The numbers all seem to be lined up nicely, with the highly anticipated family film beating out the low-budget horror film. But when you look a bit closer at the numbers, things start to get a bit lopsided. Where the Wild Things Are, with a budget of $100 million, made it to the top of the box office while showing in 3,735 theaters. Paranormal Activity came in about $12 million less, but did so in only 760 theaters. When you do the math, the number one film in the country this past weekend earned almost $9000 per theater, while the little thriller that could earned over $26,000 per theater.
In short, a micro-budgeted horror film about a day-trader's haunted girlfriend outsold a nine-figure adaptation of a legendary work of children's literature at a ratio of nearly three-to-one.
Cover of Where the Wild Things Are
How is this possible? How does a film version of an timeless illustrated classic, beloved and celebrated by multiple generations of young readers, that has spent literally decades trying to desperately make its way to the big screen, get beat out a Blair Witch Project clone that looks like it was shot on a Flip Camera and lit with table lamps? I'll just cut to the chase and give you the answer.
The magic is gone.
In 1977, lines wrapped around theaters and stretched down city blocks as people flocked in droves to witness a futuristic world of galactic empires battling spiritual warriors with laser swords in Star Wars. In 1978, audiences were promised that they would believe a man could fly if the went to see Christopher Reeves star as the Man of Steel in Superman - The Movie. In 1982, young and old alike fell in love with a stray long-necked alien searching for a way back home in E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial.
These were magical films that made the world stand up and take notice. Not because they were the finest works of cinematic art ever created, but because they filled audiences with a sense of wonder as they watched these fantastic events unfold on screen and wondered how creating such amazing illusions was even possible. These days, we know how possible it is. Its so possible that anyone with an impressive line of credit at Best Buy could cook up comparable effects in their own home using the latest software available. And we are reminded how possible it is because every film intended to be a hit by the studios is so jam-packed full of ultra-realistic over-the-top computer generated special effects that we've come to expect flying men and laser-sword-wielding aliens with a casual nod.
This is not a rant against the advancement of technology. Instead, it is a rant against the laziness of filmmakers who are too eager to let the advancement of technology do all the work. CGI and digital effects have become so common place that they have eased to be awe-inspiring, and have instead turned even the most miraculous translations of spectacular fantasy to the big screen into boring, albeit pretty, slide shows.
This film version of Where the Wild Things Are does a remarkable job of bringing the endearing illustrations of Maurice Sendak to life, creating three-dimensional representations of his cherished fifteen-foot-tall creatures that easily convince the viewer that they are living,
Image by tsmall via Flickrbreathing creatures from some far-away land.
Filmmakers still approach special effects in films the way they did back in the days of Clash of the Titans. The only difference is, audiences have seen it all, and seen it all done with such ease and repetition that it no longer holds their attention, let alone their amazement or awe.
This might not be completely fair when discussing Where the Wild Things Are; while the faces are CGI, the bodies of these giant creatures are animatronic puppets and suits created by the Jim Henson Workshop, and are still indicative of the true craft of special effects that still exists today. But whether or not it deserves it, Where the Wild Things Are is a victim of commonality of computer graphics and their overuse in films. A movie finally comes along that deserves to be sold out for months as children and adults alike flock to theaters to immerse themselves in the wonderment of a fantasy realm brought to life. Instead, the dreamers are being outnumbered by people so starved for something tangibly real that they are willing to shell out $10 or more to watch poorly-lit couple jump and scream every time a door slams or a large boom is heard off-screen.
We have come full circle. The fantastic is now commonplace, while the mundane is extraordinary and captivating. Maybe it will take these financially difficult times to convince our elite but lazy filmmakers of the truth that many American households have learned to live by.
Sometimes, less is more.