EDITORIALS

Interpreting Speed Racer's Box Office Failure

by
May 20, 2008
Source: Wall Street Journal

Speed Racer

As much as I loved Speed Racer, I have to admit, it was one hell of a giant flop. The film has currently earned only $30 million at the box office with a reported budget of around $120 million - terrible numbers overall. I was pointed towards an article written by Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal (via Cartoon Brew) recently that analyzes and interprets the failure of the film. Morgenstern explains that "chaos isn't a surefire selling tool, not even when the target audience is sensation-hungry kids," and that the real problem was that the film was way too chaotic and stylized even for kids to really enjoy. I'm not entirely sure I agree with him, but then again, I'm no longer a kid, and I did enjoy Speed Racer.

Morgenstern goes on to say in his article that in his screening, he actually imagined more grand success, saying, "I found myself thinking darker thoughts about the prospect of it being a hit, or, worse still, proving to be the Next Big Thing." But alas, that doesn't seem like a possibility anymore given the film has quickly faded away. Morgenstern continues on discussing the hyperactive state of children today. "But today's kids are under bombardment from all sides. If it isn't some daft descendant of the old 'Speed Racer' series on Saturday morning TV, it's commercials, music videos, video games, text messages, instant messages and, most recently, the rat-a-tat-tat of thoughtlets expressed in microblogs." And the issue, he says, is that "kids need inoculation against media-generated chaos."

Speed RacerI think he makes a very good point regarding why kids weren't exactly sucked into Speed Racer considering there is enough chaos in their lives anyway, but that doesn't necessarily stand up when you think of the other hit children's films recently. More milder and slow-paced films like Ratatouille, Enchanted, Shrek the Third, Charlotte's Web, and Horton Hears a Who were big box office hits, but maybe I'm just missing the point. It's hard to truly interpret the response of a child when you're no longer one, but I think pushing past the level of chaos currently experienced won't necessarily mean they won't like what they're being shown. Instead, I think the marketing failed to attract the kids in a way certain scenes in the film eventually did.

I'm typically in support of Warner Brothers, generally because they're one of two studios (Paramount being the other) that more often than not has their shit together. Just look at 300 or The Dark Knight. Although those are films aimed at my own demographic, they're two huge money-makers that I feel they're promoting perfectly. However, I really felt like they just dropped the ball on Speed Racer. I'm not entirely sure why, but I'd have to say it seemed like it was just too confusing of of a film to sell. On one hand, you have the energy and visuals to sell it to the Matrix crowd, but on the other, you've got to also sell it to the kids. It's tough to juggle a task like that and this time I think they dropped their balls.

Actually, if I really had to interpret it further, I would say it was the Wachowskis originally who ran into a problem balancing the family aspect and the adult aspect. There are a few very messy scenes that don't hold up well, specifically when Royalton and Speed are arguing about the contract, and Spridle and Chim Chim go on a joyride through the factory. To me, it seemed that the Wachowskis wanted to actually tell the story and thought that what Royalton was saying was essential to adult viewers, but sprinkled in Spridle just to hold over the kids. Unfortunately that scene didn't work and there were a few others I can name like that. If those were taken out they, could've also trimmed the runtime quite a bit and kept the attention of kids the entire way through.

Unfortunately, I think the best way to say it is that Speed Racer isn't meant for everyone. But they wanted to try and make it for everyone. And that's where they ran into problems. When there is so much to juggle and so many audiences to please, it sometimes becomes just too challenging of a task. And this time I don't think the Wachowskis did a good job of pleasing every audience that Warner Brothers wanted to sell it to. Although I loved it, ideally in the end, kids didn't. And that contributed to its eventual failure. The lesson to learn? Spend more time in the editing room.

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  • mrbobbyboy
    Interesting points all round. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I thought it was funny, diverting, exciting, visually spectacular and well paced. The editing style worked perfectly with the storytelling approach the Wachowski's adopted. Even the seemingly throwaway Spridle and Chim Chim scenes had a purpose, and not just to entertain the kids. I'm sure the same arguments will be had concerning this unique cinematic achievement over and over again. I, for one, am just glad that there are still some original film makers living in America who are prepared to try something new. I've never been a Speed Racer fan, but I left that cinema singing it's praises (and the original theme song - damn, that's catchy!
  • Pat Abs
    I enjoyed this movie alot. I saw it twice opening weekend. I really think that this will make up for its box office failure with DVD sales. Alot of people just don't see it worth seeing at the theatre. Sisterhood of the traveling pants made enough on DVD to spawn a sequel. Maybe this will too.
  • Movie Lover
    I haven't seen the movie, but my kids want to see it. I think the problem for me just watching the trailer gave me a headache. Too much! Too much quick motion. Too much visual stuff going on. Too much!!!!! It appeared as if it was all spectacle and no story. A rather cheesy Asian (?) cartoon from when *I* was a kid transformed into this bloated, over-the-top thing. Neither of my children ever saw the original show. Those with kids remember the cartoon and how corny/bad it was. Not the greatest combo for a blow-out weekend.
  • Jesse
    very nice... but heres what i think. First off i loved the movie. It was brilliant. The first problem was the trailers. hey chose the most vibrant and brilliant parts and that turned people off. Everyone i knowe was talking about how stupid it looked. Next they had a movie about a t.v. show from the 80's. The people that liked the t.v. show are the ones that are going to like the movie. Kids that have never heard of speed racer are like who is this, and they tried selling it as an adaptation. I think if they sold it as like their own creation then they would have gotten more because kids would think this guy is cool instead of, ive never heard of this guy. that what i thik went down. It was too difficult to seel to adults a movie such as this, so they chose kids, but gave it a nostalgia feeling that the kids wont comprehend
  • jjzappy
    It's actually pretty simple. There's no substitute for a well told story. Visual style can be impressive, but won't hold a movie by itself. Speed Racer boiled down to some neat races strung together by a weak story and bit appearances by a boy and his monkey.
  • Movie Lover
    Actually, this show was from the early 70s! Not the 80s. Which makes it even more out-of-date for the modern audience. Guess who watched the show? Boys who were in kindergarten up until about 3rd grade. That's it. Talk about a limited audience. This shows you how insular Hollywood is...mostly men in their late 20s, 30s and 40s making movies about stuff they loved when they were kids. Comic books are all the rage now for that very same reason. I have no idea who half of these superheroes are whom they are bringing to screen. You have to find universal appeal in your movie, or it just won't work.
  • tommyturner
    Alex said "dropped their balls". Pure gold.
  • Darrin
    to be honest, the reason i think it was a flop was because of how the movie was made. You know with the bright colored backgrounds and its cartoonish features. the film is good but when people saw previews they was totally turned off. I remembered when i went to see iron man and the preview for spped racer came on, people said that the film looked like shit. I said the same when i saw the first speed racer trailer but after the international trailers and the 2nd trailer i was on board the speed racer train. I actually felt kinda sorry for this film. But Wall street journal dude could be wrong, i mean, the reason it really flopped is because iron man was too damn good. That has to be it Alex Billington.
  • http://skmovies.blogspot.com/ Sean Kelly
    The fact that the film will probably not break even is sad, however I really believe that the whole practise of judging the success of a film by box office numbers is a bit of a sham. Unless, it's a film like Iron Man, which tops the box office for multiple weeks in a row, films are mostly forgotten after opening weekend. Plus, most high box office numbers are due to inflation anyway. In the last 10 years, I watched how ticket prices went up by like $7. The numbers are really not worth looking at anymore. Still, it's a shame more people didn't go to see Speed Racer.
  • Movie Lover
    Sorry to say, but the numbers *are* worth looking at. If the movie hasn't made enough $$ to cover the cost of making it, that is a huge problem. And the first few weeks a movie is out is when the most money is made. I am sure they know, based on averages, how much money this movie is likely to make in DVD sales. Not good when they have to make $140 million just to *break even* much less make a profit....they have a long way to go to make this film a success.
  • Djo
    Dare I draw a comparison btw. this film and Ang Lee's 'Hulk'? I always felt the problems with that film- which I see happening to Speed Racer as well, were that, even if a niche audience could convince themselves it was enjoyable (a'hem, Alex) it's convoluted handling simply could not justify the production costs, from script to execution to marketing. Hulk was marketed aggressively as a family summer action flick, and instead they got an hour and a half of psycho-drama. Speed Racer has kind of the opposite problem - an utter lack of depth; but either way, both movies' fault lies in the "Bait & Switch" tactic their marketing is pulling on the general public. For Speed Racer, whoever said - "I know it's a weak script, but the selling point is the FX!" Should have been challenged on the spot and asked to prove their point by making a smaller production - i.e. a short, experimental film (as is the industry standard for innovation & craft - see Pixar's success). I don't care if it's the Wachowski's, you don't go making a big budget concept film w/out running a few tests first - be it test audiences for segments of the 'innovation' you're intending to employ, or short films to demonstrate it. Speed Racer could have worked; but the fact remains (and I'm so glad to hear you finally admit it) it DIDN'T. At ALL.
  • Josh Rowe
    The marketing worked my dad a bit and he was quite excited to see it. I'm going to watch it again with him when he comes back from Moscow along with Indiana Jones. Probably my favorite film since Ratatouille and I wish all kids films looked this awesome but this ones hard to admit due to the mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave it the lowest of the low which probably turned off the anybody curious from the trailers which is why I pirated the fucker. Gonna buy the blu-ray though. Oh and jjzappy, I'd rather watch the boy and his monkey with all the colours than listen to your ideas on the magic of cinema.
  • Jojo
    HAHAHAHAHA speed racer bombed as expected. WB is run by idiots.
  • Bridger
    I think it is more more simple that all of that over anaylization: The movie SUCKED!
  • first timer
    actually it received a cinemascore of A-, so apparently the few people who did see it actually liked it quite a bit...
  • Sinbad
    I think people seem to really be missing the point about why this movie flopped, it wasn't because of story structure or the state of children today, it was because it was based on a cult cartoon that many people seemed to love, but that to the rest of us seems to fall somewhere between batshit crazy and downright stupid. I can really see why someone like Alex would love this film, it's great to see something you once loved as a child updated for the big screen, but for those of us uninducted into this strange world the trailer was all i needed to put me off. To understand, many of you would need to step back from your fanboy devotion and imagine how ridiculous the concept really sounds. Once again i (like many others) haven't seen the film and i'm not trying to describe the film, only the impression the trailer left me with: 'It's about a racer called 'Speed Racer' from the family 'Racer' who races in a car that can seemingly do anything whenever it needs to (like jump), there's the bad guy from V for Vendetta in playing what appears to be the exact same character and a love interest who flies a chopper and worries about 'Speed' whever he races, and a supportive family to impart the moral of the story and a monkey... a fucking monkey to cheer him on!!!' I love fanboys, and i consider myself one but you can't turn a cult gem into a blockbuster and expect everyone else to jump on the bandwagon and go see it
  • Ned Ludd
    I think Joe Public, Jane Public, and the kids dragging them to the theatre can give a damn about FX, honestly. Storytelling is about illusion. Think of something as basic as Punch & Judy, for an illustory example (and I won't apologize if that's too many big words for you guys). 2 hand puppets. And yet there's a story that will never die. EVER. Let's face it- Speed Racer is a parable on killing the possibility of a good story, w/ an obsession over flashy, wiz-bang FX. It will be looked back upon as the Titanic of CGI - wow, wouldn't this be great, if only for the spectacle of it! Too bad they didn't account for the Icebergs of Public Taste.
  • Sinbad's in Denial
    Please, sir, when you say "many of you would have step back from your fanboy devotion" spare yourself the self harm. And proudly declare: "many of US would have to step back." Fanboy haters are fanboys too. By being so openly hypocritical, you're only hurting yourself. ;)
  • Skeeter
    I believe that WB did an alright job in marketing this film, not great. The real problem this film faced was that nobody knew what it was. Was it ment to be a kids film, directed at the people in their 40's that knew all abou the cartoon, or a hybird of both. It was too different, in which nobody had even seen. And because of this, cirtics bashed the hell out of the film. Even though Speed Racer did got better reviews then What Happens in Vegas, people knew the Vegas film was a chick-flick and knew what to expect, but had no idea what Speed Racer would offer. Therefore, people staied away from SR.
  • Tim Cloverfield
    Darren IS RIGHT. Iron Man was just that Damn GOOD! I remember half way through Speed....I caught myself thinking..."Damn I want to see Iron Man again"! My Wife was a fan....I appreciated the film for what it was....she enjoyed it more than I. I spoke to her about ediditing, but she did not want to hear it. Thanks Alex for this forum and your information.
  • Richard
    Sinbad I agree with you 100%, I love some stuff that I think other people would really really hate, and i can imagine it on the big screen with a 120 million budget and think it would be the coolest thing in cinema, and I know for a fact that 9 out of 10 people would hate it. Example, Chaos! Comics imagine Evil Ernie with a 120 million budget. I would like it, and I bet many here would too, but most people would hate it, and thats one of my milder fanboy favs.
  • Djo
    re: Skeeter # 19: That's exactly my point. The job of marketing departments is to communicate 'What' a product is to their target audience. They could've nipped this disaster of a dud in the bud, if someone, upon reading the script, would've said: this is completely unmarketable. Who is this aimed at? But they had their Wachowski blinders on, and gave it a Go. I'd be surprised if the Wachowskis are EVER given that kind of creative freedom again, by Warner Bros. or any studio, for that matter, for a very long time... I would also like to thank Alex, for humbly putting this issue up for scrutiny. It's not easy to admit you've been rooting for a losing team. But you've stuck w/ them through the long haul- and opening oneself up to honest discussion about what went wrong is the first step to correcting one's mistakes. This thread's already produced some of the more well-thought out posts to date. As far as I'm concerned, you've got one of the more savvy posters among the "Trailer Addicts" genre of sites. I think it would be refreshing to put more 'bigger picture' issues on the floor. You'd be surprised how savvy some of your posters are, when they're given more to chew on than: "Does this Suck- or does this RULE!"
  • nonja
    I loved the film. Using hind-sight its easy to see how the Wachowskis could have tidied the film up a bit more to make it more appealing (losing a chunk of the corporate story, and focusing more on one bad guy rather than squeezing in lots of characters would have certainly helped reduced confusion). They should have toned down the less cartoon violence (torturing someone with the threat of being eaten by piranhas is not very friendly to the pre-school hot wheels purchasers in the audience), and they could have easily removed the couple of references to "turd" and "arse" and thus appeased the more prudish parents (and got themselves a G certificate instead of the PG that it has). But for me the two reasons why it flopped were 1) it should have been marketed as "The new FAMILY film from the makers of the matrix", rather than just saying it was by the people who made the matrix then right from the start people would have understood. and 2) Its release slot ... if this had come out in April, or in September when there were no other big films around then it would have performed so much better ... but there is only so much money in the cinema goers pockets to see a blockbuster and with the well known franchises of Iron Man, Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and Sex and the City all together obscure little Speed Racer didn't stand much hope
  • kitano0
    Although I have yet to see Speed Racer, a lot of the comments about this movie remind me of the response to "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"....Great effects, good cast, no script. I liked "Sky Captain", but it could have been so much better. I do appreciate films that break barriers effects-wise, and not the least bit averse to eye-candy, but it's got to be "on the page" to be a great film. Why is this simple rule ignored time after time?
  • Koaladon
    re: KitanoO- The very same things that sunk the Titanic, my friend. Hubris, and neglecting to remind oneself just what it takes, to keep a boat afloat: a tried & true adherance, to the Basics.
  • dd
    wow! wow! wow! Now stop! Thats the problem right there, Speed Racer isn't a movie for KIDS, sure they wanted it to be and the tv show was for kids when I was young, but I'm thirty now, you and the marketing people for SR got it all wrong, its for people my age, we grew up with it. My wife is a teacher and all of her kids in Middle school thought she was the biggest dork for wanting to go see the movie, we were shocked that not a one of them had even heard of Speed Racer, the tv SHOW, they just don't get it. So its no wonder it tanked at the box office. For those of you that went to see the movie did you notice any kids there? nope me either! And this was an IMAX showing and it was pretty packed house.
  • sleepykid
    Speed Racer. A kid who dreams of being a racing driver. Do kids still do that? Correct me if I'm wrong, but for all its artful, clever-clever modern visual overload, it's crippled by (amongst other things) being just too old-fashioned and out of step at its core.
  • Djo
    Nascar's HUGE, dude. If they would've had even a REMOTE grounding in reality, and done some field research into just what makes Nascar fans tick & then tailored their script to that, instead of their own obsessions w/ an old cartoon, MAYBE they would've had a shot at an audience! My nephew dreams of being a racecar driver. But there's NO WAY IN HELL I'm letting him anywhere near Speed-Freek-Acer, until I'm confident he can get through a 200 page book, without pictures, unaided by an adult! Insta-A.D.D.!!! GO! GO! GO!
  • ap0ckalypse
    There are a MILLION reasons why this thing flopped. 1)Ridiculously stylized. Stylized is ok (see: 300, Sin City)...but this looks like a giant vat of cotton candy farted onto the screen. 2)A property no one really cares about. 3)Cheesy, over-the-top dialogue in all the trailers. At the end of the day, it just looked ridiculous and, well... stupid. Nobody really thought making a Speed Racer movie was a good idea in the first place (except for Joel Silver, apparently) and they were right. No one cares, and then this movie pushed them FARTHER away by appearing so absurd.
  • Silver
    It still might do good on DVD though. That's where I'll see it.
  • J.D.
    Didn't see it, didn't care too, and I was completely surprised when it was released. Who cares about Speed Race? We all can see how many people wanted to see it.
  • Garrett.king
    I had always thought that Speed Racer wasn't getting the big marketing campaign it was deserving of. Mark my words, if Burger King or even fuckin' Taco Bell had taken it in instead of McDonalds, the word would have been out there so much stronger. The posters, I felt, aren't that engaging and the commercials could have been better. I have yet to see the film, probably will this weekend though.
  • Ajax
    I haven't seen the film yet, so I may be wrong. But, I love the Wachowskis, and looking at the trailers, I thought I absolutely have to see this. The marketing definitely was aimed at kids, but the bad reviews kept the regular guy away from that. If the filmakers were more focused on making a great film rather than, in Joel Silver's own words, "a big summer blockbuster" then it would of done a lot better. This should be considered as a warning to all of the studio execs out there. The public is a lot wiser than it used to be. Plus, Iron Man just completely rocked.
  • http://movieguyreviews4u.blogspot.com Ryan
    I really dont think that too much was that appealing about it when you got over the originals. Also, Worldwide tracking is even WORSE which is shocking!
  • JM
    I saw it the other day in IMAX and I have to say I was blown away by it and thought it was very good. I have to admit if I had seen it normally I may not have enjoyed it as much. Atmosphere is a big part of movie going. Also with the huge influx of good movies this year and some families inability to see evey movie they want they will often hold out for the movies they truly want to see (like iron man or indiana jones)
  • avoidz
    The DVD will bomb, too. You blame over-stimulated kids, bad promotion, blah blah blah. The material and movie combined was a two-flushing turd. The box office dollar numbers (or lack of) speak for themselves.
  • Mark
    It failed because it sucks. Simple as that. High concept, very low brow. Even for american audiences
  • Manfred Powell
    Speed Racer really had an uphill struggle at every step of its hard fought but, ultimately, short lived cinematic journey. Here's an outline of the few of the issues I think have had an impact on its commercial failure: 1. - CONFUSED MARKETING Rule #1: Know your audience. Unfortunately for Speed Racer, the trailers were edited together with hard hitting action visuals, minimal sense of story, and a lot of thumping techno-dance tracks more suited to a rave than a kid's adventure picture. What a lot of people who go to the movie seem to say is "wow, I never expected it to be that fun and involving. The problem was that the film was and is geared towards children, but the trailers seemed to be trying to fight against the film's inherent nature. The product was a confused image that didn't sell. Personally, I would have used the chorus of the Ali Dee cover of the Speed Racer theme, particularly the signature chorus, to really give the film a unique identity and say "this is a fast, fun, colourful, kid friendly action adventure film with a catchy theme song". I think they used it for some of the TV spots, but it would have been nice if it had been used for the theatrical trailers as well. 2. - FRANCHISE WARS You know it. I know it. Iron Man gained such a phenomenal amount of momentum during its opening and subsequent weekends that poor little Speed Racer with its obscure 1960s roots simply didn't have a chance against one of Marvel's leading superheroes. Combine that with a follow up to the box office smash Narnia, and then add the pending Indiana Jones...Speed simply got squished in between the big boys. Not even the positive word of mouth being generated by the film could counter those kinds of obstacles. 3. - NEGATIVE CRITICAL REVIEWS Undeserved as they were, the number of negative reviews just kept pouring in. Complaints that the film was "too kiddy", almost as if they were expecting another [i]Matrix[/i]. The reviewers who "got it" really got it. But there simply weren't enough of them. ---- My view on the whole thing is pretty clear. The Wachowskis have shown once again that they know how to make a crowd-pleasing film. The only trouble is THE CROWD DIDN'T GO TO SEE IT!!! :-D
  • Djo.
    You forgot to mention that to most adults it's style was so headache inducing that they wouldn't take their kids anywhere NEAR it! If you're going to 'invent'a camera, might want to try it on a short film before you go dropping a blockbuster on us.
  • Manfred Powell
    I still don't understand the complaints about the visuals. They were utterly amazing. Not as overwhelmingly colourful as some reviews had lead me to believe before going in to see it. And the action was always clear and precise. Highly stylised? Yes. Beautifully so. But it never descended into "chaos" as some people are suggesting. The action was always clearly defined.
  • http://www.tracksounds.com Christopher
    Speed Racer originated in the 60s (not 70s, not 80s) and is one of the first Anime series to make it big in the west. Due homage should be given to it (as well as to G-Force and Starblazers) If it weren't for this "corny" series, there may not be all of this real-airbending-pokemon-dragonball-crap that so many have been duped into thinking is so much "better." I'll say that the film disappointed overall. It was visually overwhelming, but thank God for Michael Giacchino's score which was predominantly acoustic and pretty faithful to the tv series style of music. The film just never figured out what it wanted to be and for whom it was. The best example is the "cootie warning" 15 seconds before the film ends. There was no other "wink at the audience" moment in the whole film and so was very much out of place. Still, the Wachowskis made quite a few references to the original series that were great to catch; however, most folks probably were clueless about them. (The Mammoth Car, the GRX, Snake Oiler, Pops Racer's wrestling move, Speed's scissor kick) all of this was right out of the series. I had hoped they would have done this remake a little straighter...more like the original series. In fact, if someone did play it "straight" as in photo-realistically, I think it would make a very fun film. Perhaps in another 40 years, someone will give it another shot...and do it right.
  • Manfred Powell
    I don't see how you can make "straight" film about a guy called Speed Racer. The Wachowskis hit the mark bang on. There was no other, no better way to do it. And it rocked! :-D
  • Peluco
    It was a flop simply because it was a movie about car races..that's all!
  • Jont
    this movie should have never been made it is a horrrrrrrible foundation for a movie it was saved by its direction from being worse then pluto nash
  • du99
    #42: yes, and that's why Pixar's Cars flopped so bad...right? The marketing and perception by people killed this movie.

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