Film Fund-amentals: Secrets of the Bomb

Success has a thousand fathers, but failure has a movie named Motherhood.  This ambitious but unsuccessful little film has scored the dubious honor of having the poorest opening weekend in British box office history.  Its US opening last fall was pretty gawdawful as well, though slightly better than the British weekend gross of 12 paying customers. To be honest, this movie couldn’t possibly have bombed worse if it had been directed by Ed Wood. And with Ed Wood, it would have at least become a cult classic.

But with any great failure, there is also a fantastic learning experience. In some respects, success is a combination of happenstance and dumb luck. Failure, however, requires great effort, strict focus, and lots of determination. It almost takes a special gift to mix all of the wrong elements together into a flaming, gloppy mess. So let’s take a moment to see just how they did it.

As a quick note, I should mention that the approach I’m taking is a very roughshod version of the database system we’ve created for film financial analysis. The system takes key elements of a production and breaks it down into a series of quantifiable points. For the purposes of this piece, I’m actually doing the process in reverse order. Normally, we crunch the numbers first and then I proceed with an analysis of the key issues. But it’s often hard to keep people reading when you hit them with lots of numbers.

The first question has to be the writer/director, Katherine Dieckmann.  In the past decade, she has directed two low-budget social dramas (one with a bit of humor). Both of these films (A Good Baby and Diggers) received some decent notices, a few festival screenings and basically no business (A Good Baby was never even released to theaters). Some viewers feel that she is good at presenting subtle, low-key emotional scenes with characters framed within poor and/or working class situations. Oddly enough, nobody said she could do comedy. However, it should be noted that Motherhood actually made about $30,000 more at the box office than Diggers. She is sort of moving up, but very slowly.

But her lack of experience with comedy is a major issue. Likewise, it’s interesting to note that her last film, Diggers, was originally intended to be a comedy and she turned it into a drama (more or less). Which is OK, but why then did she wake up one morning and decide that she was Nora Ephron? This is in no way a comment on her skills as a director, but comedy just ain’t easy. Would you want to see Ingmar Bergman directing Night at the Opera? I didn’t think so.

Obviously, somebody was banking on “star appeal” courtesy of Uma Thurman. The $5 million budget for the movie wasn’t much, but without Thurman it would have been missing a few zeros. Too bad. Oh sure, Uma Thurman is a major name, but it doesn’t carry over to the box office. In fact, she hasn’t had a successful movie since Kill Bill (and it wasn’t actually that successful at theaters). In fact, she hasn’t had a really successful movie since Pulp Fiction. Good grief, we just found the one woman who really needs Quentin Tarantino. The only thing of note about Thurman’s casting is the odd degree to which she physically resembles Sarah Palin in the movie. Unfortunately, many people who go to indie movies can’t stand Sarah Palin, and the folks who think she’s swell largely go to drive-ins.

This gets me to wondering what geniuses were making the production decisions for Motherhood. Ironically, the producers were some really solid folks, the kind of people you normally want at the helm for an indie film. Both Christine Vachon and John Wells have critically strong track records for producing extremely challenging movies on very controversial subjects. The same can be said of the other two producers on the film (Jana Edelbaum and Pamela Koffler) — solid credits in making low-budget movies on major topics. But comedy, I don’t think so. I once interviewed Vachon at the beginning of her career and was profoundly impressed by her intelligent, no-nonsense approach to producing. But she didn’t impress me as having a light touch.

So far we have all the key ingredients for a really meaty beef stew, but somehow the decision was made to cook a soufflé. This is a tough stunt, and as always, the final test is in the tasting. That was at Sundance in 2009. Motherhood received middling reviews and sparked no particular word-of-mouth, and was probably a prime candidate for a direct-to-DVD release. But they found a theatrical distributor in the form of Freestyle Releasing, a small company with an OK but minor track record. The fact that they managed to get the film into 48 theaters during a four-week run was actually not bad, considering that they had mostly a fistful of poor reviews.

Taking all of these factors into consideration (plus a few other points on the production) and running it through our system, I come up with a basic box office range of $91,624 (low) to $8,317,213 (high). The movie’s US box office was $92,900. That means the movie came in at the low end of our estimate, but it basically played as expected. Nothing more, nothing less. The only things that might have improved the box office would have been either a director who was slightly more experienced with comedy and/or a distributor who was better connected to a major company for distribution. But the changes would not necessarily be that much better (and most likely would still be in the range listed).

As for the disastrous opening in London, the best I can suggest is that the movie came out way too late for the party. Completely lacking any kind of strong notices as well as word of mouth, it was doomed. The fact that the DVD of the film came out at the same time could not possibly have helped. The British distributor says this was an experiment in distribution. The same could be said about skydiving without a parachute. Some experiments are not really worth pursuing.

For all I know, Motherhood may be a severely misunderstood movie with subtle qualities waiting to be discovered. As for the 12 people who attended its opening weekend in London, I hope they enjoyed the thrilling sense of a virtual private screening. I have seen many movies this way, and it’s kind of fun. But I also hope they bought some snacks. The theater owner really needs the support.