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Going into this weekend Hot Tub Time Machine looked like an unbeatable surprise hit. It got name-checked on 30 Rock and even got a giggle out of Letterman, and every time you came back to Twitter it seemed that #hottubtimemachine was creeping toward #justinbieber as a top trending topic. Even my friends notoriously indifferent to new releases were pumped about it, and when I gathered three of them together Saturday night to take in the movie after a bottle of wine or two, we all laughed like idiots.
But here we are on Monday morning and Hot Tub Time Machine-- the best-titled movie of the year by far-- pulled in a pretty mediocre $13 million. Sure it was an R-rated comedy made on the cheap (except for that inexplicable CGI-heavy time travel finale), but a lot of us believed it had the potential to blow up Hangover-huge. So what happened? Of course you can never know these things for sure, but here are five guesses I think are pretty good.
MGM is a failing studio. A scathing examination at Deadline Hollywood claims they spent $50 million to make it and another $47 million to promote it, both of them ridiculous numbers for a movie being sold entirely on its premise. Not only did they spend too much money to make it, but the promotion failed to really stick-- the movie with a clever title never really crossed the line into "must-see," as its clear inspiration The Hangover did. In retrospect we should have expected this from a studio that's failing despite having The Hobbit and the entire James Bond franchise in its pocket.
The Snakes on a Plane effect. Another movie with a brilliant title, another truckload of Internet support, another disappointing opening weekend. Sure, people tweeting about Hot Tub Time Machine isn't exactly equivalent to fan-demanded reshoots to add more swears into Snakes on a Plane, but both movies shared expectations that the people who giggled over the title and posted YouTube links to the trailer would show up opening weekend. It seems that in this case, as with Snakes on a Plane in 2006, people assumed the title was the best joke of the movie and stayed away accordingly.
Too many free screenings. It was clear that this movie had a built-in audience of college kids drawn like magpies to raunchy comedies, along with the adults old enough to get all the 80s jokes, but by the time the movie opened there had been so many test screenings that practically the entire audience had been reached. And while the people who liked it may have enthused to each other about it, the movie was just not quite good enough to reach beyond that-- it's not the kind of raunchy comedy, like Knocked Up or, yes, The Hangover, that you'd tell your parents to see despite their misgivings. Hot Tub Time Machine made the mistake of identifying its target audience, then saturating it before the movie even opened.
The critics weren't excited enough. Critics may not matter for most blockbusters, but hit R-rated comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin thrived on glowing critical reviews to get attention far beyond the normal target audience. And while Hot Tub Time Machine sits at a healthy 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, reading individual reviews reveals a different story. While critics generally liked it, they all kind of held their noses to do it. "Succeeds beyond any expectations suggested by the title" (Roger Ebert on HTTM) is not the same praise as "Now this is what I'm talkin' about...a funny movie, flat out, all the way through." (Roger Ebert on The Hangover) Moviegoers who choose their comedies based on reviews may have sensed this and stayed away.
NCAA finals/spring break/real life. This excuse is brought out every time a movie underperforms-- every movie that came out this winter acted as if a blizzard somewhere cut into its grosses-- but if you're the college-aged guy Hot Tub Time Machine is aimed at, March in particular is a time for either gorging on college basketball or going out and having some hot tub adventures of your own. If the movie had been spectacular it might have dragged them away from either alternative, but it wasn't, so it didn't. Quality strikes again.
(Full disclosure: I posed this question on Twitter yesterday and got a handful of responses that helped inspire this piece, so thanks to everyone who responded for that.)