It’s easy to see why Universal Pictures wanted to make “The Dilemma.” And unfortunately for the studio, it’s just as easy to picture how the movie could struggle this weekend at the box office.
The film pairs two of Hollywood’s most reliable comedy superstars: Vince Vaughn and Kevin James. It is directed by Ron Howard, one of the most commercial filmmakers in town, and written by Allan Loeb, who penned 2008’s surprise hit “21.” And when Universal first dated the movie opposite “The Green Hornet,” it looked as if Sony’s action-hero movie would be the film that might labor to sell tickets.
But audience tracking surveys suggest that “The Green Hornet” should easily sell twice as many tickets (if not more) as “The Dilemma” over the four-day Martin Luther King Day weekend.
The film stars Vaughn as the commitment-phobic single man Ronny Valentine, who is best buddies with James’ Nick Brannen, who is happily married to Geneva ( Winona Ryder). Ronny sees Geneva cheating on Nick and spends much of the film considering his options: spill the truth and ruin a marriage or keep the secret and thus betray his friend’s trust.
Universal remains hopeful that its final blitz of advertising will boost “The Dilemma’s” prospects, and because the film cost less than two-thirds what Sony spent making “The Green Hornet,” “The Dilemma” doesn’t have to match that film dollar for dollar. The studio also believes that because older moviegoers, particularly women older than 25 (“The Dilemma’s” strongest demographic, tracking surveys show), don’t rush out to see movies in their first weekends, “The Dilemma” could generate solid business for several weeks.
Still, if “The Dilemma” opens to about $20 million in its first four days, it will be the worst recent opening for Vaughn or James, and a gloomy debut release from Universal’s new chiefs, Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley, who were promoted to run the studio in October 2009.
The studio and the filmmakers declined to comment for this story, but here are some possible theories about the dilemmas of “The Dilemma.”
Actors matter only when they’re doing what they do best. Vaughn and James are indisputably box office giants. James’ last three films — “Grown Ups,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” — each opened to more than $30 million, and “Grown Ups” (which costarred Adam Sandler) premiered to $40.5 million. Vaughn’s record with his last two films is just as good: “Couples Retreat” debuted to $34.3 million, and “Four Christmases” grossed $31.1 million in its first weekend. But unlike all of those films, “The Dilemma” is an often-serious look at infidelity and friendship.
Audiences don’t want complications. As any number of recent commercially unsuccessful art films have shown, moviegoers are not that interested in contemplation. Although “The Dilemma” is hardly as dark as “Rabbit Hole” or “Never Let Me Go,” it’s far from slapstick. Vaughn in one scene sits on a park bench for minutes, appealing for guidance from God. Universal isn’t hiding the film’s themesand, in an unusual step, was running 60-second commercials last weekend (as opposed to the typical 30- and 15-second spots shown the weekend before opening) to explain “The Dilemma’s” story.
Funny is money. Few people probably guessed that “The Green Hornet” would win over the comedy crowd, but audience tracking surveys suggest that’s precisely what’s happening. Directed by out-there French filmmaker Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and starring Seth Rogen in the title role, “The Green Hornet” is showing impressive interest from all segments of moviegoers — thanks largely to Sony’s marketing campaign, which has accentuated the film’s balance between comedy and action. “The Dilemma,” on the other hand, was targeted early for having poor comic taste, due to a joke in the film about electric cars being “gay.” According to one recent poll, four times more younger men are picking “Green Hornet” as their first choice rather than “The Dilemma,” and younger women and older men are more than twice as interested in “The Green Hornet” than “The Dilemma.”
At least it’s not too expensive — or is it? Comedies are supposed to be Hollywood’s low-budget answer to big-budget blowouts. But in recent years, the genre’s costs have skyrocketed. “The Hangover” cost a respectable $35 million in 2009, but December’s “Little Fockers” totaled as much as $130 million (Universal says the price tag was closer to $100 million). The studio, which shared the film’s costs with Spyglass Entertainment, says “The Dilemma” cost $70 million, but a source close to the production puts the budget at $75 million. “The Green Hornet” cost about $130 million, so if it doubles the business of “The Dilemma” (especially overseas), it could prove far more profitable.