Why Did Scott Pilgrim Fail at the Box Office and What Does That Mean for Stories About Aught-Era Twenty-Somethings?

by Salvatore Pane

In 1998, I went to see The Truman Show in theaters. For those unaware, the turn of the century dramedy starred Jim Carrey as an unwitting participant in a reality show that encompassed his entire life. His hometown is merely a Synecdoche New York-esque sound stage and his wife and best friend are actors paid for by the corporation who adopted baby Carrey. I walked out of the theater adjacent to the Viewmont Mall utterly stupefied. Never before had I experienced a story that so perfectly encapsulated the modern day loss of privacy in the digital age. Never before had I seen a movie that so obviously shoved in our faces the idea that in America, stardom no longer had to do with talent, but had become attainable by even our most average of citizens, a harbinger of the rise of social media and reality television. I assumed that The Truman Show would be remembered along with other popular films of that era, The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club. And although Jim Carrey’s first real dramatic turn did surprisingly well at the box office, I rarely hear the film mentioned these days, and instead, see the DVD in the five dollar bins at department stores, occasionally connected via plastic to Ace Ventura 2 or Black Sheep. In most ways that matter, The Truman Show has been forgotten.

I know that pain once again.

Longtime readers of this blog know my fanatical devotion to all things Bryan Lee O’ Malley and Scott Pilgrim. A generational anthem in the vein of Bright Lights, Big City, the Scott Pilgrim series is for my money the defining text of what it means to be in your mid-twenties during the aughts. Like most comic nerds, I became protective when the movie was announced, positive that Hollywood would screw up what is arguably the best comic series of the past decade. There were pluses and minuses along the way. I was shocked and delighted when Edgar Wright was hired to direct and utterly confused when producers cast deadpan Michael Cera as the hyperactive titular character. The first trailer looked pretty awful but the global one seemed to paint a more representative picture of what the film would actually be like.

I went to see Scott Pilgrim on opening night here in Pittsburgh. The movie opened way in the back of the megaplex, in one of those tiny theaters where the speakers fuzz whenever the soundtrack gets too loud. There were maybe twenty people there tops–and this was a Friday 7:20 showing–and a couple in their fifties walked out after twenty minutes. They mumbled. They grumbled. They reminded me of my reaction to Juno, in which I sat angry and confused, blinking wildly whenever the audience broke into laughter.

Ok. But how about the actual movie. Like many reviewers online, I sat nervously through the first awkward five minutes, but the moment Sex Bob-Omb bursts into their opening song I was completely relieved. Here was the comic I’d spent so much time reading and thinking about brought perfectly to life. This wasn’t the Dark Knight, a distillation of the very best of an 80 year old franchise into a 2.5 hour movie. This was a straight up adaptation–with the emotional development sadly cut for time. This was Bryan Lee O’ Malley’s frenetic vision brought gleefully to life by a totally self-aware cast and director. I loved just about every minute of the damn flick–I saw it a second time two days later–and thought for sure, FOR SURE, that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World would signal a sea change in not only the way movies are made but also who movies are made for–SP targets the holy 18-34 demographic but never panders to its audience; it feels genuine and completely formed by the twenty-something hive mind. Here was the first time where I felt my generation was honestly represented onscreen.

I woke up on Saturday morning, happy with life, happy with the world, only to discover that Scott Pilgrim had flopped. We’re not even talking Kick-Ass flop. We’re talking full on Heaven’s Gate fucking implosion. The movie didn’t come in second behind Expendables. It didn’t come in third behind the greatest travesty in human existence, Eat Pray Love. It didn’t even come in fourth behind The Other Guys. Scott Pilgrim came in fifth in box office totals behind Inception, a movie released an entire month ago!

How could this have happened!? Was it the marketing campaign? Most of my friends who didn’t previously know about Scott Pilgrim were confused by the trailers and marketing, thinking the film was a dopey romance in the vein of Nick and Norah or the scum of aught-teen pandering, Juno. iFanboy lamented the fact that SP ads ran during Baseball Tonight on ESPN, a far cry from their target fanbase. And none of the ads for the film played up the indie rock, 8-bit gamer, hipster comic vibe.

But maybe that’s too narrow a reason. Maybe the film’s box office failure had to do with competing against Eat Pray Love and The Expendables, movies that had the potential to divide popcorn audiences by gender lines. Maybe the failure was because SP had no bankable stars and few recognizable faces other than the still fringe Michael Cera. Or maybe, like many reviewers have said, the video game/comic book/indie rock language of a movie like Scott Pilgrim is a generational dog whistle, a totally incomprehensible mess–there’s literally a cut every five seconds–to anyone beyond the age of 35. Or maybe, as has been suggested, nobody cares about the relationship drama of slacker hipster douchebags (say it isn’t so!).

I imagine that SP will make back its 60 million budget via overseas ticket gross and the home market, but its initial box office failure means Hollywood won’t be attempting a bombastic experiment ala Scott Pilgrim anytime in the near future. And that’s probably the most depressing thought about the entire debacle. I hoped that the Scott Pilgrim film would open doors for other thematically similar properties in comics and television, film and literature. But the Edgar Wright picture is doomed to cult status like my beloved Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey or the great Norm MacDonald picture Dirty Work. And until the powers that be figure out a way to make the graphic-laden, gamer-inspired visuals of Scott Pilgrim for less than 60 million, I wouldn’t expect to see another film like this for a long while.

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