John Scalzi – The Dollar Value of Nerd Love (Here’s Looking at You, Scott Pilgrim)


One of the interesting side effects of this particular gig is that I have become a go-to source for people who want a little hand-holding when a film they love isn’t loved as much by others. To wit, this plaintive e-mail last night from a friend:

Explain to me why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which is awesome, made $10 million last weekend, and The Expendables, which I cannot think about without fury, made $35 million. I don’t usually complain that life’s not fair, but COME ON.

Scott Pilgrim isn’t really science fiction — it has some glancing science-fictional elements and is probably best described as postmodern hipster-nerd fantasy — but it’s close enough in its core audience that I feel comfortable talking about it and using it to make a particular point.

First, whatever my friend’s rage about The Expendables, he shouldn’t think that it actually took audience from Scott Pilgrim. The Expendables
was always going to make in the $35 million frame, because there are
enough aging guys out there with enough fond memories of the action
movies of the eighties that they weren’t going to be able to resist an
economy-size exploding bucket filled with Stallone, Willis,
Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, and Mickey Rourke. The Expendables is
very much the cinematic equivalent of a Kiss concert: all the greatest
hits, played loud enough that the audience can ignore the fact that their
T-shirts are now too tight across their guts. It’s not the same core
audience, really, as Scott Pilgrim.
Which begs this question: what is the core audience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Well,
when I saw it this weekend, the members of the audience were mostly
under 30 and (visually) equally distributed between stereotypical nerds
and stereotypical hipsters. There were enough snarky T-shirts and chunky
black-frame glasses to fill a coffee shop next to an Apple store.

But
only enough of them to fill that one coffee shop — and this is the
problem, commercially speaking. Nerds and hipsters love what they love,
and, while they love it, they love it with the white-hot intensity of a
thousand obsessive-compulsive suns (and when they stop loving it, they
hate you for still loving it — but that’s another column entirely). But
hipsters and nerds — and the occasional hipster nerds — aren’t in
themselves a big enough audience to move the box-office needle any
appreciable distance.

In fact, I strongly believe that
nerd-hipster love has a more-or-less quantifiable value for films: $10
million dollars on opening weekend, or, as it happens, just about
exactly what Scott Pilgrim made last weekend.

Other examples, all coincidentally starting with the letter “s”:

Serenity
This science-fiction film, based on the short-lived Firefly series beloved of science-fiction geeks, got $10 million on opening weekend, on the way to a $25.5 million domestic gross.

Snakes on a Plane
The Internet went crazy for the idea of this film (Samuel L. Jackson! And
Snakes! On a plane!), but when opening weekend rolled around all that
ironic Internet love only pumped out $13.8 million on the first weekend and $34 million domestically.

Stardust
Author Neil Gaiman has one of the most fervent fan bases of any living writer this side of J.K. Rowling, but this 2007 adaptation of his popular novel
debuted with $9.1 million on opening weekend, on the way to a $38
million gross in North America. (It did rather better overseas, racking up $100 million in the rest of the world.)

Splice
This summer’s science-fiction horror film generated a lot of buzz on
geek sites like io9.com and Wired News, and director Vincenzo Natali has
the cult sci-fi film Cube as his calling card and is attached to direct Neuromancer,
based on the seminal science-fiction novel by William Gibson. All that
geek cred translated to $7.1 million on opening weekend and $17 million
overall.

Bear in mind that none of this has to do with the quality of these films. I’m quite fond of Serenity and Stardust and had a ton of fun watching Scott Pilgrim and would heartily
encourage you to see it if you haven’t. Nor is the point here that
having the Comic-Con crowd love your film means you have the commercial
kiss of death hanging about your neck. Heck, The Expendables was trotted
out at Comic-Con, and it did fine, obviously. But if all you have is
the Comic-Con crowd and/or the Internet loving your film, you may be
screwed. Commercially speaking, there’s not enough there there.

More
to the point, if I were a movie director and my marketing people
were telling me their big plan was to generate a huge wave of publicity
with Internet tastemakers and the Comic-Con crowd and ride that wave
right into the opening weekend, I’d get on the phone to my agent and
grab the next directing gig I could, before the wipeout of my $10
million opening.

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