On paper, "Oldboy" could have been a hit -- a remake of a celebrated South Korean thriller by one of America's most talented filmmakers, Spike Lee, and starring an actor who specializes in brooding, tightly wound men of action, Josh Brolin.
Not that anyone was expecting it to top the box office chart, not on a holiday weekend bound to be dominated by "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." Still, the film failed to live up to even the most modest predictions (in the $2 to $3 million range). In fact, its debut barely made a dent in the chart; it opened in 17th place with $850,000, or just $1,458 per venue.
How did "Oldboy" flop so spectacularly? There's a lot of blame to go around. Here's who'll receive the brunt of it:
Spike Lee. Lee has certainly had an uneven career, in part because he rushes toward controversy instead of shying away from it, as many filmmakers do. But then, that's what made him the ideal American director to tackle a remake of Park Chan-wook's opus of calculated outrage. Besides, Lee is perfectly capable of mainstream commercial filmmaking; he's just one "Inside Man" sequel away from being back on the A-list.
Josh Brolin. Brolin made his mark six years ago as the star of "No Country for Old Men," but he's never carried a box office hit on his own shoulders. Indeed, his recent résumé contains such flops as "W.," "Jonah Hex," and "Gangster Squad." He may have been the best possible actor for the "Oldboy" lead (or not), but he's not a box office draw.
The competition. On a crowded holiday weekend, "Oldboy" had to compete against three other new releases, plus "Catching Fire," plus two expanding art-house hits ("The Book Thief" and "Philomena"), plus Thanksgiving weekend football games and tryptophan comas.
The timing. Thanksgiving is a time when people think warm and grateful thoughts about family. It's not a very hospitable time for ultraviolent thrillers about extreme psychological torture and bloody vengeance.
The tone. Or is it? "Homefront" did all right, opening in fifth place with an estimated $7.0 million, averaging $2,712 from 2,570 locations. That's still a pretty weak per-screen average, but it suggests that a star like Jason Statham makes this sort of material go down easier. At any rate, no one was going to leave "Homefront" feeling thoroughly unsettled, which is the effect "Oldboy" is going for.
The distribution. FilmDistrict had been expected to release a film as high-profile and eagerly anticipated as "Oldboy" in a wide pattern across North America. Instead, it put the movie out on just 583 screens. It's possible that FilmDistrict plans to roll out the movie into more theaters in the coming weeks, but this initial release pattern suggests that the movie's own distributor doesn't have much confidence in its prospects.
The movie didn't work -- or maybe it worked too well. As critic Matt Singer notes at The Dissolve, "Oldboy" would work best for an audience familiar with the original, but also an audience that could be surprised by its major plot twists. "In other words," he writes, "this is a very confused movie, designed for an audience that doesn't exist."