The entertainment industry is fundamentally a reactionary business; decisions are made in corporate boardrooms, where box office reports are delivered and dissected and held up as the ultimate arbiters of success and future employment, all that talk of “art” be damned. Just like you might see one soft drink company suddenly introduce a new soda that tastes strikingly familiar to a recent product launched to triumphant sales by a competitor, so goes the Hollywood development process. Shame is quickly buried by good news from the bean counters.
And so, if an angst-ridden melodrama about an innocent teen girl who gets sucked into the world of a sexy supernatural Brit sells a lot of books and movie tickets, and earns the attention of pop culture vultures who feign excitement at any “event” that might create clicks and video views from excited fangirls, you can be damn sure that Hollywood will work overtime to re-create that formula again and again.
Let’s just hope that this weekend’s dismal performance by The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones has convinced the suits that the tween vampire jugular is tapped, and to sink their fangs into some other vulnerable fantasy vein.
Released on Wednesday, the adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s first installment in a sprawling five-novel series earned about $14 million in five days, and just $9.2 million over the traditional box office weekend. It cost $60 million to make and $60 million to market, so as you might imagine, its producer and distributor — Screen Gems and Sony, respectively — are probably none too pleased with this result.
The basic threads and characters of Mortal Instruments may sound familiar. There is an innocent, angst-ridden girl (named Clary, played by Lily Collins) who meets a brooding and confusing and darkly sexy dude who has a vaguely British accent (Jace Lightwood via Jamie Campbell Bower); he has a whole family of super creatures, while she has a best friend who is also supernatural and very jealous of her troubled-but-fiery love affair with the dark Brit. At first the girl thinks she’s all boring and normal, but surprise! She’s actual part angel. Know your reader.
Author Cassandra Clare’s first Mortal Instruments was published in 2007. It was a heady time in young adult fiction; the Twilight books were booming and it was still a year before the first adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s chaste vampire saga opened to a shocking $70 million and made $392 million worldwide. The follow-up, New Moon, made nearly double that — $709 million — and just three weeks before the third chapter in Bella’s incredibly long journey to sexual awakening opened, it was announced that Screen Gems was gonna put Clary on the big screen. When Eclipse made almost the same as New Moon, it was hard to argue with the decision. Hell, The Mortal Instruments already has a sequel in development.
In all, Clare’s fantasy kitchen sink quintet — it’s got werewolves, angels, vampires, something called shadowhunters, mundanes, etc. etc. — has sold over 24 million copies, an impressive feat. But in between the final rise of Twilight and Mortal Instruments weekend release, a funny thing happened at the box office: YA fiction mostly sunk like a stone.
Sure, you can point to The Hunger Games — and its $691 million pull — all you want as an example of the genre done right, and the sort of financial bonanza that awaits the movie producers that can crack the nut of what makes these books such big sellers. But that’s only half the story. Suzanne Collins’ allegory is highly original, as far as YA readers are concerned; it’s really a work of political fiction, creating a dystopia familiar to any libertarian or Occupy protestor and smartly marrying it with the bravery of a teen girl and her small band of odds-fighting buddies. There is new technology, but it isn’t magic, and when a character dies, there is no secret afterlife that makes them sparkle.
Meanwhile, books that are seemingly ripped from Meyer’s Virgin Vampires saga have been big ol fails. Earlier this year, Beautiful Creatures, another popular YA series that inverted the formula — normal dude, creepy-fantastic girl — made just $19 million in the US and $60 million worldwide after a huge marketing campaign (and $60 million production). Then, Meyer’s own The Host, which was tinged with sci-fi and starred the very talented Saoirse Ronan, made a paltry $26 million here ($48 million overall) on a $40 million budget.
What’s behind these big flops? Well, it’s a matter of mismatched context, for one; book sales numbers are cumulative — for The Mortal Instruments, that means 24 million have been sold in six years — while box office numbers are judged on three day sample sizes, so it’s rare that we see a slow-building hit. Most movies aren’t given a chance to build that momentum.
Plus, maybe viewers at large are tired of the same recycled story lines and sparkly-steampunk aesthetics. Just like The Wolverine slipped this summer due to superhero fatigue, maybe the Twilight wannabes are too little, too late.
Also, it’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 13% probably didn’t help much, either.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Lee Daniels’ The Butler — $17 million
2. We’re the Millers — $13.5 million
3. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones* — $9.3 million
4. The World’s End* — $8.95 million
5. Planes — $8.5 million
6. Elysium — $7.1 million
7. You’re Next* — $7 million
8. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters — $5.2 million
9. Blue Jasmine — $4.3 million
10. Kick-Ass 2 — $4.27 million