Are the Movie’s Underwhelming Box Office Numbers Due to a Wrong-Headed Marketing Campaign?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is widely seen as a box office disappointment. Instead of quickly achieving its anticipated blockbuster status, it generated ‘only’ $19.4 million in revenue over the 4-day holiday opening weekend. Even Alvin and the Chipmunks did better. Over the New Year’s holiday it did $16 million, still behind those pesky chipmunks and now a war horse.

It’s “the equivalent of a lump of coal, especially for a film that brings along this much fanfare,” opined Jeff Bock of the box office site Exhibitor Relations to E!.

So what went wrong? And has the weak start really doomed its success?

To begin with, the movie scored but a modest 74% positive among the “top critics” polled by RottenTomatoes.com. Also, it is not hard to understand why many would rather spend their holiday weekend seeing the cartoon-like, hyper pyrotechnics of a Mission: Impossible or Sherlock Holmes than a drawn out locked-room mystery set in a cold, wintry Swedish countryside that features graphic sexual violence.

Other possible reasons:

  • The Swedish movie, though a very minor dent at the box office here ($10 million), had already reached the core audience for this story. Having read the original and seen the well-regarded Yellow Bird production, even with its subtitles, why see it again?
  • Hollywood remakes of movies based on foreign films often struggle, even when they are star-driven. Dinner for Schmucks, a spin on a French movie, flopped despite the presence of the popular Steve Carrell.
  • However Fincher may have stylishly retooled it, the basic story still comes across as strained and awkward. And “locked-room mysteries” have never had major box office appeal in the first place.

There may be a deeper reason, however, and this headline for a post by Emma Gray on the Huffington Post points to it:

“Women, forget the marketing, see the film.”

The books’ publisher has not released statistics on how many of the 18 million-plus copies of the Millennium Trilogy were bought by women. However, women account for 71 percent of the 491,000 fans of the books on the official Facebook page, according to New York Magazine.

And there is no doubt that women know about the film: Nielsen Media reports that 83 percent of women over 25 and 79 percent of women under 25 were aware of the film. You would guess much higher, but only 36 percent of either group expressed definite interest in seeing the film. (One might wonder how they know that.)

So what gives?

We suggest a major factor may have been a flawed marketing strategy. What was intended as provocative and cutting edge may have instead struck many as simply creepy.

Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Mondino for W Magazine

Early on Fincher let it be known that he was making major changes to the story, including the ending (in actuality, the plot was streamlined but the final ending stayed the same). Were women (and men) eager to see such changes from the familiar?

Additionally, Fincher’s reputation for darkness may have put people off—at one point he bragged that the studio chose him because “nobody does perv like this guy.”

When the publicity began in earnest, it placed heavy emphasis on the common wisdom that sex and violence is sure to result in big box office. Exhibit 1: In the first and most talked about poster promoting the film Mara stares into the camera completely naked, pierced nipples in full view. This is not the Salander conveyed by the book, nor by the Swedish film.

Perhaps it is understandable, therefore, that the pre-opening buzz was dominated by words such as edgy, bleak, creepy, nihilistic, cold, brutal, hyper-realistic, etc., which the trailers, with their dark undertones of malevolence and violence, did nothing to dispel.

Add to that the implicit promise that the audience would be assaulted by several hyper-realistic rape scenes and does one really need to wonder why women have shied away from the film? As one marketing insider said: “Women saw these trailers and were being scared shitless away from it.”

Still, a number of feminists have rallied in defense of the film, as the Emma Gray headline also indicates. Despite her condemnation of the sexual violence, she asks women who loved the books to “give Fincher’s version a chance. Unlike the post and the clothing line and the beautiful corpse imagery in Vogue, the film itself gives the character an empowering sense of control.”

Echoes Melissa Silverstein, who writes the Women In Hollywood blog, “This is a wildly fierce feminist film where the woman who society has dismissed and said does not matter saves the day. This new age heroine is just the type of character we need in an time where girls and women are still told to conform and fit in and be quiet and be good.”

Will there be a happy ending for SONY?

Unlikely. Yes, the film will remain in theaters for a while yet, and SONY could take a small bit of comfort in that the second weekend box office still pulled in $16 million. But even a gross of $57 million since opening cannot be encouraging when the film cost a reported $90 million to make.

Of course, there will be foreign markets, DVD sales, showings on cable TV, and other ancillary deals. But we seriously doubt that it will come near the box office SONY may have expected for it.

Which leads to our no-surprise ending: Once again Hollywood may have short-changed the intelligence of its audience – in this case the very people they had hoped to bring in. Turns out that the women who understood the power of the original story didn’t want see their Larsson in a Fincher dress. Or undress.

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2 Responses to Are the Movie’s Underwhelming Box Office Numbers Due to a Wrong-Headed Marketing Campaign?

  1. Loved the Swedish film and actors. Couldn’t see reason for remake. Still saw Fincher film and liked it because I like the story. I’m 65 and prefer the drama over car chases!

    • Jill Yesko says:

      The “feel bad” tagline was enough to torpedo the movie. American’s like happy.
      Zodiac was no blockbuster either. In the end, there is a limited market for this movie, even among the legions who read one or all of the trilogy.

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