Why 'Expendables' Soared, 'Scott Pilgrim' Crashed At Box Office

Megastars, marketing and hard-core action won out over comic-book adaptation.

At one end of the cinema landscape this weekend stood a bunch of past-their-prime action heroes with quick trigger fingers and arthritic knees. At the other end lounged some hipster ass-kickers, spouting jaded one-liners and every so often brawling like "Mortal Kombat" warriors.

Given such a matchup, you might be forgiven for thinking that 64-year-old Sylvester Stallone and "The Expendables" had no chance in competing with Michael Cera's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" at the box office. But Sly dominated, even outperforming early estimates, pulling in $35 million. Meanwhile, "Scott Pilgrim," which was tracking poorly to begin with, managed only a disappointing $10.5 million.

So what happened? Why did "Expendables" kill it, while "Scott Pilgrim" couldn't expand its audience from the niche fans who went all foamy-at-the-mouth during the flick's Comic-Con panel?

"Lionsgate is the best in the business at targeting adult men with ultra-violent fare," said Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru. " 'Expendables' worked well at the box office because it offered a value-pack of stars and had great marketing. Stallone by himself doesn't sell, but backed by an army of familiar faces, it became a can't-miss action film for many people. The misleading push of how Stallone, [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, and [Bruce] Willis were doing their first action movie together probably fooled a few folks into buying tickets too."

Yet action flicks have been anything but reliable box-office draws this summer. Films such as "The A-Team" and "Knight and Day" — like "Expendables," flicks starring well-known talent and not dressed up with 3-D or a ton of CG work — underperformed this year. Did "Expendables" simply benefit from a vastly superior marketing campaign, or was there something about its particular brand of action that resonated with the public? Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, argues that Sly's flick benefited from an emphasis on grenades instead of laughs.

" 'A-Team' and 'Knight and Day' are action/comedies, whereas 'The Expendables' is a balls-to-the-wall action flick," he said. "When action junkies want their fix, hardcore is the only answer, and until 'The Expendables' was released, we hadn't seen a straight-up action flick all summer long."

"Scott Pilgrim," conversely, arrived on the scene during a year that had already seen lesser-known comic properties like "Kick-Ass" and "Jonah Hex" fail to connect with mainstream audiences. Box-office experts cited a number of factors to explain why "Scott Pilgrim," based on graphic novels that have become cult hits but are largely unfamiliar to most moviegoers, didn't become a breakout hit.

" 'Scott Pilgrim' is an awesome film, just like 'Kick-Ass' was, but it's too cool for its own good," Bock said. "When you only appeal to teens and hipsters, you're limiting your audience, and your film better only cost $30 million. Pilgrim cost at least twice that amount. Don't spend more than $30 million on films that are too hip for the general populace."

Given its limited demographic appeal, the movie was simply a huge financial risk for Universal. Still, as we've seen with "Expendables," a stellar marketing campaign can work wonders at the box office. Phil Contrino, editor at BoxOffice.com, said that the studio's marketing effort could have "played up the romance a little bit more, [which] may have brought in more female moviegoers, but it wouldn't have made a huge difference."

"It's a film with a narrow appeal and Michael Cera is far from a reliable draw at the box office," he added. "It's destined to be a cult hit and it could make up for its lackluster theatrical performance with strong sales on home-viewing platforms."

Pandya points to the summer's crowded release schedule as another reason for the movie's $10.5 million opening (which put it in fifth place, just behind "Inception" in its fifth weekend). " 'Scott Pilgrim' could have worked better at a different time of the year," he said. "The target audience of young people tend to get tapped out of cash by late summer and become even more picky with their few dollars left, especially this year with so much more they have to spend on 3-D movies. Studios and production companies should think more about costs before turning comic properties into movies, given how flooded the market is becoming. Fans don't have the time and money to see everything."

Check out everything we've got on "The Expendables" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

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