Speed Racer Could Have Been Star Wars, Says John Scalzi

Illustration for article titled Speed Racer Could Have Been Star Wars, Says John Scalzi

In an interesting column over at AMC, scifi writer and film critic John Scalzi explains why Speed Racer is doomed not so much because of its content, but because of the changing economics of film distribution. He points out that when Star Wars went into wide release in 1977, it garnered the equivalent (adjusted for inflation) of about $20 million its opening weekend — exactly what Speed Racer earned. And it was considered a monster hit. What has changed? For one thing, Star Wars was able to stay in theaters for nearly a year.

These days, a hit film usually scores over $50 million at the box office its first week, and it's not unusual for it to have as much as a fifty percent dropoff in the following weeks. In other words, hit films are almost never created via word-of-mouth anymore. Either the studio and reviewers have created enough buzz about a film before opening day to drive insane crowds into the theaters, or the film flops.

Says Scalzi:

What Star Wars could do that Speed Racer and other movies today generally can't is just keep running. From its first limited release on Memorial Day weekend, 1977, Star Wars stayed in movie theaters for nearly an entire year, and for that year, experienced very small drop-offs in business from weekend to weekend: Between ten and twenty percent each weekend. Compare this to last year's Transformers, which made $300 million in six weeks — and experienced 40 to 50 percent dropoffs in attendance each week. In both their eras, Star Wars and Transformers are state-of-the-art blockbusters, in terms of how they made their money — it's just that the state of the art evolved.


While Scalzi doesn't claim that Speed Racer is as good as Star Wars — he's careful not to get into the "good" or "bad" of either movie — what he does imply is that Speed Racer might have been a hit in another era. An era when movies that open slow might still have a chance to cross the finish line as winners.

$20 Million Now, $20 Million Then [AMC]

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Annalee Newitz

@Jason1749: Sure, it still happens. Blair Witch Project was another one. But notice that both Blair Witch and My Big Fat Greek Wedding are both indies that cost very little to make. So the economics there were quite different — they had runs very similar to Star Wars. They started on a few screens, and slowly worked their way onto more, and both stayed in theaters for a really long time.

I know less about The Polar Express. It was my (uninformed) impression that it earned so much money due to DVD sales, which is something Scalzi does address.