The Brothers Grimsby, Sacha Baron Cohen’s fourth R-rated feature comedy vehicle stateside since 2008’s Borat, is looking at a grisly $3.1M debut this weekend at 2,235 theaters, marking a career box office low for the comedic actor.
As the old saying goes, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Particularly with some of these raunchy comedies, they have a small target audience to hit and when they miss, they’re off by an enormous proportion. Although every comedy star has a fair share of lows, many people in the industry question whether Baron Cohen’s edgy sense of humor has lost its big-screen luster. What was novel in Borat ($26.5M FSS, $128.5M domestic B.O.) has become tired even with the comedian’s fan base, which has aged significantly in the four years since Paramount’s The Dictator ($17.4M FSS, $60M).
CinemaScore reports that The Brothers Grimsby drew 72% over 25, versus The Dictator’s potent under-25 crowd of 56%. What also doesn’t help The Brothers Grimsby is that it’s opening during a weekend where the under/over 25 crowds are more distracted by J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi thriller production 10 Cloverfield Lane ($24.5M) and 20th Century Fox’s R-rated Deadpool, which is still doing double-digit business ($10.5M) in its fifth session.
While he’s a respected multi-faceted actor outside of comedy, tapped by such directors as Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton and Tom Hooper, Baron Cohen will no doubt face hurdles in mounting his next studio gross-out comedy. In his pocket, he has Disney’s Memorial Day sequel Alice Through The Looking Glass.
Deadline heard that when The Brothers Grimsby left Paramount in early 2014 for Sony, it carried an estimated production cost of $80M. Before rebates at Sony, budget was at $60M. LStar Capital and Village Roadshow co-funded with Sony, the latter of which has an estimated $37M skin in the game. Since the film arrived at Sony during the pre-Tom Rothman administration, it’s faced uphill battles. Testing began early and there was a consistent rejection of concept and star. Sony bounced The Brothers Grimsby around the calendar, first slotting July 31, 2015. But then Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation moved to that date and you can’t have spy vs. spy. So Brothers Grimsby moved to February 26, 2016, then March 4, and finally March 11.
Just like audiences found Eddie The Eagle to be too British in its marketing materials, so they did with Grimsby, which takes its name from a low-rent seaport town on the South Bank of England’s Humber Estuary. In addition, one-sheets and billboards prominently featured co-star Mark Strong, an actor not known for his box office drawing power.
While Baron Cohen got a leg up on promoting The Dictator in 2012 months before it opened, with his General Aladeen persona stirring up mischief on the Oscars red carpet, word of Brothers Grimsby was too little too late. The campaign hit its peak a month ago on Jimmy Kimmel Live, when Baron Cohen brought a clip of the movie’s crudest moment involving elephant genitalia. But it was too blue to air, so the camera cleverly stayed on the audience reaction. For Sony, it was a success, hitting over 4M YouTube views. The studio kept hitting that gimmick in its online campaign, showing the reactions of various social media influencers like the Kardashians, Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. There’s even footage of pastors and rabbis reacting to the scene. The move trended across Reddit and Facebook. Baron Cohen also drew headlines when he slammed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Los Angeles premiere.
WTF craziness & fun go to a whole new level on our #BAYWATCH set when our boy @SachaBaronCohen (in character) stops by. We were chatting about his new movie coming out THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY and I said "Well show us something". He said "You sure?" We said "Hell yes we're sure". Well if you listen closely you'll hear an ELEPHANT ROAR followed by me and @zacefron's reactions. There are some things in life we can't ever UN-see… what we just witnessed will no doubt make cinematic history. 😂🐘 Enjoy #TheBrothersGrimsby from the brilliant/crazy mind of SBC. #OnSet #BAYWATCH We now have a "deeper" understanding and respect for elephants….
Despite the smart social media campaign, one-sheets for Brothers Grimsby look like ripoffs of Spectre and Adam McKay’s The Other Guys. “The conceit of the movie looks funny, but on a mass consumption basis, there’s a been-there-done-that to the elements,” criticized one studio marketing executive who has handled Baron Cohen vehicles in the past.
According to iSpot, Sony shelled out an estimated $7.7M this weekend for Brothers Grimsby TV spots, while Paramount spent $16.3M for 10 Cloverfield Lane ads. Sony vied for a young crowd that never showed up, despite screenings of The Brothers Grimsby on 50 campuses. On ESPN, there were custom vignettes in which Baron Cohen’s Nobby (“England’s #1 soccer fan”) taught his brand of soccer to Taylor Twellman (former MLS star and current ESPN analyst) and Brian Rowe of the LA Galaxy. On Comedy Central, MTV and MTV2, Sony created a long-form piece in which Baron Cohen announced the film to an auditorium of fans.
Baron Cohen is appreciated by studios for his tireless promotions, and he worked his ass off here for Brothers Grimsby. Not only did he reach out to his social media universe of 4.1M fans, but he traveled to the college screenings, hung out and drank with fans. He handcuffed himself to Today‘s Matt Lauer, did radio interviews as Nobby and returned to his man-on-the-street bit for Conan, TruTV and Adult Swim, asking pedestrians for their thoughts on Sacha Baron Cohen. While the folks interviewed had strong opinions about the actor, they didn’t recognize him.
But unfortunately, no amount of self-tubthumping could save Brothers Grimsby. The few who showed up were mostly happy, giving a CinemaScore of B+. But with grosses this low, a high CinemaScore rating can’t save a film. Brothers Grimsby‘s grade comes with a 3.2 multiple which means it will final at $10M. More competition abounds next week with Liongate’s The Divergent Series: Allegiant and Warner Bros.’ mega-tentpole Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Following the success of Borat, Baron Cohen earned a No. 1 $30M opening with Universal/Media Rights Capital’s Bruno, another faux-docu-comedy, but that film fell fast with a final $60M domestic B.O. The Dictator turned out an even lower opening — a little more than half of Bruno — and finaled with a similar take.
Commenting on this gradual slide, one studio executive familiar with Baron Cohen projects remarked, “Borat succeeded because it was a stroke of genius that was never seen before. It was shock theater. It was horribly offensive, rightfully funny to most. Bruno was more of the same. Even though it was a different character, he wasn’t nearly as charming as Borat, and his effeminate bent was off-putting to audiences. There was a meanness to Bruno that wasn’t as far reaching. In Borat, Baron Cohen was an equal-opportunist in his insulting. Then when he started doing the scripted material like The Dictator, it was as though it was the same guy.”
“With Brothers Grimsby,” said the same executive, “it looks like Sacha is doing the same shtick.”