Every time I think about this and try to write it down, I get sick to my stomach. Because I know that people who haven’t seen The Runaways are going to assume that the movie flopped because either:
- The movie sucked,
- The fans didn’t like it, or, even worse,
- The fans don’t exist and nobody cared enough to see it.
As Joan Jett is my witness, none of those is true.
I was one of the lucky few that actually got to see The Runaways in the theater, and I saw it nine times. I know running a Joan Jett fan blog makes me look crazy to the general public, and maybe I am, but trust me, I am not crazy enough see a crappy movie that many times. I’ve been a Joan Jett fan since before Kristen Stewart was born. If this movie had sucked, I would be screaming it from the rooftops, and Kristen Stewart would be forced to walk the earth wearing a scarlet “J” on her chest for all eternity.
Is the movie perfect? Hell no. Are there inconsistencies between the movie and the real life story of the band? Of course. And I’m sure film critics can spend all day picking apart the editing or the cinematography or the lighting and gripe about that stuff. But The Runaways is NOT a bad movie. It is one of the best music films I’ve ever seen, it is an excellent showcase for the music I grew up with, and it is a testament to the talent and dedication of Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and everyone else involved in the making of the film.
Do a search on Twitter, and you will see that I am not alone in my praise for The Runaways. Kevin Smith even liked it. That guy makes movies for a living, so if The Runaways had been a steaming pile of dog poo, I’m sure he would have said something. He’s honest like that.
Victim of circumstance, pure and simple
The truth is, The Runaways flopped because of a crappy distribution strategy and poor promotion.
A film’s distributor is responsible for setting the distribution schedule and promoting the film. Different countries use different film distributors. Apparition Entertainment distributed The Runaways for the US, E1 Entertainment did so for Canada, and other companies are doing so in other countries. The performance of a film in each country is ultimately the responsibility of that country’s distributor. But Apparition was the first to the table, and was therefore responsible for setting the world-wide expectations for the film. If The Runaways had done well in the US, I imagine that it would have been much easier to sell to other countries.
But The Runaways didn’t do well.
I have followed the American promotion of The Runaways from the beginning, and I can tell you that Apparition did not understand the film’s core audience. They waited too long to organize us and overestimated our power to influence non-fans by word-of-mouth alone. When their approach failed to make an impact, they tried to cut their losses by drastically reducing the number of theaters showing the film–twice–without any regard to the people who love The Runaways and the actors in the film. The people who are intrigued and excited by the story, and who would have seen the film 50 times if it had been playing anywhere near them.
Other distributors saw the numbers and either bailed on the film altogether or postponed its release, leaving formerly elated diehard fans all over the world feeling nothing but abject disappointment.
But it’s just one movie, right? Why bother getting so upset? I don’t think anyone realizes how long the Jettheads and Runaways fans had to wait for this movie, and how twisted the journey became.
The saga begins
We first heard of the project around April 17, 2007 when Variety announced that Art and John Linson would produce a film about The Runaways called “Neon Angels,” based on Cherie Currie’s autobiography of the same name. I don’t think we believed it at first. The possibility of seeing the story of Joan Jett’s first band–her baby and ours–on a big screen with all of our favorite music, with the premieres, interviews, red carpets, a soundtrack, and EVERYTHING, just seemed too good to be true. Many of us were excited, but I think most of us had reservations. We definitely wanted the movie to be made, but we were afraid that no one would do justice to the story. Personally, I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Then we waited to see what would happen. We waited months for the writing phase to complete, and during that time we didn’t get many updates. I don’t know who was waiting with us, if anyone. I don’t remember the media talking about it for at least a year.
A casting notice was posted in August 2008. I couldn’t figure out who should play Joan or any of the other girls. I think the fans discussed possibilities, but no names stick out for me as being any real contenders. We didn’t know who was up for the role yet. We continued to wait.
In December 2008 the news broke that Kristen Stewart would play Joan. I didn’t know who she was yet, but I quickly learned that her casting was a very big deal to a lot of people. I think many Runaways fans were initially unsure of Kristen and what kind of performance she would bring, as we would be of anyone, but I was open-minded. I started watching her movies to see if I could at least believe her as Joan visually, and I could. In the process, I became a Kristen Stewart fan, and remain one.
The news that Dakota Fanning would be cast to play Cherie Currie came in March 2009. I was thrilled, and a little stunned, that we were able to get names that people would recognize.
I still wasn’t sure if I would be able to see the movie in a theater. I thought maybe it would go straight to DVD, or, if I was lucky, that I would have to travel to New York to see it. I hoped that I would find out in enough time to make my travel arrangements.
Excitement builds, and a new family forms
Filming began in June 2009. All summer and fall, the Jettheads were treated like royalty, or at least that’s what it felt like. The whole world was waiting with us. For the first time in over 20 years, I felt like I didn’t have to explain who I was to everyone. I still encountered people who didn’t know about the movie or Kristen or Joan, but I didn’t feel so lonely anymore.
Set pictures of Kristen and Dakota as Joan and Cherie surfaced, and my heart nearly stopped. Seeing Kristen strut around in the red Live In Japan jumpsuit was intensely gratifying for me. She looked perfect.
Joan attended the Twilight Saga: New Moon premiere in November, and I almost passed out. The interviews with the cast started pouring in, and everyone involved seemed to really get it.
I got so excited that I published an emo fan letter to Kristen Stewart, which introduced me to Kristen’s fan community. I was surprised by the level of support I found there. Some of them were already Jettheads going in, and others had started researching the band and listening to their music for the first time. I love watching them discover Joan’s music and talking about it with them. I am proud to consider these people a part of my fan family, and am equally proud to be a part of theirs.
With Kristen’s diehards on board, the level of exposure we started to get was beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of. I hoped and prayed that we would be able to see The Runaways on the big screen together.
In December 2009 we found out that The Runaways would premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. That same month, it was picked up for distribution in the US by Apparition Entertainment, a new company that had formed in August of 2009. Apparition announced the US release date as March 19, 2010. Other countries started to announce distribution, including Spain. The film was the most-buzzed about film at Sundance, and in the weeks before the festival, the teaser trailer was released and the film’s official website was launched.
Apparition announced on January 13, 2010 that The Runaways would see a wide release in the US to 1400 theaters. I think Martians could hear me scream. Bill Pohlad and Bob Berney, the heads of Apparition, became almost like heroes to us.
Reviews started pouring in, but I didn’t read them. I wanted to see the film with a completely open mind.
January and February 2010 saw even more interviews, production stills, and Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace updates. Star-studded premieres were announced for New York, Los Angeles, and the South by Southwest festival. The first TV spot was released online, and Rolling Stone announced the soundtrack listing.
We started the countdown for March 19th, and waited. We were happy.
Not so fast
Things started to get weird around February 25th 2010, when we got wind that Apparition had changed its mind about doing a wide release for The Runaways. They switched to a platform release, starting limited on March 19th and expanding wide on April 9th. Nobody knew who would get the film on March 19th and who would have to wait.
A week later, on March 2nd, 2010, IndieWire published a quote from Apparition’s Bob Berney to explain the change:
[The Runaways is now] opening in two phases: 220 screens in ten cities on March 19, followed by another 1000 on April 9. Berney has always had a good nose for when to book theaters: he’s basically slowing the pace of the release. “It’s R-rated, not typical. Dakota Fanning gives a great performance, but it’s different from what she’s done,” says Berney. “I had to make sure we had the buzz by the time we went wide.”
I guess two years, ten months, and eight days wasn’t enough buzz. But what did I know?
I tried to stay positive, even after learning that Pittsburgh was not one of the 10 chosen cities and I would have to wait until April 9th. What’s another 21 days when you’ve already waited nearly three years? I would still see it in a theater, and that’s all I cared about.
The fans mobilize
March 2010 was a busy month, with all the premieres, advance screenings, and TV appearances from the cast and Joan herself. The fans did our best to continue the buzz in all of our blogs and social networking sites. We were on a mission.
During the weekend of March 19th, The Runaways came in at 18th place and earned $805,115 with a per-theater average of $3,300. I thought that was pretty good, considering that it was only released in 244 theaters. It was competing against Alice in Wonderland and other blockbusters that were showing in more than 3,000 theaters each. When I sorted the top 18 grossing films for that weekend by their per-theater average, The Runaways came in fourth place. The fans were pleased.
You’ve got to be kidding me
On April 1, 2010, April Fool’s Day, our dreams of a wide release for The Runaways were dashed for good. Box Office Mojo reported the film’s early theater count for April 9th as 200, and then tweeted that the nationwide expansion of the film was canceled. Apparition did not have the balls to announce it themselves, so the fans were left waiting for news through the long holiday weekend and wondering if their city would be included in the release.
I think we would have been OK with a limited theatrical release if that had been the plan all along. The diehards would have had months to campaign for their cities and organize road trips and buy plane tickets. But most theaters didn’t announce their April 9th lineups until Tuesday, April 6th. Whole states, like Mississippi, were skipped entirely. With only three days to plan, most fans couldn’t arrange to get the time off of work or get someone to watch their kids.
We felt defeated and dejected, and many of us still feel that way. This tweet from @KMDawe says it best:
Tell me this is some sick fucking April Fools joke that TR is not getting wide release? I feel like I was told there is no Santa
Not the epilogue I was hoping for
I did get to see the film in the theater, after two years, eleven months, and twenty-three days of waiting and hoping. It was more than I ever dreamed of. The music, the performances, the clothes–everything was amazing. I wrote about it here.
But I couldn’t fully enjoy it, because I couldn’t share it with all of my new friends.
We are pissed off.
Apparition didn’t just screw over the US audiences. Their decisions caused other countries to postpone their release of The Runaways or not release it at all. Apparition screwed every fan all over the world. They screwed Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and everyone involved in The Runaways, who turned themselves inside out to bring this story to life. Apparition has officially lived up to its name. They made us all look invisible.
What went wrong?
I don’t care to point fingers at specific individuals. It took a team of people to make this mess, and they are all responsible. They didn’t spend enough money on promotion and they didn’t spend enough time getting to know the audience.
Part two of my analysis will focus on Apparition’s promotion strategies for The Runaways and why most of them were ineffective.