My Experience Watching Liam Neeson (@Iiamneeson) in #TheGrey; Some Thoughts:
It has been a while since I have been to the movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to the movies, but the circumstances of life have not afforded me much margin and honestly triage dictated that movies was one of the first things to go. Cable was next. It seems these days I choose to consume my media in more mobile ways. Sure, I might rent a film on iTunes and stream it to my TV, but for the most part, I’m watching seasons of shows that have been off the air for a while on Netflix or waiting for new shows to pop up on Hulu. Movies – even rented from RedBox kiosks – tend to take too much of my precious time.
That often ends up being a deciding factor in any film I see at the theater too – time. How long is it? What are the show times? When can the sitter be here? How long can he or she stay? How long will it take to get to the theater? You get the point.
I got the chance to go and see a film this past weekend. On a Sunday evening. By myself. For a married man with two kids who works two jobs for about 60 hours a week, it was holy.
Sure, it was a bit strange seeing a film by myself, even stranger not to have to worry about babysitters or kids or anything like that. Thankfully, my wife was willing to absorb most of that so I could go see one of the three films having their opening that weekend and therefore write about the experience.
I wasn’t that interested in any of the three options: The Grey, Man on a Ledge, and One for the Money. I used to work for Borders Bookstore and One for the Money had girls night out written all over it, so not really interesting for a married man out solo. I knew the Evanovitch novel was popular a few years back and the series was still putting out volumes, but the film was getting panned by those who got the chance to see it in advance.
I flip-flopped between The Grey and Man on a Ledge. I wasn’t really interested in either. I like Ed Harris, so that might have been a reason to see Man on a Ledge, but I was fairly sure Ed Harris was only 1/10th of what the film was about or less. Liam Neeson is always good.
By the way, I was totally wrong about The Grey from the moment I started judging it.
The very first thing I ever saw advertising The Grey was a poster plastered to the wall of an abandoned building in an area frequented by college students. This is not usually a trusted source of "must see" films to meet my cup of tea. I took it as sensationalistic crap. One more film showing how much of a badass Lian Neeson is, right? What’s this one about – his kidnapped daughter/wife/kitten? And he’s what – ex CIA, FBI, NSA? Like I said. I was wrong about this film based on my assessment of the print ads that first brought to my radar.
Before I chose to finally choose The Grey as the film I would see that sacred day of solo flight, I watched the trailer a number of times. "How hard would you fight to survive?" it asked. Ok, so nobody kidnapped, but still Liam Neeson has to show how badass he is, but that could work for a solo movie day. Who cares if it’s Snakes on a Plane with Wolves after the Plane Crashes and With Liam Neeson instead of Samuel Jackson, right? Like I said, I was wrong about the film.
Certainly there were going to be a few others like me. After all The Grey was slated to have the widest distribution of any film playing that weekend at over 3100 theaters. If I was going to see a film this weekend, it seemed I was going to choose the one most likely to be viewed by the largest number of others. As a result, I wanted to choose to see it in an upscale theater that had some extras.
I chose the Muvico in Rosemont, mostly because I knew there would be comfy seats and cinema 4K projection. I’ve gotten to the point in my movie viewing life such that I notice the cigarette burns for reel changes a bit too much, and digital projections don’t need/have that, so that was to be a win. In any case, I expected to be part of a large crowd, so I wanted to be comfortable.
Also in the lobby before walking in to see the film, I noticed large cardboard standees for Journey2 with The Rock, and MIB3 with Will Smith. There are also two other "TV" like displays that are playing trailers and images from various upcoming movies including Daniel Radcliff’s first major role outside of the Harry Potter Series, The Woman in Black.
There wasn’t much traffic at the concessions stands when I arrived, but I arrived early to get a good seat in the middle back so I could continue to take notes as long as possible. Even though the crowds were thin this early, it seemed most of the tickets being sold were for some showing of The Grey. When I got there, I had three choices of showings each within a half our of each other and one that included the chance to drink beer and eat fries instead of the usual soda and popcorn. There was no shortage of chances to see this film at any of the theaters I researched for the weekend.
I’m sure it’s a bit easier to get a wide distribution for your film when two of your largest financial backers are massive exhibition chains (um, hello – SEC? Anybody there?) Anyway, I followed @OpenRoadFilms on Twitter (to my surprise, less than 500 followers) to find out in the description of their profile they are:
"Founded by AMC Entertainment Inc. (AMC) and Regal Entertainment Group (Regal) in 2011, OPEN ROAD FILMS is a a dynamic, theatrical distribution company"
Open Road only having distributed one other feature (Killer Elite) in 2011 and The Grey their first effort in 2012, I didn’t exactly know how to predict what to expect. It was worth going to see what kind of film these two powerhouses of cinematic exhibition were going to purchase and put out. As a result of how new they are there was not much information on the web to give me an idea about what to compare this release to.
Very interesting also that @LiamNeeson has about ten thousand fewer followers on Twitter than the Twitter account for his most recent film @TheGreyMovie. As a result, I suspect the @LiamNeeson account was created and is managed by an ad agency, and not Liam himself (ghost tweeting is not unusual when people are brands.)
You could tell that the folks at OpenRoad were just catching on to this whole Twitter thing. In their description for @TheGreyMovie account they try to list the actors but half of them either aren’t on Twitter or suspended as accounts. Even those with working accounts (Director Joe Carnahan and Actor Frank Grillo) don’t seem to have huge followings despite being fairly personable in their tweets.
Comparatively, Katherine Heigl’s (One for the Money) Twitter account has well over 100k followers and she is deliberately and personally active on it, a factor which (combined with the Groupon offered discount and book series fandom) probably ate into some of the weekend earnings for The Grey, and I’m certain played heavily into the decision to pay for some promoted tweets with the #thegrey hashtag.
Regardless, there was a decent crowd in the theater in my showing and the auditorium seemed about 75% full by the time the opening credits rolled.
One thing I noticed in getting to the theater way early this time is that there are three levels of commercials playing prior to a feature now.
1. The standard "advertisements disguised as movie trivia and quotes" level which are missed by 75% of the audience but provide a good buffer of something to look at for those five or ten freaks who go to movies by themselves and show up early for good seats (ahem.)
2. The bigger deal commercial, commercials for products you might buy in a grocery store but which might have cinematic tie ins and make it seem like you’re watching a giant tv. (For which there were about 25 people present.)
3. The trailers for upcoming films. (For which only about 70% of people were present for all. Fully half of the attendees arrived AFTER one or more trailers had played.)
For The Grey, the trailers played for upcoming films were: The Lockout, Act of Valor, Jeff Who Lives at Home, This Means War, Wrath of the Titans, and Silent House (also an Open Road film.)
This selection of trailers doesn’t surprise me. I expected the audience joining me to skew male (though the reality was that most attendees were male/female pairs) so it makes sense that the films marketed before this one would cater to a largely male audience. The Grey, after all, was a cast full of males doing manly things. This may not be appealing to your saucy feminist for it’s lack of female representation, but certainly works the weekend before the Super Bowl on a Sunday with no football games at all, just basketball.
There were about 75 people in the theater with me in total. 20 or so chose to sit in seats called "D-Box" seats for a few dollars more per ticket. These seats were programmed to move around in motions that mirrored action happening on screen. In the lobby, before you buy your tickets, you see sample "D-Box" seats sitting in front of a large screen TV playing clips of a film. On this day, the clips being played were from The Grey. It would be interesting to know (from the exhibitor’s point of view) if they sell more tickets for the "D-Box" seats in films from which the clips are playing.
I noticed that those seats did a lot of moving in the beginning of the film, particularly in the scene with the plane crash in the beginning, but didn’t notice a lot of extra movement again until over three quarters of the way through the film when characters are jumping and falling vast distances through trees.
In terms of the actual content of the film, I was lead astray and missed the mark on what it was going to be about or what tone it was going to have largely because of one word in the marketing: or. If you look at the marketing material closely, you see the tag line "live or die on this day." Pretty simple, right? Especially in terms of the plot of this film? Live or die, right? Liam’s gonna live, right? Not so much in my opinion.
The line of poetry that comes from the film’s script is live AND die on this day, and is far more existential than the line used in the marketing to set up a conflict and predicted resolution.
Set against the bleakness of an emotional landscape that embodies the post-modern angst of existential loneliness, this film is propaganda for humanist pragmatism. At the literal CLIMAX of the film, when one would expect the height of action, what we are given is an emotional climax wherein Liam Neeson looks up to the sky and DEMANDS a response from any kind of God – and gets absolutely nothing.
It is not your standard "lifeboat" scenario as was expected by all the marketing. You know the kind, the ones we used to rail against because all the characters "of color" were the first to go and only the rich white guys were strong enough to survive and save the day? Not so much in this one.
Even on our last day we should live life to its fullest. Even though we die. We both live AND die on this day. There is no suspense as marked in the marketing – to live OR die. We die. Period.
I’m sure I’m not the only movie-goer who was at least confused by the subtle discrepancies between the marketing of the film and it’s realized reality. Luckily for the film, it worked enough to get butts in seats without any major backlash in social media about the potential bait and switch. In fact, much of the energy around social media posts responding to showings of The Grey tended toward "pleasantly surprised." Plus, would we have gone to see it without the suspense of wondering IF they would live OR die on this day? No. Probably not.
I think the release date of the film also played into its success in a mild way (Liam can’t carry everything, but he darn near did) if only because of its proximity to Valentines day. With the number of couples I saw in the film (of varying ages, by the way) I would assume that this was the "male-centric" compromise for this weekend, to be followed either next weekend or the week after by the "female-centric" compromise (which at least This Means War is hoping will be them, if not One for the Money – if it makes it that far.)
There are those football games I love to watch that are not so exciting as they are just enjoyable because of the statistics. Everybody’s connects, performs, and responds to the best of their ability and each play is executed to precision and therefore a game is won. That’s how I feel about the choices made for this film. They were solid, like watching a smart, seasoned quarterback at the top of his game hitting the numbers and making the plays. The editing was solid. The cinematography was solid. The performances, even from supporting cast, were solid. Costumes, location, scenic, stunts, effects – solid. Sound design? A little heavy-handed on the wolves, (there were a few times I swear I heard a foley PA saying "woooooooooo!" like a third grader in a ghost costume, but that’s to be expected.)
By and large, I was impressed with The Grey, if only because it exceeded my expectations – downright confounded them in fact. Despite being far more philosophically charged than I anticipated, it was an enjoyable experience if only in the quality of the film direction, the big shoulders of the lead performance, and the subversively thought-provoking subtext of the script.