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Did the facts behind 'The Social Network' hurt it at the box office?

October 4, 2010 |  9:30 am

Like Jon Stewart vs. Bill O'Reilly, or Mark Sanchez vs.Ryan Fitzpatrick, stacking up a true story against a fictional one isn't exactly a fair fight.

True tales hold an innate advantage. Tell audiences you're depicting an event that at least roughly parallels how it really happened, and it changes everything. Ordinary dramas are turbocharged into extraordinary ones. Flaws and pockmarks that would be called out in a fictional narrative are papered over and forgiven. For most of us, the idea that a movie's events played out that way in real life allows a shaky premise to be let off the hook; if it all really happened, we think, how can we hold a movie responsible for contrivances or leaps?

And true stories allow us to be more impressed by a film's texture and performances, which may be why five of the past six best actor Oscar winners were playing real people, or at least characters inspired by real people.

That principle should have helped "The Social Network" exceed all expectations this weekend.

As anyone within smelling distance of a television or Web site has learned  over the past few weeks, the David Fincher movie isn't just about a few ambitious young people taking on the world and each other -- it's a part of our recent past that, details about technical accuracy aside, has in turn helped shape our faraway future.

Wherever you looked, you couldn't escape the movie's truth, or at least its truthiness. Writer Aaron Sorkin went on talk shows to discuss the competing vantage points he merged to tell the story.  There was the daily saga of whether Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would himself see the movie (he was spotted in a Seattle screening! he rented out a theater for Facebook employees!), that seemed to underline, eerily and in real time, the same narcissism he displayed on the screen.

And if the marketing campaign's invocation of memes from the site didn't remind us that this all was happening in more than a fictional world, the very fact that millions of us log in to Facebook every day accomplished the trick for us. (That Facebook's corporate representatives questioned the authenticity of the account only made the film seem all the more hard-hitting and, well, truthful.)

All this should have taken an already tantalizing story and compelled us to see it even more. Yet when the movie opened this weekend, that's not what happened. With $23 million in domestic box office, The film performed respectably. But it fell short of some predictions that had its opening-weekend total closer to $30 million. Instead, its $23 million was in line with other more fictional and farfetched dramas this fall, such as "The Town," which tallied $23.8 million in its first weekend, almost exactly the same box office figure as "The Social Network." The but-much-of-this-is-real factor seemed to have little favorable effect on the film.

There's no way to determine this precisely, of course, to test how "The Social Network" would have performed if there were no shades of real life in it -- if it were, say, just an older- and more male-skewing "Gossip Girl" with A-list film credentials.  What we do know is the movie played well on the coasts, where an awareness of the media is practically in the drinking water, and where the film almost certainly benefited from the publicity that came from its parallels to real-life events.

It didn't play as well elsewhere, which suggests that any benefits accrued from the movie telling a real-life tale might have been counteracted by the perception of the film as a story of a group of real-life rich Harvard kids fighting over credit.

In this way, it might have been better off it was about a site we didn't know as well, or one that didn't exist at all. Tell people that the events of most Hollywood movies happened that way in actuality and their eyes snap open. But remind them of a real-life company founded by elites, in an elite place, and you may not grab their attention in quite the same way. In fact, you just might push them away.

If the real-world echoes did have a mixed effect on the performance of "The Social Network," it contains a certain irony. Since the film's publicity campaign began, the filmmakers and the cast  have attempted mightily to explain that, even though some contested this version of events, it all well could have been true. This probably answered some journalists' questions. But when it comes to attracting moviegoers, sometimes, it seems, there may be truths worth avoiding.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: The Social Network. Credit: Sony Pictures

Comments () | Archives (16)

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Too much hype. Yes I want to see this movie, but I had zero interest in seeing it on opening weekend. Seems to me this movie failed to hit its target. The Facebook crowd.

The movie performed fine and this article had no substance.

Sanchez vs. Fitzpatrick?

Are you hung over from the weekend or something?

Plenty of 'based on a true story' films fail miserably. There is zero correlation between a 'true story' and box office success. If you want to lob out a phony assertion like that, perhaps you can back it up with data... "5 of 6 oscar winners" is NOT box office.

TITANTIC is theoretically 'based on a true story'. But AVATAR isn't.

I swear, you LA Times film guys are just lazy.

"It didn't play as well elsewhere, which suggests that any benefits accrued from the movie telling a real-life tale might have been counteracted by the perception of the film as a story of a group of real-life rich Harvard kids fighting over credit."

Agree completely.

Although I haven't seen "The Social Network" yet, the praise and reactions to it seem similar to 2004's "De-Lovely" (the biopic about Cole Porter). Both are historically inaccurate, although entertaining, well-directed and acted. But the talented Kevin Kline seemed to be channeling Noel Coward though, instead of Porter. And concentrating on Porter's relationship with his wife was a big mistake, as this was a marriage of convenience, and for social and money (play-investor) connections). I've read the excellent biography "Cole Porter: A Biography," which was much better (and definitely more real) than the movie.

Probably Aaron Sorkin's writing is just a bit too high for most people to understand. Americans are used to be dumbing-down by the writing seen on both the small and big screen. They don't want to think, just be entertained. Sorkin's writing is a whole lot better than what's out there now.

The reason this movie underperformed is as @SMB stated, it missed its mark. Trying too hard to be cool with the advertising campaign "PUNK, TRAITOR, BILLIONAIRE." I believe the twenty something demographic could see through the BS. I haven't seen the movie, but the advertising was isolating and misleading. The commercials and print were the opposite of "see this movie and you'll be cool," it was, "see this movie if you ARE cool." Kids, especially cool kids did not see this movie. Adults did, more specifically mother's and fathers who are new to the internet. The fact that this article is trying to say people didn't like the movie because of it's "Truth," is downright offensive. Anybody who knows anything about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, knows the movie is 99% fiction. If you want to feed people lies, you shouldn't label it truth, especially when we all lived through it.

How did anyone know how close to real life this movie was ... ?

I don't get the premise of whether it hurt or helped ... you'd have to know that facts and even if you did (the 10 people in the world who might know that "facts"), you wouldn't have seen the movie before you paid for the ticket.

its a nice movie, a nice villain, nicely told, but it is just a movie on a great weekend with lots of other stuff to do ... hollywood is not always that important.

I appreciate this posting, certainly. And I saw the movie this weekend. On the one hand, the semi-hype in many publications, about the movie's relative lack of success, seems a bit overblown. The movie did well enough that so man of us are talking and thinking about it..?

But if some people skip the film, I think it boils down to this: We like using Facebook. 500 million like it. Do we care if the founder is an arrogant jerk. Uhhh, not really. Hey, if he is an arrogant jerk, he seems that much cooler and more orginal to me. Cool, dude.

Long live Mark Zuckerberg, thanks for what you made for the world. And thanks to any of the people in the film who are for real, and deserved their fair share of credit, whomever they may be.

Much like the era in which the movie is set, this film looks bland, boring and tedious enough to make you want to kill yourself. Those are the reasons people avoided seeing the Social Network.

At The Plant in Van Nuys, the normally polite working class teens in the audience were bored out of their minds by a "thriller" over which rich Harvard brainiacs will get even richer through depositions and stock dilution. I had to keep shushing people around me who were talking about the weather or whatever to get their minds off a movie they couldn't stand. And The Plant is, otherwise, almost always a nice place to see movies.

"The Social Network" is an extremely well-made movie, but Aaron Sorkin's script doesn't do anything to accommodate people with IQs below about 115. In contrast, Christopher Nolan built enough redundancy into "Inception" to let the mass audience catch up with what's going on.

An excellent film and I agree with other comments about the lack of substance in the article. I guess we are supposed to plug for Chavez lover Oliver Stones stupid film instead.

Meh. Couldn't believe it when I read that both the director and the star of this movie don't *do* Facebook. That must be why this movie sounds like so many other boilerplate products to come out of Hollywood. Revenge of the nerds? Check. Familiar stereotypes of ivy league students, including preppy jocks? Check. Vapid women nowhere near real positions of power. Check.

Hey, I've seen this movie before!

When i find myself in the company of people like the protagonist, i move away.

Why would i want to torture myself by watching his personality onscreen for over 90 minutes??

saw it last night, and it's a great story. it's relevant and true, worth seeing.
however, they picked only a few aspects of the story to focus on and draw out. would have been nice if they were a little more liberal with the scissors in the editing room.
also, trent reznor's score? fail. epic fail.

I think this article ignores the real reason why people didn't flock to this movie ... nobody really cares to watch a movie about social networking. It was the same with that bomb of a series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Just because lots of people tune in to entertainment or spend hours on their Facebook pages, doesn't mean that the people behind the scenes of that media are very compelling or offer much for us to learn from.

Most of us already knew parts (but not necessarily the same parts) of the story -- what Sorkin and the cast DID with the story made for superbly witty dialogue, social commentary/parody, and insight about the complexities, error, and genius that created a network now used by almost everyone with a friend and internet access. (While perhaps not the high point of the film for everyone, Sorkin or someone deserves beau coup bonus points for crafting the scene where the Larry Summers character is such an [jerk] that one almost feels sympathetic toward the twitty twin Winklevii.) Those most likely to be motivated to see TSN: West Wing/Sorkin fans, Harvard alumni and faculty, lawyers, Silicon Valley/Seattle nerds...with THAT as the core audience, 23 mill is pretty damned impressive!


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