What makes the most money is more often than not an inaccurate barometer for quality. Combing through the top ten lists in film, music, literature, and television often yields the most broadly appealing and easy-to-digest material but rarely the most influential and timeless. With exceptions of course. Box office failure is also a poor gauge of quality because, frankly, we as consumers make mistakes too. Some of the greatest artists in history across all mediums didn’t find their audience until their time had passed. So, let’s shine a light on those which lost the short battle but have come out on top in the long run.
Today: David Fincher’s 1999 classic, Fight Club.
1999 is widely considering one of the greatest cinematic years in recent history. It featured giant movies that warmed the heart and appeased the cerebellum and more than a few masterpieces that failed. Fight Club is just one of many amazing films that did not find a financial foothold in the minefield that was 1999. The Iron Giant? A failure that is now beloved. The Insider? Possibly Michael Mann’s finest hour, which is a considerable feat. Being John Malkovich? Office Space? Duds. In fact, any one of those films qualifies for this column. But 1999 showed us that we as an audience got it. We were hip. We made The Matrix legendary. We almost got The Talented Mr. Ripley to a hundred million. We embraced The Green Mile and Toy Story 2 and Fight Club felt like another vital bit of celluloid to balance things out.
Here’s the difference between Fight Club and the other films that didn’t make it. It was based on a hit novel, was given the major studio treatment, featured young hot superstars in the epicenter of their prime, and a director whose name could have been a synonym for “cool”. It had everything going for it.
Except it didn’t.
There seemed to be a perfect storm of outside forces conspiring against Fight Club. First of all, even though the film had been made for a very considerable budget of over $60,000,000 studio executives were baffled when the film based on the vicious and morally ambiguous book turned out to be vicious and morally ambiguous. It’s as if no one read anything about the project until it was too late. Which is actually great for audiences in a way because in reality there’s no way a movie like Fight Club gets made unless some really powerful talent plays hardball and some gatekeepers fall asleep behind the wheel. When the film screened for executives they were mystified and unable to process the monster they’d unleashed.
David Fincher had a very specific vision for how the film should be marketed and the studio (20th Century Fox) got cold feet after their initial viewing of the film. The marketing was changed to something more mysterious and oblique, focusing on the action and faux-cool dialogue rather than the real message of the film. The thing was, the marketing was still really cool. It sold a different film than Fincher had made but in a way that’s sort of in the spirit of the film’s deceptive nature. Ficher’s bar of soap-based marketing was ingenious and so was the idea of selling the film to fans of UFC and wrestling, exactly the opposite market who the film and original novel were aimed at. Sometimes culture has to be force fed.
The film was lost at sea amidst bad planning and communication behind the scenes. A film of that budget needed a release spot befitting a high profile project. July of 1999 was the original plan. In that slot, it could serve as counterprogramming to the action films and also maximize the college and high school kids being on Summer break and tap its key audience. Then, it was bumped to August. The Columbine Massacre was cited, due to the anarchist element in the film. The film was ultimately saddled with a release date of October 15th, which is the cinematic equivalent of being handed a pocket knife before a gunfight. Fight Club was stripped of all the tools it needed to succeed and as a result its domestic box office run was severely underwhelming.
Many critics didn’t know what to make of the film either but for those it spoke to, it spoke in volume. I saw the film opening night with a large group of people and the experience was one I’ll never forget. There was an electricity to the film and the night which followed that can’t be faked. It was a salve of a movie that moved the needle, entertained but at an intellectual price, and showcased yet again why the medium of film is a malleable and evocative form of communication.
The early adopters knew the film would be timeless and sure enough, it not only found huge success on home video, it became an aftermarket sensation. It even led to an awful video game adaptation, which is exactly the kind of thing the film’s Tyler Durden would have rebelled against. Fight Club won the long battle but it lost the one that matters most to Hollywood, the initial one built around opening weekends and back-end profit participation. The film’s tumultuous birth cycle also caused a rift between then-Studio Head Bill Mechanic and his bosses. Mechanic left the company shortly after, and the man who ushered in a golden era for the studio was gone and with him the studio’s momentum.
Fight Club was a painful, disruptive project. Which is very fitting when you think of it. By today’s standards, the movie isn’t quite docile but it’s certainly not nearly as aggressive or avant-garde as it seemed in 1999. The world has caught up, with many projects (like USA’s Mr. Robot) owing a great debt to David Fincher’s odd masterpiece.
Here’s a sampling of the lesser films that beat Fight Club at the box office in 1999:
Anna and the King, Message in a Bottle, Bicentennial Man, The Bone Collector, Blue Streak, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, The Haunting, The General’s Daughter, Wild Wild West, Entrapment, Stigmata, and Double Jeopardy.
How often do you think about those movies anymore? Yeah.