Fox Searchlight's 'Amelia': How did it make it onto the runway?
I know that all of America was queasily captivated last week by the bizarre "is it real or isn't it" Balloon Boy escapade. But here in Hollywood, heads are scratching over an equally puzzling mystery: How did Fox Searchlight, which has easily the best box-office best batting average of any specialty film company in the business, get stuck with a turkey like "Amelia"?
A cloyingly earnest historical drama based on the exploits of Amelia Earhart that arrives in 800 theaters Friday, the film features Hilary Swank as the daring aviatrix who suddenly disappeared in 1937 over the central Pacific while trying to fly around the world.
The reviews have been awful, with the film so far having earned a paltry 20 from Rotten Tomatoes. Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum described the movie as "square, still and earthbound" while Variety's Justin Chang calls it a "dismayingly superficial" film full of "inspirational platitudes."
Meanwhile, the box-office tracking for the film, directed by Mira Nair, has been grim. According to numbers from the OTX tracking service, younger moviegoers have zero desire to see the movie. And even older moviegoers, who would normally make up the largest segment of potential moviegoers, are unenthusiastic. The film's "definite interest" numbers among over-30 females, the niche most likely to see the film, were a mediocre 19%, even less than the number of over-30 women eager to see "Saw VI."
Searchlight, which normally gives its films a platform release, has clearly decided it should get as much as it can out of the movie as quickly as possible before the bad buzz spreads, hence the 800-screen release this weekend. But how did Searchlight get caught holding the bag with such a stinker? No one is talking for the record, but my sources close to the production say the company made a rare misstep -- it got involved with a production it didn't control.
As it turns out, most of the funding for "Amelia's" roughly $40-million budget came from Ted Waitt, co-founder of Gateway computers, who had a personal fascination with the Earhart saga. Just before the film went into production last year, Searchlight acquired worldwide distribution rights, putting up a minority stake in the budget and footing the bill for the film's marketing expenses. At the time, judging from the script co-written by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, the studio felt "Amelia" could be a historical drama with the kind of uplift and emotional intensity of a film like "Out of Africa." Searchlight also had strong relationships with the film's talent, having released Nair's "The Namesake" and Swank's "Boys Don't Cry."
But movies are all about execution, not just expectations, and by the time Nair delivered a finished film, it was clear that she'd missed the mark, at least when it came to uplift and emotional intensity. Searchlight still believes it can woo over-50 women into seeing the film, even with its lousy reviews. Its execs make the argument that older women still came out in droves to see period films like "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The Changeling," which were poorly reviewed but had strong female characters that drove older women into the multiplexes. However, a comparison to "The Changeling" seems like a big stretch, since it had the cachet of both Angelina Jolie and director Clint Eastwood, not to mention considerably better reviews (earning a 61 at Rotten Tomatoes). "The Other Boleyn Girl" is a better model, but it only made $26.8 million in its domestic release.
Searchlight believes that if it could do a similar mid-20s number in the U.S. it could come out OK, especially if it could attract a similar percent of moviegoers around the globe. I think they're being overly optimistic. Judging from the reviews, "Amelia" will end up being another in a long list of examples of historical films shunned by today's moviegoers, who appear less interested than ever in movies whose stories are firmly rooted in the past.