Dec 15, 2011

Hugo: the kids are not alright

Hugo dribbles on at the box office: $34 million at the last count. On its current course it should take about $50 million — a terrible figure for a kid's film costing $170 million, not an out-and-out bomb but perilously close. To give you some idea of figures for comparable films, the first Narnia film took $290, Bridge to Terebithia took $82 million, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory $206 million, Lemony Snicket $118 million, Jumanji $100 million, Toy Story $191 million. The critics love Scorsese's film. Scorsese fans are in seventh heaven. But the kids aren't buying. And yet Scorsese's sluggish marvel trundles through awards season, nobody says a word, and the critics continue to blame audiences for being too "mainstream" ("may be too esoteric for mainstream audiences", "may be an obstacle for mainstream acceptance" and so on). What on earth are they talking about? It's not Taxi Driver! It's a $170 million Christmas kid's movie in 3-D. I guess that's the problem with small children — too mainstream in their tastes. Bourgeois! Phillistines!


  1. Yes, Hugo has underperformed at the box office. Is that because kids "don't like it," however, or that they haven't seen it? Take this sampling for whatever it's worth, but the kids in my audience were unusually, surprisingly quiet and attentive; I've heard the same from more than a few others. And I've been at a few acclaimed Pixar features and other children's movies where they fidgeted restlessly and ran up and down the aisles and forgot about the movie five minutes after seeing it, so I'm not convinced that the size of the audience a kids' film draws (or any film) is an accurate yardstick for how well it works. Hugo is a tough sell with plenty of competition this holiday season (all things considered, it's hanging on better than expected), but I'll bet the kids who have seen it had their creative imaginations stirred far more deeply than the chipmunks and dancing penguins are offering.

  2. Good point. It is probably the parents who are not sold on the Hugo idea and rather go and see Puss in Boots.

  3. @Jasper, 'Puss In Boots' is really fantastic, just sayin'

    As for 'Hugo" while I was charmed and delighted and my young nephews who are literate and (this is going to sound really snobby, but too bad) very well educated liked it pretty much, the problem is the young male lead. The vast, vast majority of young boys simply can not relate to him enough to ask to be taken to see the movie. They don't see themselves in the little of him that they see in the trailers like they do with Harry Potter.

  4. Why is Hugo a "tough sell"? This is what I don't get, the special allowances people keep making for the film, when it's a tinsel-covered Christmas blockbuster, in the genre of tinsel-covered Christmas blockbusters. And in 3-D, too! With silly accents! Runaway trains! And cute dogs! All highly visible in the trailers! What's tough about that? It's not Black Swan.

  5. A tough sell because A) it's not animated, B) has no talking animals, C) has no "magical" elements (at least none other than the movie-magic kind). That probably explains why D) it was marketed so abysmally.

    I can see how the movie's "failure" ties into the theme of your (excellent) Blockbuster book and the overall thesis statement of this blog -- to put it simply, the idea that populism matters. That has more than a little appeal to me, but I also think that kind of argument always gets knotted up (complete with contingencies and escape clauses when the opinions of the critic and the public don't match up) when box-office receipts start getting factored into the equation. Another children's film in fairly recent years, Fly Away Home, which I know you saw recently and loved, was also a box-office dud. Does that mean kids hated that one, too? And even if it could be quantified that they did, how do we know they're "right"?

    I can imagine, from the perspective of someone who didn't like Hugo, the impulse to applaud the kids who have avoided it do far. (Though, as somebody else pointed out, is that their decision or their parents?) Just as I hope it's understandable, from the perspective of somebody who loved the movie, that I'd rather applaud the kids and parents who feel adventurous enough to see it.

  6. I take your point about magical elements although the robot is kind of half-magical, no? It seems to me Hugo faces roughly the same odds faced by Lemony Snicket (not a cartoon, no talking animals, semi-known source), but it does have 3-D on its side (plus every critic in the nation) and yet it's dawdling at the box office. Could it be — just possibly — that the fault lies with Scorsese's film, rather than the audience or the marketing? Audiences have a way of sniffing out entertainment if it's there to be had.

  7. I don’t think I understand this post. What is your complaint--that critics who love Hugo aren’t taking its ticket sales as a verdict on its merits? We’re supposed to do that with movies? Since when? Are you prepared to do that for Drive, which also disappointed at the box office?

    And your assumption that kids don’t like the movie needs some refinement. From the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks ago:

    “Given the film's source material and young protagonist, Graham King and Paramount might have counted on it appealing directly to children. But they concluded that elements such as its emphasis on film history and preservation might not get children excited. As a result, the studio advertised primarily on prime-time network TV and not youth-focused channels like Cartoon Network.”

    The article went on to say that the studio sees Hugo as “multigenerational” and hopes awards season will broaden its appeal—with adults.

    So, based on the actual marketing strategy, there’s more logic, and hard evidence, to the view that if Hugo isn’t a hit, it’s because the movie lacks appeal with ADULTS--say, the ones complaining that Melies is boring. It’s possible Paramount would, in fact, have been better off trusting children and selling Hugo to them. Children don’t control movie-ticket decisions, at least not in most households, but they love and give second lives to many films that fare poorly at the box office, from The Wizard of Oz to The Iron Giant and, as Craig points out, Fly Away Home.

    Believe me, I don’t begrudge you your dislike of Hugo. But I admit, Tom, I am startled to read a post, and tweet, and comments, that suggest you hated it so much that you’re actively rooting for everyone involved to lose their shirts. Me, I save that attitude for something like Human Centipede 2.

  8. Could it be — just possibly — that the fault lies with Scorsese's film, rather than the audience or the marketing?

    Of course. But you'll recall I wasn't blaming the audience: they (the kids) were into it. And I only bring up the marketing because I think it's a textbook example of how not to advertise. They should have kept the original title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, to forge the link with the book more clearly. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone wasn't changed to Harry.) And I slapped my head when I saw those man-on-the-street ads on TV, with audience members leaving the theater, and none of the people interviewed were children.

    I'm no expert in ad campaigns, those are just some random observations. Like Farran, I don't begrudge your dislike, but I'm still not clear what your point is exactly. You made a similar argument with the piddling box office of The Tree of Life, yet I see that film has quietly crept up the ladder to a "B" rating on your chart.

    Audiences have a way of sniffing out entertainment if it's there to be had.

    Based on The Help, and countless other examples, I'd say that smell is more like the promise of a pie that's really shit.

  9. Shorter Tom Shone: "A film I hated failed at the box office. Suck it!"

    Oh, OK, I forgot the added projection, where people like me call Shone a "philistine," inside his head. As Groucho Marx said, that's the POLITE word...

    Sorry you can't put "Marty" in movie jail, Mr. Shone. But if you're so eager to, maybe you should get a gig at a studio. Otherwise, you're gonna have his films to kick around for at least another decade or so. Surely you can summon the strength to stand it.

  10. Craig, in a weird way the marketing strategy validates an old dislike of Tom's, the "masterpiece" syndrome. King said straight up he believes Hugo is a masterpiece--that was his word--and the article (which was fascinating but I can't find the link at the moment) suggested that Paramount took Fran Lebowitz's remark that the movie's "too good for kids" to heart when it came to promoting Hugo. And it really does seem that this was a terrible mistake. King insisted on opening over Thanksgiving, thinking it wouldn't be hurt by the likes of The Muppets and Twilight; the book won a Caldecott, but as you say, they jettisoned the title that children knew and left them out of the ads. Of course I have the benefit of armchair quarterbacking, and it ain't my $170M on the line, but poor Graham King. I adore Hugo, and I fervently hope he hasn't gone full Reading Gaol on the thing he loves.

    By the way, maybe it's my rough luck, but almost every review I read of Hugo expressed reservations--except, you know, mine.

  11. And Glenn, I adore you, but it's Christmas so PLAY NICE or I shall be forced to broker peace talks between you and Tom at a neutral site like the cheese counter at Union Market. No wait, I don't like cheese. The coffee selection. The baked goods?

  12. I'm not the one who started the rough play, Farran; Tom's construction of a straw-man of schadenfreude is supposed to elicit exactly WHAT sort of reaction from people who admire "Hugo?" What Shone is complaining about here is that "Hugo" has failed at the box office, and yet those who gave it positive reviews are continuing to insist it's good. So does he expect us to renege all of a sudden? I know some people think it works that way, or would like us to; e.g.,"ohmigod, on the road to Damascus I saw the box office returns, and the scales fell from my eyes, and I realized the film I loved was SHITE." As you mention, Shone won't go that distance with "Drive," so why should he expect you and I to do it for "Hugo." Of course that's a rhetorical question, in that we know the answer to it, and nobody has the actual balls to come out and articulate it. But as much as I deplore Mr. Shone style of argumentation here, you and he may be assured that I won't lash him with a fennel plant next time we run into each other at the grocer's.

    In any event, that Fran Lebowitz remark WAS pretty unforgivable. I doubt it had much impact on the film's business but if I were Scorsese (or Graham King) I'd give that broad the Nick Nolte gas face from hereon in.

  13. How is a film that cost $170 million to make but brought in only $50 million (as of Jan 3) at the box-office not an out and out bomb? Isn't the press just afraid to report this because it's a Scorsese film that still hopes to lock up some Oscars?

  14. I love film. Adore Marty. Hugo was DULL , with 3Ds. The emporer has no clothes.

  15. For the life of me I cannot figure out what is so extraordinary about Hugo. I love Scorsese, I'm a huge of film, and I fell asleep about 3/4 of the way through.

    My biggest gripe was that the film was marketed as an children's adventure film yet ended up being nothing of the sort. If I had known beforehand that half the film would be a documentary style history lesson on the preservation really old films I would've skipped it. Problem was, you only find out what the movie is really about until you're sitting there trying to keep your eyes open and supremely pissed off that you just dropped 17 bucs on some film only a film nerd could love.

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