‘Scott Pilgrim’ versus the box office


For Amy Berciano, this was the moviegoing weekend of the summer.

More than a year before “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” hit movie theaters, the 20-year-old UCLA junior became a huge fan of the graphic novels that inspired the film. At July’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, she waited more than an hour to meet the cast and filmmakers; “I even kissed [director] Edgar Wright on the cheek!” she bragged.

After attending the debut midnight screening of the movie Thursday night while dressed as one of the characters — Knives Chao, Scott Pilgrim’s obsessive ex-girlfriend — Berciano declared herself eminently satisfied. “They got the tone of the book just right, especially the way they brought to life those fighting scenes,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough.”

Her enthusiasm was shared by nearly everyone who saw the film in its opening weekend, particularly those younger than 35, who gave “Scott Pilgrim” an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Universal’s internal exit polls were equally strong, and the film attracted scores of positive reviews.

But as last weekend’s box office numbers rolled in, all that hardly mattered at all.

The movie sold only $10.6 million worth of tickets, a disappointing figure given that Universal Pictures spent about $85 million, before tax credits, on production and tens of millions more on marketing.

“Scott Pilgrim” followed other movies that failed to convert popularity in the niche comic book market into runaway ticket sales. “Kick-Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughn from Mark Millar and John Romita’s popular series, was greeted enthusiastically at Comic-Con a year ago but came in well below expectations with $48.1 million at the box office when it was released in April. A year ago, director Zack Snyder’s “ Watchmen,” a $150-million adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark comic books, grossed $107.5 million, barely half the take of Snyder’s previous film, 2007’s “300.”

Marc Platt, a producer of “Scott Pilgrim,” cautioned that the film’s financial story cannot be written after one weekend “but in weeks and months and years.” Nevertheless, he said, “It’s disappointing that [the audience] didn’t find it on the opening weekend. But as time goes by, I am confident they will.”

Indeed, films that attract small but intense crowds in theaters can go on to enjoy comparatively strong DVD sales as loyal fans scoop up discs to watch over and over, along with commentary and extras, at home. With “Kick-Ass,” for instance, Lionsgate sold a healthy 1.4 million DVDs and digital downloads in just one week. Still, a good post-theatrical life is rarely enough to make a box office flop profitable.

Platt said he was initially drawn to Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-book series about a young slacker-musician who must battle the girl of his dreams’ seven exes — many of whom possess superpowers — because it was so distinct. Wright, the director of the cult classic “Shaun of the Dead,” labored to make his movie faithful to the literary property, filling it with video-game references taken from the book (the exes turn into coins when vanquished) and mimicking much of its visual style (characters’ inner feelings are sometimes expressed as thought bubbles), along with its mix of ironic humor and stylized action.

“It is innovative, it is different, it is unique,” Platt said of the resulting film. “It doesn’t adhere to traditional storytelling. It’s not an experience many people have had in the cinema before.”

But those qualities may have been a turn-off to a broader audience that doesn’t read comics or play video games, particularly the young women that Universal hoped to attract by casting “Juno’s” Michael Cera in the lead role. Only 36% of ticket buyers were women, a gender divide similar to that among comic book fans and video-game players.

Most moviegoers embraced the distinctly old-school “The Expendables” over the postmodern “Scott Pilgrim.” The action film directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone grossed $34.8 million in its premiere weekend, attracting many young men who initially were expected to go see “Scott Pilgrim.”

Although “Scott Pilgrim” has been something of a phenomenon in the indie comic book world, its recently released sixth volume made waves by selling out a first print run of 100,000, a pittance of the number of people needed to make a movie a success.

Pre-release surveys indicated it wouldn’t have a big opening, but intense fan enthusiasm may have masked just how minimal the interest really was. “Scott Pilgrim” was the subject of a jam-packed presentation at Comic-Con and was one of the highest ranked topics of discussion on Twitter all weekend. “Kick-Ass” and “Watchmen” enjoyed similarly positive online buzz prior to their launches and then didn’t turn out to be the commercial hits their backers hoped for, even though most people who saw the movies, particularly those under 35, came out of theaters satisfied.

“Sometimes when you adapt a book with a strong following you think you have a great chance, but for whatever reason the only people who end up interested are a specific group of fans,” said Mike Richardson, publisher of Dark Horse, the independent comic book company behind “Hellboy,” “Sin City” and 15 projects in development at various studios.

Robert Rodriguez, the co-writer and co-director of Sept. 3’s action film “Machete,” said that moviegoers might be gravitating toward films such as “The Expendables” because they toy around with instantly recognizable formulas.

“They bring back action from the 1980s — where you know who the good guys are, and you know who the bad guys are,” Rodriguez said. “For young audiences, they resemble what they are playing at home with their video games.”

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who translated Mike Mignola’s comic book “Hellboy” into a successful two-film franchise, said that just because an underlying work has a small following as “Scott Pilgrim” does, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie will.

“When we did the first ‘Hellboy,’ it had a very small readership,” said Del Toro, who consulted with director Wright on whom he should hire to stage “Scott Pilgrim’s” fight scenes. “But the readership grew tenfold after the movie.

“Comics that have a lot of personality like ‘Hellboy’ or ‘Scott Pilgrim’ make for memorable movies,” he said. “But they require a hell of a lot more positioning and marketing. And even then, you are tossing a coin.”

Studios are hardly ready to cut back on comic book movies, particularly if upcoming adaptations of titles ranging from the little known “Red” to the more famous superheroes Green Lantern and Captain America turn out to be hits.

Keeping expectations, and thus budgets, in check when adapting a little-known comic may be critical. But many studios and filmmakers would still love to find a more financially lucrative way to tap into the enthusiasm of those who came to see “Scott Pilgrim.”

“For a few hours we were less moviegoer than we were cheering fanboys,” said Patrick Klepek, a 25-year-old Los Feliz resident who edits a digital newsletter for gamers. “Who cares how much money the movie made? I’m just happy it exists.”