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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 12/20/2010

'How Do You Know': What the heck happened at the weekend box office

By Jen Chaney

Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd, looking equally perplexed by the box office failure of "How Do You Know." (Sony Via AP)

"How Do You Know" -- apparently it's a question that no one was asking at the weekend box office.

James L. Brooks's long-gestating, D.C.-set romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson opened in eighth place, earning just $7.6 million. Let's put that into some perspective.

A comedy with a strong pedigree behind it and that, at one point, was being bandied about as a possible awards season contender has now debuted with a below-mediocre reception from critics and less money in its pocket than "Yogi Bear," which landed in second place.

And that performance is for a movie that, according to Box Office Mojo , cost almost as much to make ("How Do You Know" budget: $120 million) as "Tron: Legacy," (budget: $170 million) which easily won the weekend box office and is jammed with eye-popping, high-tech neon 3-D visuals.

So what happened here?

First, a little more perspective on the data.

As pointed out by Deadline.com, Brooks's films usually don't bring in a ton of cash; his last effort, 2004's "Spanglish," also rolled out the weekend before Christmas and earned $8.8 million. The difference: "Spanglish" didn't cost $120 million to make. (Man, those Nats uniforms Owen Wilson wears must have been expensive.)

As far as our stars go, this was hardly a personal best either. For Witherspoon, this is her weakest starring-role debut since 2007's "Rendition" (remember that thriller she starred in with Jake Gyllenhaal?). For Rudd, it's his weakest since the forgettable "Over Her Dead Body," and for Wilson, this is his most lackluster wide opening since 2004's "The Big Bounce"; even "Drillbit Taylor" made more money during its first weekend in theaters.

Where did it all go wrong?

For starters, the marketing behind "How Do You Know" did it few favors. From the trailers and promos, it was hard to get a sense of the what the multi-layered story was about. The stars had to carry the day. And as was recently reinforced by "The Tourist," stars usually can't carry the day by themselves when it comes to the box office.

This may be a nit picky thing, but the title also didn't help matters. After being dubbed "Untitled James L. Brooks Project" for what seemed like eons, the name became "How Do You Know," a question that lacks a question mark and doesn't stick strongly in the memory.

Add to all that the fact that romantic comedies usually aren't box office juggernauts. The only one to crack the top 20 grossers of 2010 was "Valentine's Day" and that had the benefit of a search-engine friendly title that's based on a Hallmark-generated holiday.

But more than anything else, "How Do You Know" may simply be one of those movies that slips through the movie-appeal cracks. It's a film that's going for a mainstream crowd at a time when most of the mainstream crowd seems more interested in "Tron: Legacy," or whatever piece of half-animated 3-D slop might appeal to their kids. It's an intelligent film that's showing up when smart moviegoers want to see "Black Swan" and "The Fighter." And it's a movie that, based on the reviews, deals with complicated life questions and doesn't deliver pat, easy answers.

For better or worse, a film like that is always going to be a tough box office sell.

Speaking of the box office, which movie is going to top it during the upcoming Christmas weekend? Vote in our highly unscientific online poll to make your prediction.

By Jen Chaney  | December 20, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  
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Comments

"It's an intelligent film that's showing up when smart moviegoers want to see "Black Swan" and "The Fighter." And it's a movie that, based on the reviews, deals with complicated life questions and doesn't deliver pat, easy answers." And it's utterly impossible to know any of that about the movie based on the advertising. If audiences did know it was smart and challenging, they'd show up, but it was (halfheartedly) marketed as a vapid romcom.

Posted by: northgs | December 20, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Why doesn't How Do You Know have a question mark? That's just silly.

I have no love for movies that don't even bother to come up with a decent title. It's hard enough distinguishing between movies when a half dozen open every week -- why is it so hard to come up with a meaningful-to-the-story title?

Posted by: msame | December 20, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Jen, if you think $120 million is almost as much as $170 million, then I'll like to volunteer to take the change, please.

Posted by: Nosy_Parker | December 20, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Putting a question mark at the end of a movie title is considered bad luck.

Posted by: steampunk | December 20, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Putting a question mark at the end of a movie title is considered bad luck.

Posted by: steampunk | December 20, 2010 12:24 PM
***************************************

Yeah, how'd that work out for them? I mean, how'd that work out for them.

Posted by: MStreet1 | December 20, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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