In Hollywood, bad news travels fast. I was sitting in the stands Saturday evening at a Little League playoff game when one of my fellow coaches, who happens to work in the business, leaned over and shared the news -- “Land of the Lost” was a goner, getting trounced by “The Hangover.”
The Will Ferrell film ended up a distant third to “The Hangover” and “Up,” making $18.7 million in its opening weekend, an especially woeful number for a movie that cost $100-million-plus to produce. In Hollywood, a town full of gleeful Monday morning quarterbacks who love to dance on a freshly dug grave, everyone was eager to poor-mouth Universal Pictures, which has now released three straight duds since the studio had a surprise spring smash with “Fast & Furious.”
Much of the most embarrassing questions focus on Ferrell -- and whether his movie-star credentials should be revoked -- and Universal, whose belief in the costly special-effects comedy seems so wrongheaded that it raises concerns about the studio production team’s decision-making acumen. But to understand why “Land of the Lost” failed you also have to understand why “The Hangover” soared to a $45-million opening.
Put simply, the movie that won the weekend succeeded because it had a great title, a strong concept and, after gaining a stranglehold on its core audience -- young guys -- it had such great buzz that it expanded into all four quadrants. “The Hangover” built up such a head of steam that it even attracted a huge contingent of female moviegoers who relished the idea of seeing a guys’ weekend in Vegas gone comically bad. According to Warner Bros.’ marketing chief Sue Kroll, women made up an astounding 46% of the film’s opening weekend audience.
Once she realized that the film played with women, Kroll went after them with a vengeance, cutting female-friendly TV spots that played all across the TV spectrum, including such heavily women-oriented shows as “America’s Next Top Model,” “Dollhouse” and “One Tree Hill,” along with the finales of such top network shows as “Lost” and “The Office.”
Kroll knew she hit pay dirt when she went to the hair salon on Saturday. She listened with delight as a pair of women relived the uproarious time they’d had seeing the film with friends the night before. “One of them said, ‘I loved that guy who was missing a tooth -- he reminded me of my ex-boyfriend,’ ” Kroll recalled. “And then she said, ‘Everyone loves that movie. My mother’s going to see it now too.’ ”
Right, wrong mix
That is what is called major-league buzz -- when even grandmothers are going to see a movie whose target audience is 19-year-old boys. Still, the biggest surprise for me was that Warner made the movie in the first place. Studio chairman Alan Horn, who frequently nudges filmmakers into getting rid of unnecessarily foul language, casual sex and cigarette smoking, is famous for his squeamishness when it comes to raunchy comedy. When I got him on the phone Monday I teased him, asking him how it felt to have such a big hit with a movie that must’ve made him hold his nose when he was pressing the greenlight button.
“OK, I admit that the film did make me a little squeamish,” Horn said with a laugh, “On the other hand, I’d like to think I’m a little more open-minded than I was a couple of years ago. But give all the credit for this to [Warner Bros. Pictures Group President] Jeff Robinov. It was Jeff and his troops who got [director] Todd Phillips involved, allowed the movie to be R-rated and let Todd make the movie he wanted to make. Having worked with Todd on ‘Starsky & Hutch’ I knew he was a funny guy and had a lot of confidence in his comic instincts. But Jeff really ran point on this. He’s my partner in the filmmaking process, and I think it’s appropriate that our movies reflect his sensibility. He clearly knew what he was doing.”
It would be hard to say the same thing about Universal and Ferrell’s experience with “Land of the Lost.” The movie’s disastrous opening had to come as an especially cruel blow to Ferrell, since Phillips -- the man who directed the film that walloped him -- was the man who made Ferrell a star with “Old School.” In a way, you could say that Ferrell was in the wrong movie, since Ferrell’s biggest successes have been in outrageous comedies like “Old School,” “Talladega Nights” and “Blades of Glory,” films with essentially the same ingredients as “The Hangover.”
As one rival studio marketer put it: “Will got creamed by a movie from the genre he helped popularize -- the R-rated stupid-guy comedy. It helped that it had a great title, but anyone who saw one TV spot knew what ‘The Hangover’ was supposed to be. No one ever knew what ‘Land of the Lost’ was going for. Was it supposed to be scary -- or was it supposed to be stupid? The end result was neither fish nor fowl, a family movie with a scary dinosaur and a movie star best known for frat-boy humor. It was a bad mix.”
No one at Universal is talking. But it’s pretty obvious that when the studio greenlighted the movie last year, it was following the model of 20th Century Fox’s success with “Night at the Museum,” which put a somewhat edgy comic star -- Ben Stiller -- into a family comedy that boasted eye-popping special effects. In theory, the result would have been “Night at the Museum” meets “Jurassic Park.”
On paper, it sounded like a Big Summer Event. But even Big Events need to start with a core audience, and “Land of the Lost” never had a red-hot core. Moviegoing families were put off by the scary dinosaurs and the film’s PG-13 rating (“Night at the Museum” was rated PG), while Ferrell fans thought the film looked too soft, especially with a true hard-edged comedy playing next door at every multiplex in town.
The movie itself had no central comic theme or focus. Directed by Brad Silberling, it was filled with everything from a running joke involving “A Chorus Line,” a strange acid-trip sequence, homages to Ray Harryhausen and his stop-motion model animation and “Planet of the Apes,” lewd primate gags and a scene in which Ferrell douses himself with a jug of dinosaur urine.
If Universal made a key mistake, it was probably hiring Silberling to direct the film, since judging by some of his interviews, he seemed to be under the impression that he was at work on an exercise in filmmaking art instead of delivering a comedy thrill ride. It isn’t easy to find good comedy directors -- and, no doubt, Ferrell and his manager, Jimmy Miller, had a big say-so in hiring Silberling -- but the filmmaker’s recent track record hardly inspires confidence (his last commercial effort, 2004’s “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” was considered a missed opportunity at creating a family franchise).
The movie leaves Ferrell in a bad place. When Adam Sandler tried to draw his hard-core fans to the family friendly “Bedtime Stories,” it wasn’t a breakout hit. But it certainly wasn’t a total clinker like “Land of the Lost.” The verdict in Hollywood: Ferrell hasn’t done a good job of managing his brand. Sandler is the master of dumb hijinks. Eddie Murphy has become a cuddly family star. But who is Will Ferrell? No one knows anymore.
He’s in danger of becoming the comedy equivalent of George Clooney, someone who enjoys a great deal of goodwill but who isn’t actually a real movie star. That’s what happens when you go down with the ship, promoting a movie that, as the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick memorably put it in his review, “does not seem aimed at any identifiable demographic except fans of bad movies.”