Last winter, amid the notoriously frozen tundra of the winter movie calendar, two movies became phenomena in ways that might have surprised even the people who made them.
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Taken" each topped $145 million in domestic box office to become among the highest-grossing films released in the January-February period. The only three figures in contemporary moviedom who've managed to earn more during these months are Will Smith ("Hitch"), Hannibal Lecter ("Hannibal") and Jesus ("Passion of the Christ"). "Blart" and "Taken," not insignificantly, also irked plenty of critics -- Liam Neeson's vigilante antics eked out some, but not a lot of, sympathy from more fan-ish reviewers to land a 57% Rotten Tomtaoes score. "Blart" wasn’t as lucky -- it managed just 37%. But lest one think 2009 was some kind of alignment-of-the-planets fluke, it wasn’t. This weekend could see two films that get almost as much love from the At the Movies set -- but still make something approaching Blart-level money."The Wolfman," which has earned just a 31% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is already drawing reviews Kevin James would feel at home with ("If you think the Wolfman is conflicted, that's nothing compared with the filmmakers ... the film unfolds in both predictable and problematic ways," Betsy Sharkey writes in the Los Angeles Times).
Yet even with what will surely be some weak word-of-mouth, the film could ride a strong Friday to a $35 million opening. (Barring a full-moon-like event, the film's total won't cross the $100-million mark.)
"Valentine's Day" is an even more egregious case. The star-stew of a romantic comedy currently sits as the worst-reviewed movie of the year -- just a measly 14% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It's been so badly received that it actually makes "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," the third film opening wide this weekend, look like an Oscar candidate.
But bad reviews will be no impediment to the date-night business the film is poised to do, according to most box-office experts, including our own Ben Fritz. The film's opening could top the record romantic-comedy opening of "Sex and the City." And when all is said and done, the movie has a shot to top the $145 million threshold of "Blart" and "Taken.”
The widening gap between quality – er, critical assessment -- and box office is nothing new, even if it is a sign of the times. "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" made $400 million last summer despite getting just a 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But it's worth noting that while some summer franchises often are critically panned but commercially loved, that divergence is newer to winter. In this season, critics tend to pan the movies and audiences tend to stay away, at least in mega-size numbers. Yet slowly but surely, the second half of that equation is changing. Audiences like going to the multiplex even in these wintry months … even if the films they see offer little more than a slushy mess.
Photo: "The Wolfman." Credit: Universal Pictures