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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: Narrative Beats Out Special Effects at the Box Office

October 14, 2019
2 min read time

Last week in this space we celebrated the massive opening weekend of Joker, a film that captured the film conversation—and audience attendance—by virtue of the power of its narrative approach. Whether or not you agreed with the film, or even liked it, it cannot be denied that the angle its story took was a huge driver in what got people talking about it, making the film a victory for narrative from any perspective.

Joker dominated the box office again over its second weekend in theaters, breaking more records with a three-day take of $55 million dollars. The result reinforces the takeaways derived from its massive opening. It wasn’t alone this past weekend, as other box office results also spoke to the power of storytelling.

Gemini Man, a legendary spec script that was stuck in development hell for more than two decades, finally hit theaters over the weekend starring Will Smith.

A leftover from the '90s high concept spec market, Gemini Man centers around a particularly lofty idea: a hit man is pursued by a younger clone of himself. At various points in its life, the film was due to star Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood, but it kept hitting obstacles.

With digital technology getting closer and closer to being able to convincingly de-age an actor, Ang Lee finally got the film over the line. Lee shot it in both 3D and at a high frame rate, a technique he employed on his last movie, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

After such a long build up, Gemini Man's $20 million opening weekend gross can only be seen as a disappointment for everyone involved. It was out-grossed to the tune of around $10 million by a new CGI animated version of The Addams Family.

But the fate met by Gemini Man is encouraging from a storytelling point-of-view, as it's a film that was selling itself almost entirely on its technical achievements, as opposed to the power of its narrative.

Both the dual Will Smiths and the high frame rate proved to be not particularly enticing for audiences, which points to a film market that wishes to be engaged by a compelling story, not dazzled by so-called next level special effects.

That takeaway is strengthened by the much-higher-than-expected interest in a film that opened in limited release over the weekend: South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong's Parasite, which averaged a stunning $125,000 per screen it played over three theaters. That's the highest per screen average of all time for a foreign film.

Modern day film audiences are famously allergic to anything with subtitles, so the huge showing for Parasite shows just how powerful a compelling narrative can be—regardless of what language the characters are speaking.

There is nothing gimmicky about Parasite at all. Instead, it tells an undeniably pertinent story about class division and financial insecurity.  It's funny, disturbing and leaves one heck of a lasting impression. With nary a superhero in sight.

Online chatter about the film, which took the top prize at Cannes this year, has been overwhelmingly positive with audiences positively giddy over the film. Some are speculating it could become a crossover hit, and Oscar® prognosticators are now considering if the film will show in the main categories, not just Best Foreign Film.

It deserves to. The film is an absolute masterpiece, and the fervour surrounding it speaks to an audience hungry for mature, urgent storytelling. That all starts with the writing.


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