March raises the bar with strong releases

Last weekend was about as unsurprising at the box office as the majority of the Oscar winners at the ceremony this past weekend. Predictably, most people decided to watch the awards show at home than go out to the movies, as Identity Thief was able to return to its former No. 1 spot with just $14 million while both Snitch and Dark Skies failed to generate much interest.

This first weekend of March, though, brings some major releases, such as USC alumnus Bryan Singer’s fairy tale epic Jack the Giant Slayer, Relativity Media’s college comedy 21 and Over, the horror sequel The Last Exorcism Part II and the submarine drama Phantom.

For the past several years now, studios have treated March as a proto-summer month, releasing big-budget blockbusters and high-concept features that would normally debut during the summer. At times, this has worked out brilliantly, no more so than when The Hunger Games shattered every spring box office record in the books last year with a $155 million opening.

March 2012 was a huge month in general, with 21 Jump Street breaking out and The Lorax earning more than $200 million just last year.

However, this strategy doesn’t always work out. Last year also saw the release of John Carter, Walt Disney’s $250 million action epic that performed badly, getting back just a third of its gigantic budget. Unfortunately, it’s this movie, not The Hunger Games, that shares the most similarities to the big release of the weekend, Jack the Giant Slayer.

The Singer-directed film, starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci, was originally scheduled in June 2012 but was delayed a good nine months. Reports seemed to indicate that not only did early preview screenings flop, but that the majority of the action scenes had to be redone, ballooning the budget in the process.

Regardless of which scenes were re-shot, the film has taken on an over-produced look, with everything seeming to be excessively CGI. Though an ambitious feature like this was going to use CGI regardless, audiences recently just aren’t into features that look fake; there has to be some level of believability instead of just looking at an action reel for two hours.

The reviews have said that the film manages to strike a tone similar to 1980s fantasy films such as Excalibur and The Princess Bride, so it might gain a cult audience in the years to come. Still, there’s just not enough buzz to justify the estimated $195 million budget. Look for a mid-20s opening in the range of last year’s fantasy disappointment, Wrath of the Titans.

The fourth horror feature this year, The Last Exorcism Part II, is a direct continuation from the previous film. Nell, the main character played by Ashley Bell, returns to deal with the aftermath of her former possession and her struggle to fight the return of the devil.

Having a sequel called The Last Exorcism is silly enough in and of itself. The twist ending of the first film was so jarring and random that it derails the entire feature, ruining the “realistic” aspect of it completely. People are going to look at Part II and remember how much they hated the ending; it really doesn’t seem like the film will manage anything above $10 million.

From Relativity Media comes 21 and Over, a comedy that’s been bounced around for a few months and follows a student who goes out for a night on the town to celebrate his 21st birthday before his medical school exam. This is the directorial debut of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writers of The Hangover, and it seems to be going for the same humor.

It’s being released a year after Project X, another college party film from people associated with The Hangover. What that film had that 21 and Over doesn’t was an effective viral campaign, anticipation over what exactly happens at this party and the found-footage aesthetic.

21 and Over seems downright old-school, more akin to the American Pie movies than the edgier Hangover features. A sub-$10 million opening is likely, but it might just be better to go find somebody celebrating their 21st and party with them.

Phantom is a Cold War-era submarine drama starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny from RCR Distribution, the film company behind those random direct-to-DVD/Netflix sequels such as Lake Placid 3, Stomp the Yard: Homecoming and Wild Things: Foursome. Despite this film seeming like a Syfy channel knockoff of K-19: The Widowmaker, it’s getting a wide release with over 2,000 theaters.

It’s a bad sign when you’ve never even heard of the company releasing the movie. This probably won’t even get one million, but at least it’ll likely be on Netflix by April if you really want to see Agent Mulder play a Russian.

Despite four movies coming out this weekend, it seems the box office really won’t get started until next week with the release of Oz: The Great and Powerful.

Or maybe Jack will end up being a giant success after all.


Robert Calcagno is a second-year graduate student in the School of Cinematic Arts pursing an MFA in animation. His column “Box Office Beat” runs Fridays.