Even if Cloverfield does not crack $40 million this weekend (as at least one box office observer expects), it’s safe to say the Martin Luther King holiday has been transformed from an opportune spot on the schedule for MTV Films’ latest teen skewing piece of shit to a legitimate off-season launching pad for… tough-to-market, modestly budgeted, would-be blockbusters? Those were Dr. King’s favorites!
This may sound minor, but Hollywood’s conventional wisdom about the four-day MLK weekend is rapidly changing. And while you could view Cloverfield as an anomaly (the marketing push is certainly unique), consider this: Lionsgate has staked out the MLK ’09 weekend a year in advance for Frank Miller’s The Spirit. Why? Well, where else are you going to open a green screen-heavy film based on a cult comic book starring Gabriel Macht? All of the major moviegoing holidays (i.e. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Christmas) are reserved for mega-budgeted studio spectaculars; either you take a shot in the increasingly crowded spring, or you call what has long been one of the more reliably lucrative weekends on the calendar.
When Paramount threw down for 1-18-08 last summer, there was a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. J.J. Abrams was riding high after the triumphant Season Three finale of Lost (buoyed by the inventiveness of head writer Damon Lindelof), so this strange teaser for an untitled film in which New York City gets leveled by god-knows-what promptly got the geek panties a-droppin’. But as we helplessly succumbed to the dead-end viral-marketing-feigning-significance (pissing and moaning as we posted each new sliver of useless information), there was always this caveat: who hypes up a January release in July? Especially one with an event movie swagger? And, not for nothing, a giant monster?
When I think giant monsters in January, I come up with Deepstar Six, seasonal depression and Marty Schottenheimer. Springing a newfangled Godzilla on audiences when they’re accustomed to seeing teenage dance-offs and the expanded release of late December Oscar contenders seemed like a tell from the studio: "We don’t know what the fuck this is, but we’ll put it up against next year’s Stomp the Yard, and see what happens." There was some talk about Abrams’s deal with Paramount, which gives him final cut for anything budgeted under $30 million (Cloverfield allegedly came in at $25 million), but the ambitiousness of the marketing still made this feel like a huge gamble. Abrams was also throwing his reputation on the line; if he failed to deliver a film that justified the hype, his future efforts (most notably Star Trek) would suffer by association.
Perhaps this is the genius of the MLK launch: anything with a bit of scale and a little imagination will look like Metropolis compared to Coach Carter (or this weekend’s other wide releases, 27 Dresses and Mad Money). Working in Cloverfield‘s favor is the fact that, viral white noise be damned, it’s actually a pretty good movie. It’s not the next, daring iteration of the giant monster movie, nor is it a "complete reinvention" of the disaster movie, the love story and the Bollywood musical. It’s just a fun seventy-four minutes of sound and fury signifying J.J. Abrams’s willingness to exploit 9/11 for a few cheap thrills. We’ll get into its allegorical effectiveness later (I’m bustin’ embargo!), but let’s just say it’s no more profound than Ishiro Honda’s Gojira, and just as likely to spawn a whole mess of sequels (much to Devin’s chagrin).
That’s because the MLK holiday is not a one-and-done deal; though Cloverfield has an excellent shot at becoming the period’s top all-time grosser (passing Black Hawk Down‘s $33 million debut*), the following weekend is the NFL’s off-week between the NFC/AFC Championship games and the Super Bowl. Unless audiences hate the snot out of the movie (it won’t be loved across the board, but it’ll hook more than it frustrates), that’s another healthy three-day haul right there**. Before you know it, you’re into February with another four-day weekend (President’s Day) coming on the 15th.
So why is Black Hawk Down the only MLK opening to crack $100 million? Um, ‘cuz it’s the only one that was a better than average movie? But, again, Scott’s film was an expansion with awards aspirations; Cloverfield is an unabashed crowd-pleaser with a familiar conceptual gimmick. And it’s got more long-term marketing muscle behind it than any January release in film history. Anything over $30 million for the four-day and a final domestic gross of $120 million will set a precedent; henceforth, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday will be targeted as yet another springboard to the century mark.
What would be nice is if the studios reserved the date as a slot for slightly unconventional fare like Cloverfield and The Spirit. As that would necessitate the making of more slightly unconventional fare, I doubt that’s going to happen; eventually, the holiday will be reduced to another coveted spot on the release schedule for the same old event noise we get at increasingly frequent intervals. And Dr. King’s dream shall live no more.
*More of an expansion. The best official opening belongs to the noxious Along Came Polly.
**There is competition from Rambo. There’s no meaningful tracking on that film yet, but I have a feeling that this won’t be another Rocky Balboa box office-wise (and that was hardly a world beater anyway).