Sunday, Sep. 10, 2006
Dude, Where’s My Film?
This man gave the world King of the Hill and Office Space. So why is Fox squashing his new movie?
By JOEL STEIN
Movies aren’t banished straight to video because they’re bad. A reasonably smart marketing exec with a splicing machine and a decent song can make a huge profit out of bad. If some guy at home could cut together that YouTube trailer where The Shining is a touching father-son comedy, then the Fox marketing division can make Date Movie look good in a 30-sec. TV spot. That’s why studio marketers are better at hoodwinking the customer than those two guys Huck and Jim picked up on the river. The biggest sin a director can commit isn’t making a bad movie, it’s making one that doesn’t make a good ad.
That helps explain the strange fate of Idiocracy, a sci-fi comedy starring Luke Wilson and directed and co-written by Mike Judge, the guy whose spotless track record includes Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill and Office Space. Idiocracy may not be a bad movie, but every ad and trailer the studio put together for it tested atrociously. After sitting around finished for almost a year, the movie opened two weeks ago–sort of. Fox released it in a few theaters in seven cities (not including New York City), with no trailers, no ads, no official poster and no screenings for critics.
The problem is, Idiocracy is so aesthetically displeasing–its vision of the future so purposely, gaudily, corporately ugly–that even showing a second of it made people refuse to see it. Judge’s unslick look might work for hand-drawn cartoons of hicks or a movie that takes place in poorly lit cubicles, but it’s not so great for a sci-fi action comedy. It just doesn’t look or feel like Talladega Nights or Dodgeball. Even though Fox probably made a million dollars’ worth of trailers and ads, they empirically knew from testing that every dollar they spent on ad time for Idiocracy would be wasted.
So they dumped it, which happens more often than you think. Last year Fox took The Onion’s sketch movie, which has been in development for several years, out behind the studio barn and put it to sleep. They also dumped the $50 million film Stay, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, in a few theaters with almost no marketing. Ever wonder where all those old, bad movies suddenly come from when a guy like Ashton Kutcher becomes famous?
Still, abandoning Idiocracy seems particularly unjust, since Judge has made a lot of money for Fox. Plus, Idiocracy isn’t a bad movie: a lot of the reviews are actually positive. The idea is an extension of Judge’s previous work mocking the dumbing down of society: perfectly average Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph are frozen until 2505 and awaken to a world so degraded by mass consumerism that they are now the smartest people in the world. Crops are dying because they’re being irrigated with an electrolyte-filled sports drink that has “the taste plants crave.” Costco takes up miles of space and has greeters emotionlessly repeat, “Welcome to Costco. I love you.” The movie is packed with top-shelf versions of the dumb-guy jokes that have sustained sitcoms for years, which you’d think would be great stuff for a trailer.
A desperate Fox last fall even considered shooting Idiocracy ads that wouldn’t show any of the movie at all. But the big studio marketing departments don’t work well with high-concept campaigns and grass-roots marketing. They’re designed to blast radio and TV into the mass consciousness. Stranger still, they seem not to care that marketing a movie’s theatrical distribution can boost its eventual DVD sales, which Idiocracy is very likely to score on. (After a modest theatrical run, Office Space went on to sell 6 million DVDs and videotapes.) That may be because DVD marketing comes out of the DVD division’s budget, and why help those guys? They’re over in a different building.
Not that anybody will talk about any of that–you’ll notice there are no quotes in this story. That’s because Fox doesn’t want to bad-mouth Judge, not even off the record, and Judge doesn’t want to complain about Fox. Judge knows he works in an Office Space world with dumb bosses who can’t market an offbeat movie and an Idiocracy world where audiences react mainly to CGI bells and whistles. The best he can hope to do is quietly keep making fun of those facts, and hope it plays a lot on cable.