There are many box office deaths that are deserved. But few and far between are the box office deaths that get grieved. Welcome to the wake for Drive. This well-reviewed favorite at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, with 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, was a cut above other movies so this is more of a post-mortem than an autopsy report. As FilmDistrict’s president of theatrical distribution Bob Berney emailed me the weekend of its opening, “Don’t know if you’ve seen Drive or not. But it’s extreme in many ways: ultra-violent, very different pacing. As Albert Brooks (sleazy crime lord and ex-movie producer in the film) says about his character’s films, ‘some critics call them European’. This film is not a typical formulaic wide release. Yes, the CinemaScore is ‘C-‘ but I just think that their methodology is designed for the average, wide release film. They never anticipated asking people about a Nic Refn movie! I don’t buy it and hope they are very wrong.”
Though defined as an American genre movie, I felt the pre-release marketing with its superficial one-sheet and film trailer and TV ad failed by never distinguishing Drive as anything more special than just another Fast And Furious ripoff. Based on the book by James Sallis, with a screenplay by Hossein Amini, Drive was FilmDistrict’s widest release to date — 2,886 locations. It arrived by way of a pre-buy for U.S. from script stage. Ryan Gosling hand-picked Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson with Tom Hardy, The Pusher Trilogy). Refn, who went on to win Best Director at Cannes for Drive, has told the story of his “blind date” with Ryan when he first came to Los Angeles: Nic had the flu and was on some type of American medication and was completely out of it at the meeting. After awkwardly looking down and not saying anything, he finally asked Ryan to drive him home. (Nic doesn’t drive.) On the way, with REO Speedwagon playing, he began crying but was living the concept of the movie; a guy driving at night listening to pop music. Ryan said he was in. Through the process they became pals and planning more films together. (Then again actors respond to Refn. It’s rumored that, instead of “action”, he yells “Let’s fuck!” when starting a scene.) In Toronto, Nic, Ryan, Bryan Cranston, and scene-stealing Albert Brooks all wore dark suits and looked like they had just stepped off the set of Reservoir Dogs.
Despite all the Internet/fest hype, Drive‘s weekend box office was surprisingly low-key. FilmDistrict had projected Drive would open #2 with a $12M-$14M weekend. While many R-rated action and horror films normally drop on Saturday over the first weekend, it had a healthy 11% jump, signaling good word-of-mouth for Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, and Albert Brooks who could get supporting actor nominations for playing against type. But it eked out only an $11M weekend for #3. Younger males used to flock to such an original, violent, and stylized R-rated film that breaks a lot of rules. They didn’t. But now young guys who used to be Hollywood’s target audience are just not consistently (and indiscriminately) going to the movies anymore. The reason is either financial or too many other entertainment choices. That was the gist of internal conversations inside studios all summer when uncompelling fare like Conan The Barbarian, Fright Night, Cowboys & Aliens, and Green Lantern fell short with young guys. “It didn’t dawn on us they weren’t coming to the malls,” one perplexed exec told me. “Instead, adults did.”
Still, Drive’s mere $4M was the 3rd best opening day for Gosling, behind Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Notebook, sparking debate over whether Ryan is hurt if he can’t fill seats for a good pic like this or the upcoming The Ides Of March. “No way,” Berney tells me. “It says that he is a smart guy who picks challenging roles and is in it for the long career. He has carefully taken smaller indie roles over the past few years and has mixed in bigger studio films where he always shines. He’s got a supportive team behind him, and he doesn’t follow the typical path, and I really think that will serve him well over the long run.”
As for Drive‘s underperformance, Berney admits to me, “Some people thought it should have done $20M the first weekend, but they are crazy! Even with the great reviews and Cannes pedigree, it’s still an ‘arts-ploitation’ film. It’s out there in a new genre. It’s really a polarizing film but in a good way. The pacing, music, style, and violence creates heated debate and reaction. The people that love it, really love it and talk about it. But it’s too extreme for many.” FilmDistrict plans over the next few weeks in terms of the number of locations to consolidate in each market so the screen averages for core theaters in top urban markets will remain high. For its 2nd weekend in release, Drive was the #2 or #3 film in many of the complexes. Overall, it was No. 7 and dropped only -50%. There may be life left in this pic.