The Balance of Light and Dark at the Box Office

on December 02, 2015

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by Phil Contrino

Dark films don't always fail, and happy films don't always succeed  

"And they all lived happily ever after."

Conventional wisdom says that if you can utter that phrase about the characters in a film, chances are it will be a hit with the public. People go to the movies for escapism; they don't want to pay money for a downer. Wrong. Like anything else in this industry, it all comes down to the execution. An unhappy ending doesn't necessarily mean failure. Just ask James Cameron after Titanic became the No. 1 film of all time and effortlessly snagged the Best Picture Oscar. When I saw that film in 3D a few years back, people were still crying and yelling at Rose to let Jack onto her makeshift life raft. You could also talk to Clint Eastwood. He had the biggest hit of his career with American Sniper, a bleak flick that takes an uncompromising view of the perils of war. Nothing released in 2015 could beat American Sniper --and there was certainly no shortage of happily-ever-after stories.

The second half of 2015 has been filled with a handful of dark films. Some have succeeded, others haven't.

As of this writing, Sicario is coming off a strong nationwide expansion, and it's poised to show healthy staying power in the weeks to come. Sicario is one of the best films of the year, but it's not easy to sit through. Not only is it incredibly violent, but it doesn't offer a lot of hope when it comes to stopping the drug trade in Mexico. That's a double downer. Yet when you combine Denis Villeneuve's tight direction with Roger Deakins's brilliant cinematography and a great performance from a talented ensemble, you have a film that moviegoers can't resist, even if it doesn't send them out of theaters with a spring in their steps and a smile on their faces.

In a rare miss for Universal this year, Everest failed to make dark work. I remain baffled as to why this film wasn't a bigger hit. It has the same I-just-want-to-reach-through-the-screen-and-stop-this-character-from-making-a-stupid-decision moments that Titanic has. Also, it's not entirely bleak. Some people do make it back, after all. The suspense is top notch, and the character development is impressive for a film that crams in a lot of characters. Still, Everest didn't catch on the way it could have despite an early release on IMAX screens that delivered strong box office and solid word of mouth.

It's definitely possible that Everest was overshadowed a bit by anticipation for The Martian. SPOILER WARNING (not that it matters at this point; you've probably seen it): Would The Martian be as successful if Mark Watney didn't make it back from Mars? I doubt it. Watney goes through so much in the film that audiences would certainly pelt the screen with popcorn if he died. The Martian boasts one of the most emotionally satisfying endings of the year, and a huge portion of its success is thanks to that. But what if Watney were trapped on Mars with his wife and had to sacrifice himself so that she could live? Well, that might have resulted in even more box office than the sci-fi flick is already generating. People would now be calling it Titanic in Space instead of Cast Away in Space.

The fall/holiday season will bring more dark films. If The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2 sticks close to the book, then it will prove again that dark can work on a blockbuster scale. Many Star Wars fans are already theorizing that a major cast member will die, and fans of the Rocky franchise are predicting the same fate for the Italian Stallion. Are we worried about the commercial prospects of those films? Absolutely not. Does it mean Hollywood has finally figured out how to make dark commercially viable every time? Far from it. 

Tags: boxoffice-magazine

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