Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Secret

Question: How can a movie starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black open with almost no fanfare?

Answer: If it's about birdwatching.

The Big Secret about The Big Year is that it's quite possibly the first movie ever to make birdwatching the subject of a movie. Clearly, warning signs did not go off for everybody -- the studio thought enough of the project to hire comic icons Martin, Wilson and Black (sounds like a law firm) to star in it. But then the studio thought better of it and totally squashed the movie in terms of its ad campaign.

I first became aware of The Big Year in a rather inauspicious way. Filmspotting, one of a couple film podcasts I listen to, was doing an episode devoted to the hosts' most anticipated new releases of the fall. In the course of this discussion, other titles that were being released were given a cursory mention, and one of those titles was The Big Year. The hosts were alarmed to note that the film was about six weeks from being released, and they could not find a trailer for it on IMDB. Alarming indeed.

I have since seen a trailer for it -- or more properly, a TV commercial -- but it's just about the most abstract bunch of clips you've ever seen woven together. Clearly, the studio (let's name it -- Fox 2000 Pictures) was worried about letting people know what this movie was really about, fearing they wouldn't come. That might have been right, but the resulting patchwork of one-liners and generic physical humor doesn't make you want to see the movie, either.

I just watched the full-length trailer -- now available on IMDB -- and there is exactly one mention of birds in the trailer. But the context doesn't make it clear that the birds being mentioned are being watched by the main characters. Then there's one shot of a bird on a branch while Wilson and Martin have a collision on skis in the background. Hardly a vote of confidence in the film's subject matter.

The thing is, as I learned in hearing a brief bit about it on NPR this weekend, a "big year" is an actual term in birding circles. It refers to an informal competition among birders to see who can see/hear the most species of bird in a specific geographical area within one year's time. Not only does the movie seem to take that last part rather casually -- the trailer makes it seem like these guys are globe-trotters -- but it also expands the meaning of the title to make it more generic. "One year to do all the things we never did," says one of the characters (Wilson, I think) in the trailer. Yeah, as long as all those things relate to birdwatching. (The movie is based on a book written by birder Mark Obmascik called The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession. He was the one being interviewed on NPR's Weekend Edition.)

So generic and half-hearted was the ad campaign for this movie that I didn't even know it was coming out on Friday, and when a friend of mine who watches birds for a living posted about it on my Facebook wall, I didn't know what she was talking about. She said "Will you see the new birding movie? I could review its birdiness and you could review its movie-ness."

My first thought was "Ah, there must be some kind of documentary on birds coming out." Even I, a person who likes to see movies about things I haven't seen before, assumed that it would have to be a documentary if it were about birdwatching. When she revealed the title, I was floored.

The problem is, when you keep a major point about a movie a secret -- and actually, keep the movie itself kind of a secret -- you should expect to pay for it at the box office. And boy did The Big Year pay -- it made $3.33 million domestically in its opening weekend, finishing in a dismal ninth place. That's $1.11 million each for Martin, Wilson and Black (sounds like a law firm).

In other words, probably about what their salaries were to make the movie. Who knows, they might have made more.

But how bad could this movie be? I'd have to assume that the three law-firmers each contributed some amount of their likable comic talents to this movie, and it's probably funny in spots.

The world may never know, because Fox 2000 was determined to shield audiences from its movie. If The Big Year made $3.33 million in its opening weekend, you can expect that to drop to $1 million or less next weekend. In fact, it wouldn't be a total surprise if the movie grosses under $5 million domestically.

Well, at least my friend will see it. Perhaps she already has. If so, thoughts, M?

The one part of the movie's ad campaign that actually seems to come clean about its content is the poster above, which makes the movie pretty unambiguously about birdwatching.

Which might have helped me if I'd actually seen this poster in any of the theaters I've visited in the past six months.

1 comment:

M said...

M has not yet seen this movie. I knew it was coming out for weeks (it was obviously all the buzz in the bird world), but my small town theatre is not showing it. The bird community seems to have fully embraced it and did not feel overly mocked. Also, I did see the "law firm" on both Ellen and one of the a.m. talk shows, so they did do some press. My funniest anecdote is the birder who posted to the listserv about the opening take and 9th place and deemed it "not too shabby." I think he should stick with birds not not financial analysis of the film industry!