Boxing movies have never had a problem earning critical acclaim. Two of them, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby, were named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Another Best Picture winner, On The Waterfront, was about an ex-boxer. And a boxing movie that didn’t win Best Picture, Raging Bull, was recognized by many critics at the end of the 1980s as the best film of the decade.
To put things in perspective, in the entire 82-year history of the Oscars, only one sports movie that wasn’t about boxing, Chariots Of Fire, has ever won the top prize.
However, for all of the critical success of the genre, the track record for fight films at the box office is spotty – especially over the last couple of decades.
Rocky IV was the last truly enormous hit, earning $300-million worldwide at a time when the average movie ticket cost $3.55. Million Dollar Baby was the closest thing to a blockbuster since, pulling in $216-million over the course of a 6½-month extended run fueled by the critical acclaim. Cinderella Man, Rocky V and Rocky Balboa were all profitable ventures, each reaching nine figures.
But Ali, despite the name in the title and Will Smith’s star power, lost money. So did The Boxer, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The Jackie Kallen biopic Against The Ropes, starring Meg Ryan, cost $39-million and grossed just $6.6-million. Undisputed, with Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames in the credits, couldn’t make back the $20-million it cost to produce.
If a studio wants a sure thing from a profitability standpoint, it’s better off going for teen vampires or caped crusaders or ogres who sound like Mike Myers. Boxing simply isn’t reliable at the box office.
Yet Hollywood continues to churn out boxing movies at a steady rate, the latest being The Fighter, which opens nationwide this Friday. As you surely know by now, The Fighter tells the story of Micky Ward, an enormously popular warrior with hardcore fans in the late-’90s and early-’00s, but not exactly a mainstream name like Muhammad Ali or even Jimmy Braddock.
From Ali to Cinderella Man to Rocky Balboa to Million Dollar Baby, boxing movies this decade have generally been pulling modest tallies of about $10- to $15-million in their opening weekends. That range seems a reasonable prediction for The Fighter as well.
So if boxing isn’t a subject that’s likely to make the studio rich, why do these fight flicks keep rolling off the assembly line with regularity?
“The genre has produced occasional smash hits, and I think people are trying to bottle that lightning again,” said long-time film journalist and author of The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors On Their Epiphanies In The Dark Robert K. Elder. “Rocky was a huge, huge hit. So people are always trying to remake Rocky. That’s part of it.
“The other part is that the action inside the ring is inherently dramatic, and the characters and extreme personalities are also really compelling, so filmmakers are drawn to boxing. Think about Denzel Washington in The Hurricane. The character and the story were incredibly dramatic, and a lot of people thought he was robbed and should have won Best Actor.”
David O. Russell, who directed The Fighter, agrees that the personalities in boxing are so uniquely textured as to be irresistible to filmmakers.
“When Mark Wahlberg brought this project to me, I was like, ‘These characters are insane, they’re fantastic!’ I saw characters and a world I had not seen before,” Russell said. “And even though I wasn’t specifically pursuing a boxing film before this came to me, it’s something I’d thought about because, honestly, the fighting turns me on. The fighting in Raging Bull, the fighting in When We Were Kings, the fighting in Rocky, it turns me on. Combine that with the characters, and it’s just amazing material to work with.”
If you want over-the-top characters in a boxing movie, look no further than 1999’s Play It to the Bone, in which Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas’ characters each possessed that touch of crazy that nearly every successful boxer has coursing through his DNA.
Ron Shelton wrote and directed Play It To The Bone, as well as more-famous sports movies Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup, and he makes an excellent point about why studios aren’t afraid to get behind boxing movies.
“I’m not surprised that boxing movies continue to be made because it is probably the only sport that’s international, that you don’t have to explain,” Shelton said. “Nobody knows in this country what offsides is in soccer. And nobody knows what an infield-fly rule is in Europe. But everybody understands two guys in their underwear trying to knock each other out. And every country in the world has boxing. You don’t have the problem that most sports movies have of only working to a domestic audience.”
The perfect example to back up Shelton’s assertion is Million Dollar Baby. It made $100-million in the U.S. It made $116-million in the rest of the world. That international revenue is the difference between a modest hit and one big enough to drive the genre for another decade or two.
And it certainly didn’t hurt that Million Dollar Baby was as accessible to women as it was to men, which is often crucial to the box office success of a sports film.
Interestingly, while Hollywood does keep producing boxing movies at a steady pace, the marketing people behind the films don’t always embrace the pugilistic element.
If you saw 2006’s Annapolis, you know the plot was a cross between Rocky and An Officer And A Gentlemen. But if all you ever saw were the commercials for the movie, you might not have known about the boxing half of that equation.
“I’m so bummed that all the ads pretty much took the boxing out,” the director of Annapolis, Justin Lin, told me shortly before the movie was released. “When we did our test screenings, on the score sheets, the boxing scenes were the ones people liked the most; it was pretty unanimous. But I’m not a marketing guy, it’s not up to me. They probably feel boxing polarizes people, either you love it or you hate it, and they chose not to market the movie using boxing. And it’s a shame, because if you think of American cinema, some of our best movies are boxing movies.”
Indeed they are, and it’s a meaningful coincidence that in the same month in which The Fighter will have opened, it was announced that Sylvester Stallone had been voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. If not for Stallone writing Rocky, half the boxing movies of the last 30 years probably never would have been made. And that might just include The Fighter.
Rocky inspired a generation of kids in the ’70s and ’80s to watch boxing or get in the ring and give the sport a try, and for more than three decades, it has similarly inspired filmmakers and studio execs.
The success of the Rocky franchise will probably never be duplicated. But as fight fans and film fans, we won’t complain if Hollywood continues to try.
MORE FIGHT FILM FODDER
In conducting interviews with various people in the film industry, the conversations inevitably veered away from my angle at times, which resulted in a number of interesting insights and observations that didn’t fit cohesively into the main body of this week’s column.
So think of these as the DVD extras to the column, presented bullet-point style:
• Shelton is a serious fight fan (and longtime subscriber to THE RING), and he had an interesting array of thoughts on fight-scene realism.
“Raging Bull is a great movie, and people talk about the boxing, but the boxing is among the most unrealistic boxing ever staged,” Shelton said. “But it doesn’t matter because it is dramatically effective. I mean, I don’t buy a moment of it, but I buy it all mythically and emotionally.
“The fight scenes in Rocky were also unrealistic, but that worked because it was a fairy tale to begin with. It wouldn’t have worked in what I was trying to do in Play It To The Bone or what Jim Sheridan was trying to do in The Boxer. But it probably was the appropriate choice to make. I would have been the wrong guy to direct Rocky because I’m not very good at fairy tales. But they trusted that it was a fairy tale. And I mean that non-critically.”
When Shelton filmed his fight scenes with Banderas and Harrelson, he based them on reality. However, he used a very heightened reality to make sure they were exciting.
“When I staged my fights with Antonio and Woody, I kept showing the Arturo Gatti-Wilson Rodriguez fight to these guys. I said, ‘You don’t understand what this guy can do.’ Gatti’s eye was shut, and all of a sudden he knocks Wilson Rodriguez out. So I said, ‘People will think we’re going Hollywood, but if they do, I’m going to show them the Gatti-Rodriguez fight.’”
• Russell revealed that he only had three days to shoot the boxing scenes for The Fighter, and he filmed them at the beginning of the process so that Wahlberg wouldn’t have to stay in boxing shape throughout the production and wouldn’t have to worry about his boxing scenes while he was trying to focus on his acting.
Russell also admitted that he fictionalized part of the movie’s climactic fight scene.
“We added a knockdown to the [Shea] Neary fight that wasn’t there,” Russell said. “It was because the previous fight in the movie was the [Alfonso] Sanchez fight, which was so intense, and we felt like we had to try to top it, rather than allow the final fight to be less dramatic than the one that preceded it.”
• Elder made an excellent point about one of the challenges to making a boxing movie as compared to most other sports movies.
“Other sports, particularly baseball, give you more opportunity to tell a dramatic story because of the shape of the season,” Elder noted. “With boxing, it’s hard to do the shape of a career. There’s usually just one major fight in a movie, and everything else is montage.”
You may recall that Ali tried to buck that trend by spanning more than a decade of Muhammad Ali’s career and including about a half-dozen major fights.
You also may recall that Ali was a piece of garbage. I can say without question that Michael Mann’s mess of a film is the most disappointing boxing movie I’ve ever seen.
• What are my other opinions on recent boxing movies? So glad you asked. My two favorites of the last decade or so are The Hurricane and Cinderella Man, both of which played loose with the facts regarding the key fights and/or the protagonists’ opponents. But I was willing to forgive those sins because everything else about both movies worked for me. (And I’m definitely among those people Elder discussed who feel Washington was robbed of his Best Actor Oscar for The Hurricane.) On the flipside, I thought Million Dollar Baby was grossly overrated. Not that it was a bad movie; it just had a lot of elements that were absurdly unrealistic. And the ending made me want to exit the movie theater and walk straight into oncoming traffic.
• Let’s wrap the fight film discussion with a recommendation from Elder: Adam Carolla’s The Hammer. “I recommend that movie to people because it’s not what you expect,” Elder said. “It’s basically a romantic comedy, mixed with an exploration of boxing politics.” For what it’s worth, I second the recommendation. The Hammer isn’t going to change your life or anything, but it’s a hard movie not to enjoy.
• Add Amir Khan vs. Marcos Maidana to the overcrowded list of 2010 Fight of the Year contenders that are only Fight of the Year contenders because there hasn’t been a real Fight of the Year contender. When Khan survived the 10th round, I thought maybe we were on our way to a legit frontrunner for the award, but then the finish of the fight –- with Khan limping to victory and Maidana too tired to do anything about it –- was just anticlimactic enough to leave the fight in the same not-quite-great bin as Giovani Segura-Ivan Calderon and Juan Manuel Marquez-Michael Katsidis. You can pick any of those three for FOTY and not get an argument from me.
• In case you care, I had Khan winning by three points, Victor Ortiz beating Lamont Peterson by two points (Harold Lederman seemed to be on auto-pilot in a couple of rounds), Joseph Agbeko over Yohnny Perez by four, and Abner Mares defeating Vic Darchinyan by three points. I can’t imagine what Glen Hamada was watching when he scored 115-111 for Darchinyan. But hey, what would a big-fight weekend be without one utterly indefensible scorecard?
• From the lips of Tim Bradley during an interview clip HBO showed between rounds on Saturday night: “What matters to me is beating Devon Alexander. I don’t care about the WBC belt.” I think I have a new favorite fighter.
• Gotta say, I’m absolutely shocked that Sergio Martinez-Miguel Cotto isn’t happening! Who ever would have guessed that Bob Arum wouldn’t be looking to put one of his biggest earners in with an opponent who’s bigger, faster, fresher and not in his promotional stable?! I’m thinking we’ll see a light tune-up for Cotto in February or March, followed by the Antonio Margarito rematch on Puerto Rican Day parade weekend in June.
• So Jin Mosley needs $5,073 a month for clothes, huh? You could give me $5,073 for clothes and I guarantee I could make it last until 2020. Here’s my secret, Jin: I wash garments, then wear them a second time.
• Why is it that pro wrestlers can get tossed over the ropes 25 times in a match, including at least once through a table, and be OK, but every time a boxer takes a little tumble outside the ring, officials immediately start waving off the fight and administering oxygen?
• I’m a big believer in second chances. That’s why I gave up on Joan Guzman only three chances ago.
• One of the more interesting “What Nobody Is Talking About” discussions we’ve ever had on Ring Theory concerned referee Steve Smoger and whether he takes a little too much pride in his reputation as a ref who “lets ’em fight” and is escaping criticism for sometimes letting fights go too long. After seeing the conclusion of the Tomasz Adamek-Vinny Maddalone fight, it’s safe to assume Smoger isn’t a regular Ring Theory listener.
• Speaking of Ring Theory, you won’t want to miss our season finale this week, featuring our most high-profile guest yet. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say we’re going out with a “bang.”