Why ‘Kick-Ass’ Succeeded At the Box Office (Even If It Doesn’t Feel That Way)

Updated: Deadline is reporting that Kick-Ass actually won the week by a narrow margin of $19.8 million to $19.6 million for How to Train Your Dragon.

I’m sitting in a giant echo-chamber of a movie theater complete with it’s old-style, curved panoramic screen and chairs that were ordered with gusto by someone in the 1950s. In the Century Park 16, tucked away from the rest of the bustling world in Tucson, Arizona, it’s no surprise that my afternoon screening of Kick-Ass is almost completely empty except for a trio of teens who are skipping school, a middle-aged man who’s slouched down in the back, and a couple that sneak in fifteen minutes into the action.

There’s almost never a huge crowd there (which is part of why I love it), but the bad news for Matthew Vaughn and company is that the scene I witnessed was the norm, not an outlier.

So now everybody is asking the proverbial question about how a movie with that much hype performs with such lackluster at the box office. After all, it came out with geeks screaming its praises from Butt-Numb-a-Thon, from South by Southwest, and from Austin in general. How could all of those positive reviews not lead to success?

It’s fairly simple actually, but the first thing to remember is that Kick-Ass wasn’t a failure except at playing the expectations game. Let’s look at it in context:

Kick-Ass is an indie film made for $30 million that just made $37 million world-wide by its U.S. opening weekend.

Even with the average path a film takes through the theaters, the movie has already made its budget back, will make its advertising budget back by next weekend, and will ultimately be a financial success. It won’t be the smashing success that some predicted, but it will still be a success.

Of course, those raw numbers don’t take into consideration the split between Lionsgate, the theaters, and the film’s producers, so technically the production team has not regained its original investment. However, a film (especially one with this type of budget) making an equitable number back on its opening weekend is a good sign that it will be on schedule to be a positive investment.

People are shifting in their seats about sequel possibilities seeming out of reach now, which is a fine question to ask, but we’ll get to that after taking a look at why Kick-Ass didn’t explode out of the box.

‘R’ Does Not Stand For ‘Target Audience’

The  film world does a metric ton of editorializing about the ratings system. In particularly, we talk a lot about how those secretive, old white people hurt the artistic process and the business model by slapping an R-rating on a film for seemingly arbitrary reasons. However, in the case of Kick-Ass, I think everyone can agree that it earned its R. Unfortunately, that rating doesn’t do well when your target audience is 14-year old boys. Those boys have a tough time getting into the theater without buying a ticket to How to Train Your Dragon.

Am I saying that the numbers are inflated? Not exactly. I’ve always hated that argument because it’s so absolutely unprovable, but on the common sense level, I will make the bold claim that at least one whole ticket for the family fare ended up wandering into the wrong theater for some ultra-violence.

Still, the ultimate obstacle there is creating a movie aimed at the younger set and then barring them from seeing it. It’s a simple case of conflicting goals – which is fine – especially considering that the filmmakers clearly weren’t making a film to maximize profits. Unfortunately, that’s a reality they’ll come face to face with over the course of the next few weeks.

Conservative Groups Don’t Matter, Do They?

Usually there is a boost in sales when people threaten to protest. The do-gooders and morality policemen often have the opposite effect by increasing awareness and interest in a project, so many people are confused that Kick-Ass might have been hurt by the attention instead of helped.

The only reason I can come up with is pointing out that there were no protests.

For all the screaming about controversy on the internet, there were no major parental organizations that planned or executed protests – at least not on any sort of large scale to have an effect. All of the controversy talk about violence and children saying naughty words seemed to come directly from the filmmakers. And, you know, Roger Ebert.

In this case, conservative groups don’t matter because they weren’t ever really in the equation. Perhaps attempting to drum up controversy only alerted some who were planning on seeing it to the very type of film. Without some flustered parent making a jackass of himself on national news networks, the film didn’t have that organic boost that comes from people buying a ticket just to see what has the Christian League of Conservative Christians of America all knotted up.

Then What About How to Train Your Dragon?

It’s a nice tidy picture that a kid-friendly film launched back from the pack to beat the kid-friendly film with violence in it, but there’s no conspiracy here. Yes, How to Train Your Dragon moved from being 3rd back to 1st, but it also lost money. It also lost its #1 spot to a movie that got dragged through the mud upon opening (Clash of the Titans) and dropped all the way to 5th, and a comedy that is keeping a standard course in diminished ticket sales in its second week (Date Night). A simple look at the math from the previous weekend and this weekend shows that Dragon didn’t so much soar back into 1st as it limped past other films on a faster decline.

Still, Kick-Ass failed to overtake it. It’s not a grand, conservative conspiracy, but the film earned every bit of its 2nd place finish.

No Names

The movie didn’t feature any big name talent (except for Nicolas Cage who didn’t happen to searching for any lost treasure), and that can definitely be a factor in breaking a movie beyond its built-in audience and out into the mainstream. This is a likely culprit, along with other factors, as to why the film didn’t bust right out of the gate.

However, the reverse argument is also true in this case: a film with no known stars just made $20 million in one weekend.

Accidental Marketing

One other possible hypothesis is that Lionsgate just didn’t know how to market the film. There was a lot of red band material, but it was all shown to people already interested in going. Plus, most of the television spots all high-lighted the humor and camp which, some believe, led certain possible movie goers to think of it as a spoof along the lines of Superhero Movie (which opened with less than $10 million back in March of 2008).

Yet again, another completely unprovable hypothesis. Plus, it’s one that sounds moronic considering that, yes, there was humor in the trailers but, no, it was miles away from anything in the spoof world. Even the casual television watcher could have seen a noticeable lack of Leslie Nielsen in the Kick-Ass trailer.

Still, with that conspiracy theory unprovable, it still stands to reason that there was a failure in marketing here that was augmented by the challenge outlined earlier in selling a comic book movie to kids who won’t be allowed into the theaters without an adult.

Will There Be a Sequel?

I don’t know. I don’t know because I’m not Mark Millar or Matthew Vaughn. I’m sure that there are some conversations to have, but the important thing to remember here is that the film was actually a success at the box office. It wasn’t a huge success, it wasn’t the kind of success that people preached about, but based purely on the numbers, the film is in the money.

As an indie film picked up for distribution from Lionsgate, it is in a unique position. This isn’t like Spider-Man where Sony had a target number and executives waiting to give the go-ahead based on ROI. This is a film that is in its own driver’s seat. That driver’s seat might be occupied by Lionsgate now, but all the talk about the film failing or not deserving a sequel is a bit absurd.

If there’s a fan base there, and if the production cost can be kept low, and if the artists want to see what else they can do with the material, and if Chloe Moretz thinks of something more offensive to say, then I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a sequel. And all of those seem well within the realm of the possible. Especially the part about Moretz. I hear she can curse like a sailor.

To every geek out there slapping his or her forehead, and for everyone currently wringing their hands about whether a sequel will be made, please take a deep breath. Count to ten. Take a ride on your jet pack. Kick-Ass was a success even if it doesn’t exactly feel that way.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated from its original format to clarify on the concept of making the budget back.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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