Retrospecticus: On The Kingdom and failed Oscar bait

My original plan for this week was to study The King of Kong and the way based on a true story means nothing. However that’s likely to be a future cast. Instead I’m getting on schedule with a movie hitting its 10th anniversary today.

Nobody remembers The Kingdom. When I see looks back at the year, it never comes up even once. It’s not a film that makes best of lists or worst of lists. It’s not discussed as part of any moment in film history. Nobody has it on in rotation. It’s a movie that for all intents and purposes ceased to exist after October 1st.

Not that it’s a bad film. It’s a well acted, solidly paced movie. It’s a nice time killer. Peter Berg brought a strong sense of style to it. The movie entertains for 2 hours but not much more aside from a gripping credits sequence. Still, being an engaging if forgotten film isn’t usually enough to inspire me to write on a film. What draws my interest to this subject is simple. The Kingdom is a perfect example of one of the industry’s strangest phenomena: Failed Oscar Bait.

Failed Oscar Bait is what happens when films a studio thinks will clean up at the Academy Awards both fail to get attention there and fail to earn much money. Poorly reviewed, I stress this does not apply to great films the Oscars overlooked, they’re neither fish nor fowl. They’re one of the most common sights every season.

The Kingdom is a great example. It’s about a serious topic that’s box office poison, namely the War on Terror. It stars an a-list cast of serious actors including Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper. Director Peter Berg previously helmed the prestige project Friday Night Lights. It feels to some degree like an early version of The Hurt Locker which would (deservedly) win Best Picture two years later.

But it fell short. On a 70 million budget, the film earned 48 million in the US. It only scored a limp, 51% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was so quickly forgotten it hit DVD in December, ensuring it wouldn’t even be noticed after 2007. Intended as an “important film,” it joined the ranks of All The King’s Men and The Shipping News.

Movies like this are, for my money, worse flops than the “bad” movies because those have a way of tempting the viewer. I liked this movie a solid amount and I haven’t thought of it in 8 years at the soonest. They vanish into the ether and when they are watched, they’re not all that engaging.

Oscar movies aren’t made for the box office and don’t make me laugh at the idea they’re actually made for art. Oscar movies are Hollywood’s way of buying indulgences with the public. They’re the pretense that the industry cares about creating serious work. In reality it’s an industry like any other and one that increasingly doesn’t care that audiences are onto it. Thus failed Oscar movies are what happens when the lie isn’t sold well enough.

The Kingdom is forgotten. What made it vanish? Well, over the next three months I’m going to look at a lineup of films that answer that question definitively. One of the strongest seasons in cinema history kicks off next week.

Next: Michael Clayton: The Lost Art of the Adult Thriller

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