Maybe George Clooney's inability to open a movie is confirmation of David Denby's contention (unavailable online, but helpfully analyzed by Isaac Chotiner here) that we're running out of movie stars. But I think this alternative explanation for Michael Clayton's poor showing may be closer to the mark:
"A lot of movies are going after the same audience," says a studio chief. The Kingdom; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; 3:10 to Yuma; Into the Wild; Darjeeling Limited; Lust, Caution; Eastern Promises … and many more to come. "It's a tough market," the studio chief continues. "If you don't have a defined perspective, you're just one of the many." He also argues that Michael Clayton should have been released on fewer screens. The movie is sophisticated and plays pretty urban, he explains, so putting it out on 2,511 screens put it in a lot of places where it wasn't going to rack up much business. "If it had gone out on 1,500 screens and it did $10 million, you'd say, 'Hey, it did pretty well,' " he says.
I know I'm way behind in my moviegoing this fall; of course, I did just take two weeks off, so I'm probably a lousy case study, but it does feel like there's been an avalanche of "grownup films that might be worth seeing" over the past month. You can add We Own the Night, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and a few more to the list above, and then this weekend will tack on Gone Baby Gone, Rendition, Things We Lost in the Fire and Reservation Road. What's strange is that after that, the wave of prestige pictures subsides, with one a week or less (an American Gangster here, a No Country For Old Men there) opening in the month of November; the Christmas season, too, seems to have fewer Oscar-bait pictures than usual. Apparently, early autumn, rather than the holiday season, has become the preferred time to release the the films that make Hollywood feel good about itself.