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Breaking It Down: Grindhouse

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This is an article in the continuing series "Breaking It Down", where I will carefully examine a handful of critical elements that go into the making of a feature film that is about to be released in theaters. Using these "tells", I'll predict whether or not the film with be financially successful in the theater, or fall flat on its face.

As of April 3rd, I have yet to make a bad call, but I fear Grindhouse may be my undoing. The reasons why will be explained as I go through the motions, so sit back and enjoy.

What It Did Right
Grindhouse is not a single movie per say, but two stories with a cross-over cast. One segment was directed by Quentin Tarantino while the other was directed by Robert Rodriguez. These names alone can draw a significant following to the theaters, while both of them together figure to be an unstoppable combination. Or so you would think.

More on that in the next section.

In a normal breakdown, I'd look at the big three talent factors, and explore the principles history to gain some insight as to whether or not they were prepared for for this film, or capable of doing something in this particular genre in the first place.

An example would be looking at the writer's history to see if he or she has ever done a horror film before, and whether or not that film was successful. If it was, that is a good indicator that this writer knows his or her craft and that the script most likely won't be a weak spot. If on the other hand his or her only history has been indie projects or a successful but unrelated genre film like a comedy, then that's a problem.

While it's possible that such a person can break their own mold, it has to be taken into account when looking at the big picture, and I mean that literally. If you don't have good acting, a good script, and a good director -- even if one of these three is the best there ever was at their craft -- the picture will fail.

Collaboration is the key to film making.

Grindhouse doesn't require that kind of depth of consideration because virtually everyone involved in the production either has now, or has had at some time in the past, bona fide star credentials that would give them a free pass.

We are all well aware of the writing and directing capabilities of Rodriguez and Tarantino, and the cast is absolutely laden with stars past and present. If anything, this film may actually be suffering from star overload.

It's always great to have new talent working on a film, and I make a note of this every time, especially when it comes to acting. When you give new actors a chance at a good script under the guidance of a fine director, you have a recipe for the birth of a star. Every star in this film got their break at some point either because a director was willing to take a chance to discover someone new, or because they couldn't afford big names.

The latter is becoming less of a problem as the years wear on because budgets are bloating out of control to where you can afford just about anybody you want, which of course leads me to the budget, which falls under the next section.

What It Did Wrong
Grindhouse has a listed budget of about $50 million, and you can tack on another $15 for marketing though I am just guessing about the latter. I rarely figure that into the equation unless I know for certain.

The unfortunate reality of the film business is that theaters take half of all proceeds -- cleverly named the 'theater takes half' rule -- though they do it on a sliding scale. The studio takes the majority of proceeds on the opening weekend, and the formula gradually slides in favor of the theater as time goes on. In the end, it works out to the takes-half rule.

What this means is that for a studio to break even, they must take in double what the film cost to produce. That means Grindhouse must see $100 million in world-wide revenue before the studio makes so much as a dime in profit.

This is a steep hill to climb for any film, and the larger the budget, the less likely it is that the studio will profit even if the film is a blockbuster.

Consider the recent Will Farrell film "Blades of Glory". Blades took in an impressive $35 million in domestic ticket sales from Friday through Monday, and yet its disturbing price tag of nearly $61 million means that it has only made back approximately 28% of its production cost, and will have to gross another $87 million just to break even.

In the end, the biggest problem this film has is its cost. The over abundance of stars, action sequences, and special effects make will probably keep it from reaching profitability.

Another thing that gives me pause with this film is that it isn't clear at all that there are two distinct stories bundled together, and without doing any more significant research than recalling the trailers I've seen on television, I still don't know what either of these stories are about.

That isn't to say that they don't look amazing, and based on reputation alone I'd go and see this film, but not everyone is willing to do that. There is a bit of an either-or situation with this. If I had a say in it, I would have had Dimension clean up the trailers so that some of the story could bleed through and I'd know at least a little bit about what I was going to be seeing.

This kind of ambiguity will keep some people away initially, and you really want to maximize your initial audience because a movie that does very well in its opening weekend can draw a larger crowd later on through its financial reputation alone.

On the other hand, the Grindhouse trailers are 1000% cool in a way that cannot be explained nor denied. This is something that both Tarantino and Rodriguez excel at and stands to their credit.

In order to get clarity though, you'd have to sacrifice a lot of the cool, so like I said, it's a toss up.

A real problem will be the fact that Grindhouse is releasing on Easter weekend. No films do well on holiday weekends, much less violent action flicks from the likes of such masters as Tarantino and Rodriguez on Easter.

What It Means
I have less than normal to go on because I can't look at the pasts of the principle players to make an educated guess about how well they will do their jobs on this film. With so much success and yet so much failure (mostly due to the age of the players and their long careers for some) it's a virtual coin flip when judging on talent.

The budget will be tough to overcome when opening on a holiday, but is likely to have a less steep falloff on the second weekend to make up for that. Maybe.

Also a factor to consider is that with the strong opening of Blades, Grindhouse will have unanticipated competition this weekend for the top spot.

I'm calling Grindhouse for a loss in theatrical run and profit after rentals, falling to Blades for the top spot this weekend, while taking over number one the following weekend.

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Apr 8, 2007, 12:31:00 AM
Although only Friday's boxoffice numbers are in, it looks like I over estimated this films potential. I can tell you right now that Grindhouse will not be making a profit in its theatrical run; it only brought in about $5 million on Friday, or 5% of what it cost to make given the rule.

While it's cool that my record of predicting these things is now safely intact, I did figure incorrectly about one thing: there is no way in hell it will take the #1 spot next weekend.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.