Last year, around this time, I started seeing a ton of ads on Fox NFL games for the movie Drive. I'd seen the movie early and thought it was terrific, but I couldn't help but notice how ill-fitting the promotions for the movie were juxtaposed against Pitbull's Dr. Pepper ads and Terry Bradshaw doing his Cajun minstrel act. Drive was being marketed as another Fast Five, which is pretty much the opposite of what that movie was. (The ads even inspired a dipshit lawsuit.)
The movie was a tough sell, in any case. It had recognizable actors but not bankable movie stars; it was released in a month when it's tough to break through; and, yes, it was a lot smarter than its ads made it out to be, which is always a recipe for bad initial word-of-mouth. (The best example of this is probably George Clooney's The American.) So it disappointed its opening weekend, box office-wise, because it was an art film made to look like a tentpole action film. This didn't affect my enjoyment of Drive at all, but I do think it hurt its prospects, awards-wise; Drive was never spoken about as rhapsodically again.
I'm a little worried the same thing is gonna happen to Looper this weekend. As you know, I think the film is fantastic. Now, the comparison with Drive isn't exact. Both films are stylish and expertly constructed, but Looper is far more audience-friendly, with a more satisfying conclusion; it feels like an unusually intelligent Hollywood movie rather than a chilly Euro commentary on violence. But every box office report I've been reading this weekend tells me that Looper isn't expected to do well, that it's going to finish behind Hotel Transylvania, a movie I didn't even know existed until about 20 minutes ago.
This feels like a surprise, but it probably shouldn't. Looper has been eagerly awaited by movie nerds for months—Criticwire's weekly survey of critics proclaimed it the fall movie film writers were most looking forward to—but it has several wide-release problems going against it. Its stars are far from sure-fire (people know Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but he's hardly a global icon); it has a complicated premise that doesn't lend itself to a 30-second ad; and, perhaps most important, it's rated R but isn't a comedy. A film like this tends to do poorly on opening weekends.
Which prompts the question: Who cares? Oh, I'm sure people involved with the movie care; if the movie's a hit, writer-director Rian Johnson will have more power to keep making these smart movies and will be able to hold off directing Iron Man 5 for a couple of years. (Though a Johnson-helmed Iron Man 5 would be kind of awesome.) And I hope it does well, in the sense that you want as many people to see a movie that you love. But it doesn't affect my enjoyment of the film; it doesn't make the film any worse if it doesn't do well and it doesn't make it any better if it does. But there will still be a sense that, if the movie doesn't have a big opening weekend, there will something wrong with it, just like there was with Drive, just like there was with The American.
We have a Today-show culture that covers box-office grosses like they're sports scores, like they're numbers that clearly delineate winners and losers in every possible way. (When I interviewed Spike Lee, a common question people wanted me to ask him was, "Why don't your movies make more money?" as if there was something wrong with him for not being Michael Bay.) If Looper existed solely to win its opening weekend, it would be called Bad Boys 3 or, maybe Hotel Transylvania, I guess. This is a movie that attempts to do something different and intelligent and emotional while still remembering to entertain. If it doesn't do well this weekend, it will be because of a failure of marketing, not production. That the two are very often the same thing is the only thing worth caring about.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.