Why American Ultra Flopped

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by Craig Thomas

American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Following the flop of new stoner/slacker/spy action comedy American Ultra, writer Max Landis went on a full-on Twitter rant, basically blaming the public for not being smart enough to choose to see it, because, by golly, it certainly had nothing to do with the film or anyone who made it. No, it was all your fault, you idiot.

His biggest issue was that it was out-performed by a bunch of sequels and reboots and that no-one is interested in seeing “original” movies any more. Aside from the question of whether films about slacker stoners and spies with amnesia can actually be deemed “original,” the biggest issue with his rant is that, in his determination to blame everyone else for the films failure, he completely overlooks the following issues that could have easily predicted this would not be the box office smash he was apparently expecting.

(Hint: most of them have nothing to do with the audience.)

The leads aren’t a massive box office draw

This is not a criticism of either actor (both of whom I like), nor of their ability to carry a film. However, they simply do not have the ability to fill seats as someone like Tom Cruise can. If Tom Cruise is in a film people will go to see it because, hey, it’s Tom Cruise! Everyone knows him, everyone loves him, Scientology or no.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart? Not so much. Sure, they’ve been in very successful films, but they were never primary reason for the success, even if they put in fine performances. To demonstrate, let’s take a look at their back catalogue.

Jesse Eisenberg

Here, we want to compare like-for-like. So, to start, we should exclude any films that opened on a significantly smaller number of screens than the 2,778 on which American Ultra was shown. According to Box Office Mojo, by doing this we exclude 13 of the 23 films on their list. Of the remaining 10, we can exclude a number of films where Eisenberg isn’t necessarily the prominent draw.

  • The Village: An M. Night Shamalan film from when that was still considered a good thing.
  • Rio 1 and 2: Family friendly animated cartoons about talking animals.
  • Now You See Me: A tent-pole movie with an ensemble cast and the biggest budget on the list.
  • The Social Network: Whilst he is the lead, this is directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin and about a social media website with (at the time) 500 million users worldwide.
  • Cursed: A Wes Craven horror. Comes with a built-in fan base.

This leaves us with four films.

  • Zombieland
  • 30 minutes or Less
  • Adventureland
  • American Ultra

The most successful was (surprise, surprise) Zombieland, which took just shy of $25 million in its opening weekend. However, it could easily be argued that we could also exclude Zombieland from this list, as the main attraction is zombies, coming out when zombie-fever was at its peak.

This leaves only three films.

In terms of opening weekends, they fared thusly:

  • 30 Minutes or Less: $13.3 million from 2,888 screens
  • Adventureland: $5.7 million from 1,862 screens
  • American Ultra: $5.4 million from 2,778 screens

So, in terms of R-Rated comedies where Jesse Eisenberg is in the lead role, American Ultra has not done that badly. True, it hasn’t done as well, but was not a complete disaster. Indeed, it might actually be a bit better than the numbers suggest, as an argument could be made that the relative success of 30 Minutes or Less could be partly due to the “it’s that guy from Zombieland, that was funny” factor, with it coming only a couple of years later. There may also be another reason, which we will get to later.

For now, let’s take a look a Kristen Stewart’s catalogue.

Kristen Stewart

Applying the same criteria for Kristen Stewart, by looking at films with a similar number of screen openings, we take the initial list of 26 movies down to 14.

Excluding the films where she isn’t necessarily the prominent draw, we can exclude

  • The Twilight saga (five films)
  • Zathura: A big budget film before she was broke through in Twilight.
  • Panic Room: A David Fincher film starring Jodie Foster.
  • Catch that Kid: A kid’s film before she broke through with Twilight.
  • Cold Creek Manor: A Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone movie.

Of the 14, this leaves five.

  • Snow White and The Huntsman
  • American Ultra
  • The Messengers
  • In The Land of Women
  • Adventureland

And argument could also be made to exclude Snow White And the Huntsman, a $170 million tentpole based on one of the most famous fairytale characters of all time.

Of the remaining four, one (The Messengers) is a PG-13 horror, so not directly comparable.

Of the three remaining, they did thusly;

  • In The Land Of Women: $4.7 million from 2,155 screens
  • Adventureland: $5.7 million from 1,862 screens
  • American Ultra: $5.4 million from 2,778 screens

So, even if we include In The Land Of Women, which is a PG-13 comedy, not R-Rated, we still reach the same conclusion; American Ultra did not do badly when compared to similar films starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.

The writer or director aren’t massive box office draws either

Both the writer and director have one major credit to their name before this film. Max Landis wrote Chronicle, which was essentially a superhero film starring children, whilst Nima Nourizadeh directed teenage-house-party-goes-out-of-control film, Project X.

Both of these were low-budget success stories, both released in the last three years. So when the Landis complains people aren’t interested in original stories (again, side-stepping the issue of whether these stories are original), are we supposed to believe that suddenly happened in the past three years, or is he being somewhat disingenuous?

Indeed, it seems the marketing department did not think it worthwhile to mention these films. The posters do not contain from “from the writer of Chronicle” or “from the director of Project X”. Presumably this is because this neither Landis or Nourizadeh are household names and this film is nothing like the previous two, so there is not much of a carry-over audience.

Stoner movies aren’t particularly successful at the Box Office

Stoner comedies are rarely mainstream cinema hits. Often because they are terrible but also because their target audience is usually too high to leave the comfort of their own homes. So naturally, the best ones end up being cult classics viewed through a smoky haze in crowded dorm rooms.

Again, according to Box Office Mojo, stoner movies don’t even deserve their own genre, instead being lumped in with slacker movies.

If we take this list and order it by the most successful opening weekends, American Ultra is rated as the 28th most successful stoner/slacker film of all time. Filter out the non-stoner films and this rises to become the 18th most successful movie of all time. Out of the top 20 films they list, arguably 10 are stoner films.

  • Knocked Up
  • Pineapple Express
  • This Is The End
  • Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
  • Next Friday
  • Dude, Where’s My Car?
  • 30 Minutes or Less
  • Friday After Next
  • A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
  • Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

True, these figures are not adjusted for inflation, but seeing as the majority of these films came out in the past 10 years or so (which coincides with the relevant period of the careers of Eisenberg and Stewart), it demonstrates a trend that stoner films don’t do fantastically well at the box office.

To give you a clue: 30 Minutes or Less is listed as the 7th most successful stoner film weekend opening of all time.

Mixed reviews

We can argue all the live long day about whether or not critics reviews impact on the success or otherwise of film, but the fact is this film did not go down well with critics. They didn’t really hate it, they just thought it wasn’t very good.

Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 5.5/10, whilst IMDB gave it a rating of 6.5/10. These are hardly numbers to get excited about and cast doubt on how objectively Landis can see the movie (which, understandably, probably isn’t that much), saying “honestly, it’s a good movie…” Now, he might be right, but clearly not everyone agrees with him.

Indeed, if we look at the previous films in this genre starring these actors, we find a pretty strong correlation between user ratings and box office success. The only discrepancy is that 30 Minutes or Less has a RT rating of 5.4/10 (marginally less than AU’s 5.5), but that might have something to do with the aforementioned “Zombieland effect”, coupled with a prominent role for one of the stoner poster-boys, Danny McBride. Put him on the poster and you know exactly what to expect. Which brings us to…

Terrible title/poster campaign

In his Twitter rant, Landis claimed the film had “good ads.” In the UK at least, this simply wasn’t true. Sure, there were posters everywhere, but what did they mean?

Show anyone the poster for this film cold and I guarantee they will not have a clue what it is about. It is simply confusing and people will not go to a film if they don’t understand what it is about, especially when they’ve already seen the promotional material.

American Ultra Posters

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Here, the poster is Eisenberg and Stewart in the Buddhist lotus position with multiple arms holding random items from the film. Seriously, what?!

The image makes no sense, particularly when coupled with the title, which lacking appropriate context could mean anything at all. These posters provide no clue as to what the film is about. It could be pretty much anything. Now, I’m not advocating treating the audience like idiots, but at least give them half a chance to understand what it is you’re trying to sell them.

Landis also stated the film was “beaten by the critically reviled Hitman Agent 47 and Sinister [2], despite being a better reviewed film than either.” Whilst this is technically correct, it overlooks the point that there is an almost automatic audience for these kind of films.

Hitman is a mindless shoot-em-up based on a video game, the other is a horror. Whether or not either film will have more longevity than American Ultra (I personally doubt it), there are people who will go and see these films, regardless of quality. Audiences are more likely to pay for something that will meet their expectations, even if those expectations are rock bottom.

Tell people what it is and people are more likely to see it, don’t and they won’t.

In short, there are many reasons why American Ultra didn’t do as well as Landis had hoped, some of which he might have been able to influence, some of them he certainly could not. However, it always comes over as churlish and entitled when you complain an audience doesn’t love your film as much as you do (even if you are right) and hopefully in future he will look at what he can do to make the movie more of a success rather than blaming the audience, even if it is as simple as having realistic expectations.

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