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

October 4, 2010 |  9:30 am

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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
twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: The Social Network. Credit: Sony Pictures

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