The box office numbers are in and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn't just flop, it's one of the biggest bombs of the year. On the internet it's been nothing but hype for months, but that hype only translated into a dismal fifth place opening and a $10 million in earnings which only got harder to earn as the weekend went on. Scott Pilgrim made almost half of its total on opening night. Not exactly an encouraging figure if you're hoping it'll make more money with momentum built through word of mouth. When it comes to momentum, there is none. Barring some overseas miracle there's no way it'll ever make back its $60 million budget theatrically, and if you're a fan of director Edgar Wright's work, you're either busy convincing yourself that box office doesn't matter (it does, he'll have a harder time getting the money he needs for his next project now) or you're sitting around wondering just where it all went wrong. I have answers.
First, count me among the hardy few who actually made the effort to go out and buy a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World ticket this weekend. For the record, I loved it, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. But this isn't a discussion of whether or not it was any good, this is you and I sitting down together and trying to understand why almost no one bought a ticket.
Over the next few days you're going to hear a lot of excuses. Some will claim that it wasn't in enough theaters since it opened on 400 fewer screens than The Expendables. But the movie's dismal $3,375 per screen average says that didn't matter. 400 more empty theaters wasn't going to boost Scott Pilgrim's box office totals.
People are going to blame the movie's marketing. That's always a convenient scapegoat. But it's hard to fault Universal's efforts here. They spent a ton of money advertising it, and what's more they advertised it in a way that I think most would agree was an accurate representation of the movie they were selling. They reached out to fans too, touching base with communities, holding free screenings to create awareness and really trying for a grass roots response to the film while at the same time marketing it through mass media.
Some are already blaming those numerous free screenings held in advance of the movie's release, but the ticket purchasing power of the two or three thousand people who saw it for free wouldn't have even been enough to propel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World past Inception on the weekend's box office. And without those free screenings, what little buzz Scott Pilgrim had wouldn't have existed at all.
None of this explains where this movie went wrong, none of this explains why audiences simply weren't interested. Here are five things which do:
Because the movie's marketing was such an accurate representation of the film I think it's fair to say that most of the people who saw ads for it had a pretty good idea of what they were going to see. And they didn't want to see it. In particular people over the age of 30 didn't want to see it. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is basically about a group of twenty-something douche bags. It's a movie about the kinds of individuals anyone over 30 with a job would like to see introduced to a cattle prod. Seriously, you're out there working for a living, you've got two screaming kids, do you really want to go spend your hard-earned money watching a kid whine about how he has to be in bands and stuff and hang out a lot? Probably not. It looked like a movie about kids, for kids, and to some extent that's true. Scott Pilgrim revels in the slacker generation and even though, in the end, it's sort of a movie about growing up and if you stick with it the whole thing comes together into something brilliant… for the most part its happy to be about lazy, narcissistic, 20-year-old hipsters. And if you're over 30, that just ain't cool.
While Scott Pilgrim is about teens and recent teens, the way it goes about telling its story isn't exactly teen friendly. The film is steeped in video game culture which, while that might seem like something the kids can latch on to, in this case isn't. That's evident right from the movie's first frame where the Universal Pictures logo is redone using 8-bit graphics which look like they were created for the original NES. 20-year-old hipsters weren't even born back when me and my now thirty-something friends first dragged out all the cables to hook our first ever Nintendo up to the television for a round or two of Duck Hunt. The movie's steeped not just in video games, but in classic video game references which kids probably aren't interested in and even if they were, almost certainly wouldn't get. It's more than video games really, the film is populated with all sorts of ridiculously fun, outdated references. There's even a Seinfeld scene and I'm pretty sure the desert sequence is a reference to Wayne's World 2. For most kids, the Atari 2600 is just something you get on a t-shirt, and if you reference Super Mario Bros. 2 in a movie, there's a pretty good chance they won't know what it is.
When anyone mentions Scott Pilgrim they invariably paint it with a geek paintbrush. People assume that just because it's based on a comic book it's a movie for nerds, geeks and awkward, dateless dudes. And maybe geeks do read the comic its based on, but Scott Pilgrim is not exactly a geek film. This is a movie about a slacker musician who's biggest problem is choosing which of the two hot girls he's dating he most wants to sleep with. He spends his nights hanging out at cool clubs where he rocks out on stage and his days planning another balls to the wall brawl with an enemy. This is a movie about guys who are in bands and stuff, not geeks sitting around in their parents' basements playing World of Warcraft. Somehow we seem to have confused the two and for some reason any movie about young people is automatically mislabled as a geek film. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is not a geek movie. It doesn't have any geeks in it and, apparently, none of them showed up to see it either. Maybe they should have worked in a lightsaber sequence or had Brandon Routh give Scott Pilgrim a wedgie. Odds are most geeks simply didn't get the appeal of a movie about cool guys with guitars pretending to like video games and stayed home with an actual video game called Starcraft II.
There's a reason this viral video containing a collection of shots in which Michael Cera gets punched in the face was insanely popular, and no it isn't because people were excited about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. While he has his fans, people hate Michael Cera. They hate him a lot. In particular they hate that he always plays the same character and he did it again in Scott Pilgrim. Audiences are sick of it. They're sick of him. They're especially sick of him as a leading man. Maybe that's not fair. In fact I'm almost certain it isn't. I think what people are really sick of is the whole hipster subculture, a group which has been in many cases been confused by Hollywood with geeks, when they're not. Even more than they hate Michael Cera, mainstream America hates hipsters. And if the hipster movement has a mascot, it's Cera. The box office performance of his films has grown progressively worse since Superbad, almost in concert with the number of angry “I hate hipsters” comments sure to be left on any internet story invoking his name. Scott Pilgrim just had the misfortune to be there at the place where the whole Michael Cera thing all bottomed out.
We've talked a lot about what Scott Pilgrim isn't, let's talk about what it is. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a musical. Not because of the indie-rock soundtrack, which is kind of awesome. Actually there aren't really many songs in the film and there's definitely no dancing. Instead what Edgar Wright has done is take the musical format and apply it to, well, fighting. In a musical characters break into song and dance whenever there's something too big to be expressed by words. In a musical you learn about each character's personality through what he sings. Sometimes the songs even move the plot along or help change someone's perspective. Scott Pilgrim uses its fights in the same way. Scott Pilgrim fights whenever there's something too big to express with dialogue, something too important to simply say. It's through these elaborate, colorful, fights that Scott's personality changes and grows. It's because of his fights that he eventually realizes he lacks self-respect, and when he gets some, that's part of a fight too. Except musicals aren't for everyone and even the best musicals always have their detractors. Even if you didn't realize that's what Wright was doing with the movie, the same things which people hate about musicals are present in the trailers and, whether they knew it or not, probably had a hand in keeping them away. Some people simply don't get musicals. Normally that's ok since there's a dedicated crowd of moviegoers who do get it, and show up for a musical anyway, but the musical moviegoer isn't showing up for a fight movie and neither did anyone else.
Here's what it all comes down to: There were big expectations for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but only from the handful of people who'd already seen it. But it was always a movie without a specific audience. It's a broad movie built on a lot of different niche elements, and as much as we'd like to believe moviegoers are open-minded enough to step outside their comfort zone, most of the time they won't. The mistake was in thinking that all the different audiences Scott Pilgrim speaks to were the same audience, when they're not.
People say it's become cool to be a geek. That's not true. People have just started applying the word geek to cool people. Hipsters aren't geeks and geeks aren't rock musicians and rock musicians aren't old school gamers and aging gamers don't like musicals. In a perfect world none of that would matter and people would simply show up to the theater and be blown away by the innovative level of creativity on display in Scott Pilgrim, but you have to get them there first.
Maybe Universal could have lied more in the marketing, but it's hard to fault them for being honest about the movie they had to offer. They were proud of Edgar Wright's work, and advertised it accordingly. Deadline says Universal knew it would flop, but they also knew it was good, and simply didn't care. Perhaps they're banking on it finding new life as a massive cult hit on DVD, and that's exactly what it deserves to be. To make that happen, it's up to you and me. Scott Pilgrim's a flop and it'll take a minor miracle to turn that around before theater owners give up and stop showing it. But maybe, if it's lucky, Pilgrim will find new life somewhere down the road as a must-see Netflix rental. When it hits Blu-ray, buy it and force it on your friends. Whether they're potheads or nerds, ravers or comic book readers, they'll thank you for it. It's Scott Pilgrim fans vs. the World.