Conan The Barbarian co-writer Sean Hood answers a dismal question: What’s it like to have your film flop at the box office?
The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls” are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.
By about 9 PM its clear when your “candidate” has lost by a startlingly wide margin, more than you or even the most pessimistic political observers could have predicted. With a movie its much the same: trade magazines like Variety and Hollywood Reporter call the weekend winners and losers based on projections. That’s when the reality of the loss sinks in, and you don’t sleep the rest of the night.
Read the whole thing. It’s a great write-up of the experience.
As screenwriters, we have little control over anything beyond the words on the page. Once cameras start rolling, the director, the producers and studio executives are making the big decisions. We contribute where we can — screenwriters can be great in the editing room — but we’re largely spectators.
In the last few days before release, even those big decision-makers are spectators. It truly is a launch: you’re watching the movie follow its trajectory, powerless to alter its course by more than a few degrees.
The quality of the finished film is obviously a major factor in how it performs. But it’s never the biggest factor.
What movies are you opening against? Which movies are holding surprisingly well? Did your fourth-billed star recently marry a younger man and show up at the premiere with both him and her ex-husband, sucking up all available publicity? (For example.)
Ultimately, you may have to fall back on Hollywood’s tautological version of the Serenity Prayer: It is what it is. There’s not always a helpful lesson to learn — at least not a lesson you as the screenwriter can act upon.