Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Dredd failed at the box office

I was saddened to learn that Dredd 3D failed to perform at the US box office recently.

I felt the movie had a good chance of making some impact in the States for a number of reasons: it had mostly favourable reviews (on both sides of the pond), a well-known geek star (Karl Urban) playing the lead and it had something unique about it (3D – done well for a change – in an R/18-rated movie).

Obviously, these factors weren't enough.

Dredd is not amused about US Box Office Takings. Heads are gonna roll!
Of course, one can never tell with movies, because there's no magic formula that guarantees a hit. You can even out the risk as much as possible by ensuring you have a big star attached to the movie or cover familiar ground story/character-wise but even these things cannot ensure success.

The thing about Dredd is that it had an uphill struggle from the beginning. Even though I think it's a brilliant film (well, for me anyway. I'm a Dredd fan and I'm totally happy with it. 5 stars and everything!), good films don't necessarily make billions of dollars at the box office. Here are what I reckon are the key factors that dashed Dredd's hopes of being an American smash-hit:

1. The Star
Karl Urban (aka Bones in Start Trek) is a great actor. He was perfect for the role of Dredd. He nailed the character. But – he's no hollywood A-lister despite the geek-worship. His name was never going to be quite enough to draw in the casual cinema-goers.

2. The Budget
If Dredd had cost $3 million to make, the film's performance would actually have been considered quite good. Unfortunately, to make a hard-hitting 3D sci-fi action movie you need to spend a bit of money to get it right. $45 million is relatively small for this kind of film, but that money still needs to be made back. Also, you need to spend a lot of money on marketing and with a film like Dredd you can only really spend so much. I'm sure Dredd will likely break even (with takings in the rest of the world, and DVD/Blu-Ray sales), but that won't please the investors.

3. The Competition
No film ever opens without some competition, and so it must be the hardest thing to try and second-guess what other studios are planning to release at the same time. The films it was up against (End of Watch and Clint Eastwood's Trouble with the Curve for example), weren't exactly blockbusters but probably familiar enough for audiences to choose them over Dredd.

4. An R-Rating
The decision to make a violent and visceral version of Dredd was, I believe, the right thing to do. This is because the comic itself is very violent. Unfortunately, this restricts who can go see it, particularly the masses of young geeks who like to spend lots of money on action flicks.

5. Sylvester Stallone
Stallone got it wrong. So wrong. In 1995 they butchered the legacy of Dredd, trying to cram in all the best bits from the comic and ending up with a codpiece-laden buddy buddy space-cop movie that bombed. There were some interesting moments and decent SFX, but ultimately the character on screen wasn't Dredd and his reputation as a bona fide comic book character ripe for the silver screen had been ruined.

In some ways, however, you could say it paved the way for Urban's Dredd. While the 1995 Dredd failed at the US box office, Stallone's star power still had some draw and quite a lot of people have probably seen it since (it's always showing on TV and one pirated version has had over 1 million hits on YouTube). Stallone at least introduced the idea and concept of Judge Dredd, admittedly very badly, to a wider audience. You'd think then, that people might be interested to see a new, more violent version (and one endorsed by the hard-core fans) – but sadly not.

6. The Character
Of all the factors that contributed to Dredd's lukewarm US reception, this has got to be the killer. Dredd is not a very nice person. While he's cool in a brutal and violent way, and his story arc since the 80s has gradually touched on Dredd's inner struggles, people who don't know anything about him just see him as an emotion-free fascist with little time for moralising. In fact, he's less human than Robocop (who, interestingly, was based on Dredd).

Also – and this is key – most Americans still haven't heard of him. Or if they have, it's because of the Stallone fiasco (see above).

The thing is, American's don't get Dredd. They never have. Sure, the comics have sold to some degree across the Atlantic but I'd say those US readers are probably the more discerning comic fans (and I salute all of them!). Comics in America are overwhelmingly dominated by American comics. Just like the movies, most of the stuff they consume is home grown. If it's not DC or Marvel, (mostly) nobody cares.

Which is a real shame because Dredd has a lot to offer. It's dark, violent and gritty but can also be funny, surreal and moving. The canvas of Mega City One is so rich and deep that you can pretty much write any kind of story there: romance, crime, thriller, horror, adventure – you name it. Dredd's home comic, 2000AD, has always struggled to gain any recognition in the States. But it's not that British comics are crap, they've made a huge cultural contribution. Many Brit artists actually cut their teeth working for 2000AD before ending up working for the big two in America. 2000AD has influenced a lot of writers, actors, artists and futurists in all spheres.

It's just that, well, Dredd is British (he's not, of course, but you know what I mean). Like Doctor Who or Red Dwarf, Dredd is rooted in British sensibilities that Americans might find charming but ultimately can't relate to. He's borne out of a British vision of future post-apocalyptic USA and is probably more relevant to us than the Americans. They have no ownership of the character and probably never will. If Dredd had been conceived by DC, Marvel or a US Independent, I'm pretty sure we'd be on the third movie re-boot by now.

Anyway, I don't really mind that Dredd hasn't been the huge success in America that everyone was hoping for. The main thing is that they made a decent version that stayed true to the comics. It buried the 1995 version good and proper, so I can't complain.

What's disappointing is that we'll probably never see a sequel. Without the interest of US cinemagoers, no one is going to be interested in spending millions of dollars on more films, which is such a shame because films set in Dredd's world could tell some really interesting stories.

If Dredd succeeds in other parts of the world I guess there's a slim chance a sequel will get the green light, but I won't be holding my breath. I just hope that after the dust settles, someone decides to keep on carrying the flame of British comic book characters. 2000AD is a goldmine of great stories and characters that are ripe for TV or cinema. There's always the option of doing a Dredd TV series (live action or CGI), which could be less risky than more feature films.

Maybe Dredd fans should just give up trying to convince the Americans about Dredd, and just enjoy the comics. You can never please everybody, and cultural stuff ... sometimes it never translates.

There's a possibility – albeit very slim – that one day, America will realise what a great character Dredd is. They will lap up the multi-level irony, the socio-political commentary and the hilariously extreme violence. They will hire the right actor, recruit the best director and spend a ridiculous amount of money bringing Mega City One to life.

Maybe then, justice will be done.

Why not read about what happens when Christians review Dredd 3D?

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