Box office: Five lessons of ‘Need for Speed’s’ underperformance

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Hopes were high on numerous fronts for “Need for Speed,” a thrill-ride of a premise about street racing, overseen by Steven Spielberg, distributed by Disney and starring a man, Aaron Paul, coming off one of the most compelling TV shows in recent memory.

The reality for the driving film? Less high. The movie got out of the gate with a cringe-y 23% on Rotten Tomatoes, earned a merely decent B-plus on CinemaScore and closed the weekend with a lousy $17.8 million in box office, one of the lowest 3-D openings in recent memory and well off even conservative estimates of $25 million to $30 million.

What does it mean? We look at five lessons of “Need for Speed’s” disappointing performance.


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Driving downhill. It’s unquestionably a great time for auto-centric movies -- from “Senna” to “Fast & Furious,” “Drive” to “Rush.” But does mainstream America want this many car movies? “Fast” still has gas -- and the death of Paul Walker will fuel interest in “Fast 7” -- but “Rush” this fall managed just $27 million despite offering plenty of crowd-pleasing entertainment, and now this. Like an engine in the hands of a novice driver, a film subgenre can quickly get flooded.

Waugh Waugh. It’s the year of the newbie director, people who came of age doing something other than helming movies suddenly helming really big movies. The 52-year-old cinematographer Wally Pfister directs his first film with the $100 million-budget Johnny Depp action dystopia “Transcendence” in April, while the following month longtime production designer Robert Stromberg takes on a little niche picture called “Maleficence” starring Angelina Jolie. Waugh is similarly recently minted -- after decades as a stunt man he directed “Act of Valor” in 2012 before turning to ‘Speed. Reinvention is a big part of modern cinema. But as the uneven tone and shaky reviews for “Speed” suggests, film’s most important job is also its hardest.

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Bigger isn’t better. On the marketing side, that is. Disney hit a lot of the major notes pushing “Speed” -- a Super Bowl ad, a “Bachelor” tie-in, marketing in various other highly rated venues. Yet the film eked out only a third-place finish. It’s possible that the numbers would have been even smaller without these ads. Still, when you reach 100 million people with a single commercial, you hope to get through to more than 2% of them. Speaking of studios, DreamWorks, which developed and backed the picture (Disney distributed), is now officially on a cold streak; after the success of “Lincoln” 15 months ago it’s missed with three mid-budget attempts at populist entertainment, also including “Delivery Man” and “The Fifth Estate.”

Downshifts. It’s hard to criticize a movie, in this age of thrills and spectacle, for reaching for a little added drama or character. But there’s an argument that “Need for Speed” did just that, veering away too often from the pure fun that makes us see movies like this. Amid the death-defying races and “Cannonball Run”-style cross-country joyriding, there was an awful lot of downbeat moments about redemption, justice and grief -- and a score to match. Melancholy can be good, and human feeling generally welcome. But does all the dourness have a place in a movie set in the hardly realistic world in which a man outwits hundreds of cops with a steering wheel? Or a universe with million-dollar street races in which the cars do everything but fly? Once you’re making little logical sense, you’re probably better off making little psychological sense too.


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Breaking Badly. Yeah, you knew we’d get to Aaron Paul. The feeling of nearly everyone walking out of the screening I attended was basically of the this-wasn’t-his-fault variety. Paul’s grimacing, ersatz Steve-McQueen wasn’t good, but he was let down by a shaky script and few genuine acting opportunities, we all said. Still, good actors can elevate bad material, and even bad material can be fun to watch with the right performance. Also, Paul did choose to make this film among the plenty of offers that came in. He’ll certainly get another shot at a cinematic leading man. But put those Ryan Gosling comparisons on ice for now.


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