Well, we now have the scapegoat of the movie season, and it isn't the usual stupid flop like THE AVENGERS or HOWARD THE DUCK. No, the season's most visible disappointment is BELOVED, which can't even be said to have crashed and burned: it never really got off the ground, earning only $18 million in its first 17 days -- less than half as much as THE WATERBOY made in its first three days.
So what happened? Hollywood pundits have weighed in with their pet analyses:
(1) IT'S A THREE-HOUR-LONG DEPRESSING MOVIE
So was SCHINDLER'S LIST, you may say. But that film had a relatively uplifting narrative: the good Samaritan saving as many Jews as he could. BELOVED is about the agony of memory -- and that memory is about slavery. If the poor returns of AMISTAD and ROSEWOOD have proved anything, it's that people don't want to be reminded of America's racist past. Not only white audiences -- black audiences, too, may find it too upsetting. (To the annoyance of serious black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton, the majority of black moviegoers are like the majority of any other moviegoers: they want stupid movies they can decompress in front of on Saturday night. Hence the success of Chris Tucker.)
Plus, SCHINDLER'S LIST was safely over in Europe. White American audiences could feel secure in the knowledge that it could never happen here (tell that to the Native Americans); there was no immediate guilt involved. Length itself is always a problem, TITANIC being the big exception to the otherwise immutable rule that a movie too long to be shown six times a day simply doesn't gross as much. (Unless it's a big hit right out of the box, in which case it spreads to multiple screens and can be shown six times a day. This is very rare.)
(2) PEOPLE ARE TIRED OF OPRAH
With the best of intentions, she has turned herself into the Anti-Springer. Which is fine, but she's gone too far -- even some of her longtime viewers are starting to get sick of Oprah the guru, Oprah the priestess who tells us what to read and how to live. She was due for a humbling stumble. BELOVED was it. (It will be interesting to see how Springer's own upcoming movie RINGMASTER fares at the box office...)
(3) TOO MUCH HYPE
In a season without many prestige projects, BELOVED was positioned as the Oscar contender of the leafy months, a challenger to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and THE TRUMAN SHOW. Not any more. Also, the ads sold it as COLOR PURPLE 2, which was not only misleading but very likely self-destructive: Here, again, were Oprah and Danny Glover in a white male director's adaptation of a well-loved black woman's novel. One could almost hear Spike Lee sharpening his axe anew.
(4) FEAR OF A BLACK CINEMA, or NEGATIVE BUZZ
Probably no serious movie is immune from at least some pre-release controversy (hell, even THE SIEGE took some shrapnel), but has anyone noticed that every serious, high-profile black-themed movie in recent years has been tainted by rumors and whispers? The one exception was EVE'S BAYOU, which was probably considered too small to bother with. (This also excludes Terry McMillan adaptations, which are basically chick flicks with a different face.) I'm not suggesting a conspiracy against black cinema, but the buzz surrounding MALCOLM X (Spike wants kids to skip school to see it!), AMISTAD (it ripped off a novel!), and ROSEWOOD (historically inaccurate!), to name just three, is consistent with the bad odor on BELOVED (black female screenwriter had to fight to get credit along with two white male screenwriters who allegedly plagiarized her draft!).
(5) TIMING IS EVERYTHING
"If this movie had platformed," said an Oscar campaigner in Entertainment Weekly, "you wouldn't be talking about a bomb." "Platforming," for those not up on the lingo, is when a movie opens in the major cities first, then gradually spreads across the country -- rather than opening wide on 1,501 screens, as BELOVED did. Disney should have sat on BELOVED until December, releasing it for a week in New York and L.A. so it'd be eligible for Oscar consideration; then slowly expanding it in January.
That's what Universal did with SCHINDLER'S LIST, which did not open wide at first; I had to drive out of my way to see it even in January -- it wasn't till after the Oscars that it went wide and made some money. (Pre-Oscars, it had made $50 million after three months in release. Relative to the small number of screens it was on, though, those were decent returns.) Platforming used to be viewed as a sign of studio jitters, whereas a wide release bespoke confidence in a film. But a wide release is a great way to kill a difficult movie -- by dumping it onto the market as if it were THE WATERBOY, crossing their fingers, and hoping it performs like THE WATERBOY. And not every film is THE WATERBOY.
(6) THE WORD OF MOUTH WASN'T THERE
As I've theorized here before, no testimonial these days is more valuable than your friend who's married with two kids, had to shell out big bucks for a babysitter, went to a movie, paid top dollar for an evening show, and is now trying to get you to see it along with him/her ("I'll see it again"). Informally known as the Harry Knowles technique ("I wish I could sit next to you as you watch it so I can watch you enjoying it," he gushed about SIX STRING SAMURAI), this now outweighs hype and reviews. The three recent repeat-business hits were TITANIC, THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN -- and who knows, THE WATERBOY may become another one -- and it's because at least one person in your life said "You gotta see it. I'll go see it again with you."
About BELOVED, I heard nary a peep. I personally know no one who has seen it. Unless some of you friends of Rob out there have seen it and just haven't seen fit to rave to me about it. Which really amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? If a friend sees a movie but doesn't talk to you about it ... well, that's the opposite of word of mouth. And a difficult, uncommercial film like BELOVED lives or dies by word of mouth. Or lack thereof.