“The Devil Inside,” a mockumentary exorcism movie that critics and viewers alike agree is total garbage, has been bizarrely successful.
This reminds me of the “My Humps” phenomenon, in which a song that was so terrible that no one in their right mind could possibly enjoy it defied the expectations of the band, label, and thinking human beings.
These phenomena go beyond mere “So Bad It’s Good.” No one walked out of “The Devil Inside” or listened to “My Humps” and thought even ironically that it was good. This is voluntary experiencing badness in mass quantities.
A few notes: scarcity is important here. January is typically the worst time for new movies, particularly mass-market movies. Thus, January has regularly produced a parade of box-office horribles, from the Big Momma’s franchise to Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Additionally, this is not a case of differing opinions between critics and viewers. Devil Inside scored abysmally (“F”) on Cinemascore, which surveys audience members with exit surveys to determine how they enjoyed the film. Viewers hated it; critics hated it; and yet, people went to go see it in swarms.
Was it a good marketing campaign? Maybe. But plenty of good marketing campaigns fail to build buzz that translates to eyeballs.
Rather than asking a question of marketing/box office success, I think this question gets at a central idea of movies: Why go in the first place? We go to see films (or listen to music, etc.) for a variety of minutes, and we’ll pick something based on our goal. Sometimes, we want to be scared, and in January, when pickings are slim, we’ll go see a terrible one. Sometimes, we want to listen to a dance single, and when one appears on the radio, we’ll keep listening, even if we don’t even enjoy it.
Tastemakers would hate to admit it, but our tastes are as much about availability bias and what’s right in front of you, rather than some careful selection. We watch whatever we can agree on (e.g. the success of “Pawn Stars”), not what is greatest (e.g. the ratings for “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” etc.).