Motherhood's disastrous performance at the box office provokes bitter confrontation between producer and UK distributor
The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Saturday 17 April 2010
This news feature reported that few people went to see a new Uma Thurman film, Motherhood, during its UK opening weekend. Trying to analyse why, it reported the producer, Jana Edelbaum, as saying she intended to demand an explanation from Metrodome, the company responsible for UK marketing of the film. However, Metrodome and Jana Edelbaum have asked us to make clear that, contrary to the conclusion which our story went on to draw from this, no “bitter confrontation” between the two had taken place. Metrodome also notes that a launch method was discussed between them, and that a preview screening shortly before the release date mentioned in the piece as a sign of nervousness followed routine preview practice in its timing and in the type of audience feedback sought
It should have been a red carpet event. When just one British cinema was given exclusive permission to launch Uma Thurman’s new film earlier this month, the film’s producers presumably hoped that exclusivity would create a buzz around the movie. Though limiting the release would obviously limit takings, they must have hoped word of mouth could make it a slow-burning success.
But the tactic backfired catastrophically. Instead of audiences queueing round the block of the Apollo West End in Piccadilly Circus, London, to see the star of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, they stayed away in record-breaking numbers.
Over its opening weekend, no more than a dozen people went to see Motherhood, a semi-autobiographical account of stressed-out Manhattan parenting written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann. The film made just 88 on the weekend of Friday 5 March. On its debut Sunday, box office takings were 9, meaning one person bought a ticket.
The disaster has now degenerated into a bitter confrontation between Metrodrome, responsible for marketing the film in the UK, and producer Jana Edelbaum, who blames the company for Motherhood’s atrocious performance.
The film, thought to have cost $5m to make, earned just over 40,000 when it opened in the US last October, but Edelbaum had no idea quite how badly it had performed in the UK until contacted this week by the Guardian. “You’re kidding?” she said. “We must have broken a new record for grosses.”
Edelbaum is adamant that Metrodome must be to blame, and insisted that she would demand a full explanation. “Think how much crap succeeds at the cinema,” she said. “Motherhood is not bad. It’s a very decent movie. I’ve seen movies that are not half as good.”
In fact, Motherhood, which also features Minnie Driver, Anthony Edwards and a cameo by Jodie Foster, cannot lay claim to the dubious title of Britain’s lowest-ever grossing film on its opening weekend: that honour is taken by My Nikifor, the 2007 film about Polish artist Nikifor Krynicki, which took just 7 on its launch.
But it has, according to the veteran film critic Barry Norman, confounded expectations of quite how resounding a flop a mainstream film featuring a bona fide star can be. “Good God. I have never heard of anything like this before,” he said. “This is not some small, independent movie. It’s astonishing that only about 11 people could be bothered to go and see Uma Thurman.
“The reviews were very poor indeed but that alone isn’t enough to explain this. It’s a reasonable assumption that there was a marketing and advertising catastrophe, and people didn’t know it was showing. But it should have attracted more than 11 people in passing trade alone. Apollo cinemas, after all, aren’t in tucked-away places. They’re all prominently located. I’m baffled.”
The Apollo cinema chain which later briefly screened the film in Burnley, Fareham, Redditch, Stroud and Altrincham failed to return calls from the Guardian.
But Metrodrome, which has manoeuvred films including Monster, Donnie Darko and The Counterfeiters to financial and critical success, defended its approach in the week after the launch.
“Over the course of the week leading up to Mother’s Day we also released the film on DVD, video on demand, and pay per view so customers could choose how to watch the film,” the company said. “Inevitably some films will work better on some platforms than others. In this particular case the DVD was stronger than the theatrical result.
“It is important that experimentation is encouraged at a time when the entire film industry is in transition,” the statement continued. “We all need to adapt to new models of distribution in the future and discover new opportunities.”
There were, however, signs that Metrodrome had already begun to suffer a lack of confidence in Motherhood before it was premiered.
At the beginning of the month, 70 tickets were given away to members of the website Mumsnet for a special screening at which they were asked to give detailed responses.
“Interested to know why the company wanted opinion on the film so close to its general release?” queried one after the screening, to which fewer than 20 of the winners went. “It is proper pants. In fact it’s one of the rare movies I didn’t stay until the end for.”
But Edelbaum defended the film: “Our effort was noble. It’s a love letter about how difficult it is to be a mum and an individual, and have an identity outside of that. I think we have proved that mothers are too busy to have fun. That they are overstretched and overburdened by the difficulties of their job.”
Others, however, disagreed. “It’s a yummy-mummy newspaper column splurged onto celluloid, like baby sick on your best cashmere sweater,” said Ellen E Jones on film review website, Total Films. “This whiny drivel makes me ashamed to be a woman,” said Wendy Ide on the website Rotten Tomatoes which gave the film a rock-bottom 20% Tomatometer success rating.
Edelbaum admitted she dreaded telling Dieckmann, who also directed the 2006 comedy drama Diggers, how badly Motherhood had gone down in the UK. The film was, she said, a labour of love that had “taken up many years” of Dieckmann’s life. “I can’t bear to ring her and tell her,” Edelbaum admitted . “I’m a producer; I’ve got a thick skin but, well, she’s a creative.”
The film is no longer being shown at a single cinema across Britain. Indeed, it has sunk so quickly and untraceably that, back at the Apollo West End, it has not even left a ripple.
The woman behind the popcorn counter in Piccadilly Circus didn’t remember the screening at all. “It’s very strange,” she admitted. “Even if I’m not paying attention to what’s being screened here, I can usually tell you every film because customers talk to each other and the names just stick in your head. But I’m sure I’ve never heard that one being mentioned.”
The man selling tickets also had no memory. “Have you got the right cinema?” he asked, looking puzzled. “There’s another cinema down the road perhaps it was on there instead?”
Hollywood’s greatest flops
Can there be any sweeter justice than some bloated Hollywood mega-production going down in flames at the box office? Whisper them quietly, because mentionThe names of films such as Cutthroat Island ($104m loss), The Adventures of Pluto Nash ($112m loss) and still the biggest Sahara ($121m loss) are enough to turn the blood of any studio executive to ice.
Of course, every film is a risk, but some you suspect are asking for it. When word got out that the Unification Church had financed Inchon ($40m loss) in 1981, audiences stayed away in droves. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had so irritated filmgoers with their public romance that their co-starring vehicle Gigli ($66m loss) didn’t have a chance. John Travolta chose to get artistic with Scientology, and the resulting film, Battlefield Earth ($43m loss) became the focus for distaste with the movement as a whole.
Some are more than just financial duds; they bring down entire studios. The champion is Heaven’s Gate: it sent United Artists into bankruptcy and ended the artistic flowering of the Hollywood new wave after losing $40m, a frightening sum for 1980. Cutthroat Island did for Carolco, the outfit behind Rambo and Terminator 2.
In our modest British way, 1980s powerhouse Goldcrest collapsed after releasing three duds in 1985 and 1986: Revolution, The Mission and Absolute Beginners. More recently, the All Saints vehicle Honest did for the 1990s Britfilm revival, earning only 111,000 in its first week after costing 3m to make.
Motherhood is not likely to have such seismic effects, and in any case, the distributors will have an eye on the DVD market; it will have been stuck in cinemas as a loss leader generating publicity ahead of Mother’s Day.
But it’s got nothing on a 2006 independent film, Zyzzyx Road, which is generally held to have the lowest box office result of all time. It was released briefly in one Texas cinema, and took the grand sum of $30.
This article was amended on 29 March 2010. The original named Atrincham as Altringham. This has been corrected.