- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

Comic prankster Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his surprise 2006 hit “Borat” looked like a surefire hit at the box office, a low-budget, high-ceiling treat for its studio, Universal.

But a funny thing happened on the way to box-office glory: The public didn’t seem willing to play along, and bad word-of-mouth about the filthy flick sent its box office into a tailspin.

“Bruno” opened July 10 to huge numbers, pulling in $14.4 million for the day. Studio executives saw those numbers and rejoiced: Visions of a $45 million, $50 million, maybe even $55 million weekend danced through their heads. This was a bona fide hit, a movie that would recoup its budget and much of its advertising costs in the first weekend alone!

Then came the fall.

On Saturday, the box-office take of “Bruno” fell to $8.8 million, a huge Friday-to-Saturday drop of almost 40 percent. Sunday saw another dip as the film took in $7.5 million. At the end of the weekend, “Bruno” had taken in $30.6 million, a decent haul, certainly (slightly more than “Borat,” though “Bruno” showed on twice as many screens), but nowhere near the phenomenal numbers that Universal and Mr. Baron Cohen must have thought were coming their way after Friday’s huge take.

Why the huge drop-off? What happened between Friday evening and Saturday evening?

For a hint of what went wrong, take a quick look at the CinemaScore numbers. CinemaScore polls audiences right after they’ve seen a movie to get a quick sense of the mood in the theater after a movie ends. “Bruno” scored a C.

While C is average at the schoolhouse, it stands for death at the multiplex. To create a frame of reference, consider that the vast majority of major summer releases score in the A to B range with audiences no matter how bad or good the film is: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” received a B+ and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” received a B; “Star Trek” scored an A, while “Up” scored an A+.

CinemaScore isn’t the only place where one can examine snap judgments and the initial word-of-mouth on a movie. Twitter lit up with anti-“Bruno” sentiment late Friday night. Twitterer jasoneskin’s lament was typical: “Just to update everyone, Bruno is STILL awful. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Has absolutely no cinematic or cultural value,” he tweeted Friday evening.

One other tweet is instructive. “Bruno was absolutely awful. Don’t see it, seriously. Showing a [penis] and expecting me to laugh is not happening,” Dkamys wrote later that night. His reaction was typical, and box-office observers think that’s one of the reasons the audience fell so steeply midweekend: People simply weren’t prepared for the raunchy assault Mr. Baron Cohen sent their way.

It looks as if “Bruno” finally has shown just how far Hollywood can push audiences and the boundaries of taste before moviegoers push back. The cultural watchdogs on the right would do well to let this movie self-immolate instead of turning “Bruno” and Mr. Baron Cohen into free-speech martyrs.

The absolute worst thing conservatives could do would be to call for its banning, as Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of its film branch, Movieguide, has done. The organization sent a letter to local government officials across the country asking them to ban the movie from their multiplexes.

The letter “asks officials to get an injunction against screening the movie … until officials can look at the movie and determine whether it should be banned because it does not fit the ‘community standards’ in their area, as defined by U.S. Supreme Court rulings on obscenity and pornography.”

This is an extremely counterproductive course of action if Mr. Baehr is actually interested in getting fewer people to see the movie, as opposed to generating publicity by calling on the government to ban the film. Audiences already are voting with their wallets and their Twitter accounts against Mr. Baron Cohen’s film; is there anything to be gained by whipping up publicity and encouraging cultural liberals to see the movie in an effort to stick it to the radical right?

The only real way to encourage studios to make fewer movies like “Bruno” is to show that they’re money-losing propositions. Let the marketplace finish the work it started last weekend instead of calling for the heavy hand of government censorship.

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