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Does a Canadian Setting Spell Box-Office Disaster?
…considering "Scott Pilgrim", "Splice" and others



 

I've added a post-script to this essay at the bottom of the page.

The success or failure of a movie sometimes relates not to how good a movie is -- but how good we perceive it to be. That is, there are lots of movies which I’m pleasantly surprised to discover I enjoyed a lot more than I expected to. But in most cases, if you don’t expect a movie to be good -- if you don’t anticipate enjoying it -- then you simply stay home. So previews, commercials, interviews and articles and, yes, critical reviews, can all lead to us forming opinions long before we’ve actually seen a movie and will factor into our decision as to whether we’ll even bother to see it.

There is, of course, the “word of mouth” concept. Movies that actually build up momentum after they’ve already opened, because the first wave of ticket buyers tells their friends how good it was.

The flip side is movies that open well, then die quickly. In that case, it could be argued the anticipation of how good a movie would be exceeded the reality -- likewise, TV series can premiere with stellar ratings, only to see them drop precipitously. Networks are often quick to trumpet first episode ratings, forgetting that that is merely a mark of how much the audience was interested in the premise…it’s the subsequent ratings that will tell how much they enjoyed the actual realization of that premise. Likewise, TV series can start out with low ratings that slowly build, presumably an indication the basic premise didn’t seem that interesting, but word of mouth spread that the execution of the premise was worth checking out.

It’s worth thinking about because of a comment left on this site’s message board (Dreambook) by someone called “Boris” who pointed out the disappointing box office of the recent Canadian movies “Splice”, “Chloe”, “Gunless”, and the US film “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”…all of which, surprisingly, admitted on screen that they were set in Canada.

“Boris” said: “if a Canadian setting doesn’t affect box office” how can we explain their failure?

Now, for those who came in late (as The Phantom would say), you have to understand the context of that question. Namely that for decades the common thinking in Canada was that to achieve commercial success, a Canadian must set their story somewhere other than Canada…preferably the U.S. So many of our novelists and filmmakers have often followed this thinking, essentially pretending they were American and creating an invisible Canada in their fiction. To my mind that’s creatively suspect and culturally self-defeating as it means, even if a Canadian movie is a success, it doesn’t really pave the way for later Canadian movies…because no one really knew it was Canadian. Even Canadian songwriters often follow this model, peppering their lyrics with American references and allusions, in their quest for pop stardom -- and which is why I can get a certain smug satisfaction hearing ’60s super star Donovan cover Buffy St. Marie’s “Universal Soldier” and sing in his Scottish lilt about “he’s fighting for Canada” or that icon of Americana, Johnny Cash, cover Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and sing in his gravely Southern twang about going out to Alberta! Clearly the Canadian references didn’t hurt those songs’ appeal for non-Canadian performers.

I’ve long stood against that school of thought that Canadians must hide their Canadianness to be successful -- but it’s like trying to keep my footing in a wind tunnel of opposition. A few years back, I even wrote a whole essay, crunching a few numbers, in an effort to prove there wasn’t any great evidence to suggest that a Canadian movie that is set in the US will perform significantly better than one that is set in Canada. I even, somewhat cheekily, pointed out that a disproportionate number of Canada’s biggest successes on TV and in the theatres actually admitted they were Canadian. And this was even before TV’s “Flashpoint” (the Toronto-set series about a police tactical squad) which airs on American prime time!

Some people have misconstrued my comments -- either because they were unaware of the surrounding debate (that I was basically arguing against an entrenched and dominant thinking that had shaped and controlled Canadian entertainment for decades) or because they were deliberately trying to misrepresent my point. Or, to be fair, maybe I just expressed myself poorly.

Admittedly, this may be starting to change -- however gradually. TV’s “Flashpoint” is set in Canada. And while the trend is still toward a “soft” Canada, with series like “Rookie Blue” not exactly trumpeting their Canadianness, it’s still a far cry from a few years ago when a series like “Rookie Blue” would’ve been set explicitly in New York, with U.S. flags draped over every desk, and a few American actors brought up to star.

So…

That brings us to “Boris” and his comment about “Splice”, “Chloe”, “Gunless” and “Scott Pilgrim”. We’ll sidestep the question of box office success/failure (I don’t know how much most of those movies cost, how much they grossed, or how much they were hoping to make) and just agree that, at least, none were a runaway hit. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure if “Boris” even wanted a serious response, given he had earlier posted odd messages seeming to intimate that I was involved in a sinister cover up to conceal the poor box office of these films (this is only my -- what? -- fifth essay this year, and yet he thinks there's something suspicious because I hadn't written about a given topic?). But still, I thought it was worth looking at the issue one…last…time. “Boris” (and no doubt others) attributes the poor box office of these films to the Canadian setting. And I say: really? Really? You can’t think of anything else that might be a bigger factor?

And that’s why I want to talk about perception. I want to consider these movies precisely because I haven’t seen them! That is, I’m deliberately NOT saying whether these are good movies or bad movies -- I’m merely considering them from the surrounding publicity and reviews. I’m merely considering whether they SEEM like good movies.

And the truth is, with the exception of “Gunless”, none of these movies particularly piqued my interest.

(And it’s worth adding a note here about the fact that I haven’t seen them, as from time to time some overzealous Canadian film person will attack me for not having seen such-and-such a film in a quick and timely fashion. And all I can say is: yup. If you can look at this site, at all the thousands of hours I’ve devoted to watching Canadian film and TV, and say I haven’t done my part for Queen and Country then, hey, so be it).

Anyway…

“Gunless” -- a comedy about a rough n’ tumble American wild west outlaw stranded in a quirky, polite Canadian border town -- sounded like a cute idea, and like it could be an entertaining way to kill a few hours. It stars the generally reliable Paul Gross. The main mark against it (to my mind) was the premise maybe sounded a bit too cloyingly self-conscious of its “Canadianness”, and the commercials did, indeed, look cute…rather than out-and-out funny. (Though I do know someone who liked it enough that she bought the DVD). Critical reviews? Mixed. TV Commercials? Yes -- I saw some TV ads. It's also worth noting that, looking back through my files, I came upon a draft of an essay that I never posted -- commenting on problems I perceived with the marketing for "Gunless". In other words, even before I knew how well the movie would or wouldn’t do, I felt there were problems with how it was being presented!

As for the rest of the movies…I dunno.

“Chloe” sounded a bit like an erotic-thriller that would’ve had whiskers on it fifteen years ago. From the description (a woman investigates, suspecting her husband was having an affair) it didn’t really sound that intriguing (I‘m not even sure how much of a “thriller” it was). And it was directed by Atom Egoyan, a director whose style I don’t generally like (the way he directs his actors -- somnambulant and poker faced -- and the way he sets up a scene) and whose previous erotic-thriller, “Where the Truth Lies” was, to my mind, risible (and for the record, it was set in the US…and also faired poorly at the box office). Nothing much to get excited about. Admittedly, I do like imported Hollywood actress Julianne Moore and, hey, the promise of Moore in a girl-on-girl sex scene certainly has its appeal…though even then, her co-star, American Amanda Seyfried, an actress with whom I’m unfamiliar, didn’t necessarily strike me as that attractive in the commercials (I’m not saying she’s not brilliant, or wouldn’t be attractive once she’s playing a scene, imbuing her role with life and personality -- but remember, I’m talking perception of the movie, not the movie itself). Critical reviews? Mixed. TV Commercials? None that I recall.

“Splice” is a sci-fi/horror film that, at first glance, sounded like just an episode of the 1990s revival of The Outer Limits…a TV series I regarded as pretty dull and derivative itself. It’s directed by Vincenzo Natali, who directed the movies “Cube” and “Nothing”, neither movie good -- nor bad -- enough to really influence whether or not I want to see his latest film. And it stars American actor Adrien Brody and Canadian Sarah Polley -- again, neither bad, yet neither necessarily enticing. Indeed, I’ll be completely up front and say I have a certain ambivalence toward Polley. Not that she’s a bad actress -- quite the opposite. Polley’s almost too good…at playing characters I don’t necessarily like. Characters she’s played that are supposed to be raw and obnoxious in a loveable way…just come across as raw and obnoxious. Again, I’ll repeat -- I think Polley is a very good actress…I’m just mixed on her as a movie star. Critical reviews? Generally good. TV Commercials? None that I recall.

I might also point out science fiction movies (at least those that aren’t big budget action flicks), westerns, and mainstream erotic dramas all tend to have an uneven track record at the box office anyway.

Then we get to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, the only US film in this batch, but still set in Canada. Patriotically I was a bit interested in the film, because though I had heard of the Scott Pilgrim comics (well regarded in US circles) it wasn’t till the movie came out that I realized the comics were Canadian, and how cool was that? A Canadian comic, set in Canada, made into a movie starring a Canadian actor (Michael Cera)…by Hollywood! But despite largely universally good reviews…my perception of the actual film is a bit vaguer. Even after all the praise, I’m not sure what it is. Is it a comedy? An action movie? The premise seems kind of surreal, yet it’s also supposed to be rooted in a kind of kitchen sink realism. The commercials frankly look more cute than funny. It’s a movie that sounds a bit like something you see if you want to take a chance on something “different” -- which is great! But you can maybe forgive a fickle audience for waiting for the DVD rental. Critical reviews? Mainly very good. TV Commercials? Yes.

With Scott Pilgrim, the reviewers often seemed to praise its innovation, its technical imagination, and the way scenes are filmed. In other words, some of the reviews seem more impressed with how the movie is put together…than in the story/characters at the heart of it. And maybe that’s a recurring theme with many of these movies. The reviews of Splice seemed to indicate even the heroes…were in fact kind of twisted and creepy. Likewise, Chloe seemed to treat the characterization as abstractions (a hallmark of Egoyan’s work) where you’re supposed to be fascinated by observing the characters…rather than care about or identify with them. In other words, all three movies -- based, remember, on my perception from reviews and commercials rather than on the movies themselves -- seem more concerned with form, rather than content. Content being plot, being character, being the things that touch us emotionally and make us want to spend two hours in a dark theatre.

The point is, none of these films necessarily look bad, or like they couldn’t be entertaining…but none necessarily look like a guarantee of a good time, either. In fact a common factor is that few of the clips from these films -- whether in the commercials, or aired during reviews, or even quotes from scenes repeated in the newspapers -- really stood out. The fact that for two of the films I don't recall seeing any commercials either means there were no commecials, so they weren't well promoted -- or there were commercials, but they were unmemorable. Sometimes what makes you want to see a movie is just that really funny one-liner, or a mysterious image, or that really cool looking scene in the commercial (scenes that might turn out to be less cool seen in the context of the full film!) And honestly -- I don't recall anything like that for any of these films.

So does any of this mean anything? Yes…and no. I’m not saying whether these are good movies or not. I may well love them all when I get around to seeing them! BUT…I am offering up personal observations as to why the audience might not have flocked to them. Observations that you, dear reader, might not agree with. Some are purely personal reactions to certain actors and filmmakers -- ironically, the fact that I am familiar with Atom Egoyan’s past films maybe made me more skeptical about Chloe in a way someone who had never heard of Egoyan wouldn’t be.

One can debate back and forth endlessly. Looking at Splice I might say Adrien Brody isn’t necessarily a box office draw. Someone might counter he just starred in the successful Predators. I might counter did people go to it because Brody was in it…or because it was a Predators movie? And so on. I’m sure I’ll take it in the neck from Sarah Polley fans! And no doubt someone will point out that I did say Gunless piqued my interest, and it still faired poorly, as “proof” that I’m wrong. But the point is -- it moderately piqued my interest. That’s all. And the reviews it received were decidedly mixed. More to the point:

Movies bomb all the time -- even Hollywood movies. Even Tom Cruise movies!

And the funny thing is, I’m not saying there isn’t a hurdle to overcome when people identify something as “Canadian”. But I will say two things. Firstly: if Canadian movies have a bad reputation, it’s the fault of Canadian filmmakers -- even those who make movies that pretend they’re set in the US. The key isn’t to pretend your film isn’t Canadian…they key is to make better movies to ameliorate the rep of Canadian films. Secondly: I’ll actually go farther than most in saying that Canadians face an obstacle by putting a name to it: racism. Even those Canadians who argue there is a stigma to Canada shy away from using that ugly word…partly because often those who argue there is a stigma themselves like to encourage it…I suppose because unlike skin colour, they can stop being Canadian any time they want just by moving to another country! But I will be bold and call it out for what it is: bigotry. You can’t read some reviews -- whether they be professional pieces, or internet message boards -- and be unaware there’s more fuelling the opinion than simply a reaction to a few hours of celluloid. Just glancing at some (American) reviews of the recent TV series “Flashpoint” and “Rookie Blue” there is a condescension and even bile that seems all out of proportion to the programs themselves. Yet both “Flashpoint” and “Rookie Blue” enjoy solid US ratings. In other words, though there is bigotry and prejudice and, yes, hatred (disguised behind patronizing barbs and “good natured” put downs) directed at Canada from some quarters of the US, it’s hardly universal, with millions of other Americans happy to tune into those shows every week -- proving Canadian actors in a Canadian setting can gain a US audience.

For that matter, I’m doubtful the Canadian setting hurt the films we’re looking at partly because I’m doubtful most people who went/didn’t go even realized most of them were set in Canada, or were even Canadian movies (most featured some, if not mainly, imported Hollywood actors). But even if the Canadian setting was a factor…was it a significant factor? Are we supposed to bypass the plots, the scripts, the direction, the actors, the advertising and promotion -- are we supposed to bypass all that and say, gosh, it must’ve been the Canadian setting alone that killed them? Because the corollary of that is, if the exact same films had been set in New York or Los Angeles, they would’ve been a success. And given the box office failure of literally decades of Canadian movies set in the US…I’m just not convinced.

So will my writing this change anyone’s mind? I doubt it, as I’ve been repeating these same points for years and people just hear what they want to hear, and ignore what they don’t. I know I’m getting jaded and cynical, but I sometimes suspect the motives of people when they try and engage in these debates -- that if I say “black”, they’ll pretend they hear “white”, if I say “up” they’ll claim I said “down”. No doubt people will accuse me of saying a Canadian setting guarantees box office success -- I’m not. No doubt conservatives will accuse me of being anti-American for saying most Canadian movies should be about Canada and/or Canadians -- when most US movies are about the US, most British movies are about the UK. No doubt artistes will take exception to my saying “Scott Pilgrim” looked “different” as being an attack on creativity -- when I’m not saying anything is wrong with being experimental, just that it might be a harder sell commercially.

My point is, and has always been, this: to blame a Canadian setting for a film’s poor box office, or to suggest setting it in the US would make it successful, just isn’t supported by much empirical evidence. Are we really to believe that most people flip through the movie listings, and say, “Gee, hon, this movie looks really good -- interesting and exciting and entertaining. But it’s set in Canada, so out of spite let’s stay home.”? Or is it more likely the movie itself just never quite inspired them?

If a cowboy is found trampled at a rodeo, rule out the horses before you start hunting for a zebra. And if a movie underperforms at the box office, there are a lot of potential culprits we have to go through before we need to blame a setting that may or may not have been explicit anyway.

So set the movie in Canada…just make it a good movie, an interesting movie, and promote it right.

POST-SCRIPT July 10, 2011: I posted this piece in response -- in part -- to someone who had signed my guestbook, and who cited the above four films as "proof" a Canadian setting is death at the box office. Despite a certain skepticism on my part toward the commentator (given some other messages he'd left) I decided to assume his sincerity and address his examples -- sight unseen, as I acknowledge. Well, recently I got around to seeing Splice and -- surprise! surprise! -- it WASN'T set in Canada. Or, to be more accurate, it doesn't ever indicate it IS set in Canada (that I noticed) and at one point the characters measure temperature in Fahrenheit, not Celsius, seeming to imply a U.S. setting. (Actually, I'm pretty sure that real life American scientists use metric, so one could argue the filmmakers were really stretching to imply a U.S. setting). Far from being too Canadian, one could argue Splice is an example of a "Hollywood North" movie...featuring a top-billed American actor (Brody) and with an implied U.S. setting...and it faired poorly at the box office.

So you see why I say getting dragged into these debates can be frustrating? Did the original poster just so assume his thesis that he blithely ignored Splice's lack of Canadian markers on screen -- or did he notice, but deliberately chose to misrepresent the film to score points, presupposing I was chump enough to take his word for it (which turned out to be a canny supposition on his part!)?

And just continuing my point about other factors involved in a movie's success or failure besides a (non-existent) Canadian setting, looking at posted comments for Splice at the IMDB, some liked it, some didn't...but those who didn't like it criticized its themes, its characters, its execution...but not too many criticized it for being Canadian. So, again, I repeat: why look for zebras when there are horses milling about?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

September 9, 2010

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