Can Contagion Continue To Spread?

This weekend saw the release of Contagion in the US, a new thriller of epidemic proportions, from classy filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. The movie boasts an impressive ensemble cast, and for a September release the opening numbers are reassuring. The question is, will the film reach pandemic proportions, or will next weekend see the virus snubbed out?

It is important to put the numbers in perspective. Contagion’s $22.4m domestic opening make it the 17th highest weekend opening for the month of September, comparable to last year’s The Town which saw an opening of $23.8m in the same month. Like Contagion, The Town was story driven, but it had fewer recognisable names. Neither have had a big marketing push either, so why wasn’t Contagion ahead in the numbers in comparison to Ben Affleck’s crime caper?

Contagion features such names as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Gwyneth Paltrow, all actors who have enjoyed both critical and commercial success. Along with Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard, overall, it is maybe a less sexy overall cast than Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, which opened with $38.1m in 2001, but it should still probably have enjoyed more of a boost from the names involved.

The disease-based storyline may well have put some people off. 15 years ago, Outbreak, a similarly virus based story with a collection of respected actors opened with $13.4m, comparable to Contagion’s $23m when adjusted for inflation, so there is obviously a certain limited appeal for this type of story. For many, the idea of watching a movie about people dying of a debilitating illness isn’t their idea of a great night out. This is probably more of an issue now than it was 15 years ago thanks to pandemics like SARS, Bird and Swine Flu etc… That this movie represents a much more forseeable reality now than it would have done previously obviously makes it more culturally relevant, but also much more frightening. The majority of cinema audiences want escapism, not harsh realities.

Reviews have been good for Soderbergh’s latest, but not outstanding. There were Oscar whispers for The Town, which piqued the audience’s curiosity, but there has been less buzz around Contagion, and unless word of mouth picks up, there may well be a much bigger drop off than there was for Affleck’s movie too. This coming weekend, the competition splits the potential audience, with Drive and Straw Dogs appealing to the male demographic, and chick flick I Don’t Know How She Does It offering more of a draw to the female portion. None of these movies are blockbuster material, but collectively should take a good share of the audience, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Contagion doesn’t have the legs. With a budget of only around $60m to cover, it will easily make a profit though, and the studio is sure to be satisfied by its performance. Soderbergh is not well-known for generating huge box office. He produces very interesting films but, other than the star-studded Ocean’s series, he does not make movies that appeal to the masses. This is part of the reason why he is one of my favourite filmmakers.

Contagion doesn’t go global for a few months, and with a storyline that crosses oceans, there is definite potential for a much more impressive worldwide box office figure. The idea of a virus that spreads around the world is one that will resonate with all cultures, making it a much easier sell to overseas markets than a Boston set crime drama, for example. 2012, another movie about impending global disaster, enjoyed great financial success worldwide, though was a much easier watch, relying on spectacle over story.

Contagion opens in the UK in October, and i am very much looking forward to seeing it. I love Soderbergh’s work, it always provides something worth thinking about, and the topical nature of Contagion’s storyline, for me, makes it a must see.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann

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