennifer's Body" feinted at, but didn't do with nearly as much gusto.

We've still got half a dozen horror releases slated for release this year, so it will be interesting to see if fans rediscover their hunger for some more straight-forward, dare I say, generic horror. I'm thinking specifically of "Saw VI," which represents a half-decade of "Saw" films. It'll also be interesting to see whether PG-13 horror, something we haven't even talked about in months, can find fans when the remake of "The Stepfather" hits theaters in two weeks.

Jon Schnaars

Writer/Podcast Co-Host/Business Guy

If you have questions about doing business with BGH, this is the man to speak with. Jon also enjoys the fancier things, like monocles and silent-era horror films.

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