Why Else We Love Gravity

The astronaut  in outer space

The Wall Street Journal points out today how popular the movie “Gravity” is with audiences of both genders, and all ages and nationalities.  The movie plays to viewers attracted to special effects, suspense, personal endurance, and our spine tingling fascination walking in space.  All of that is true but I would add one further explanation.  In our daily lives, we are now surrounded by so many flawed and failing protagonists, that we crave seeing one succeed.  Whether it’s our very own ineffective, popularly-elected Congress, horribly flawed TV show leads, such as Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” or hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, who is likely to pay nearly $2 billion in settlement  to avoid spending years in a federal jail, while insisting on his own innocence,  we are inundated with unethical or incompetent characters.  Finally we have Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, to whose fear and horror we can relate, who gets the whole job done, and comes home to tell the story.  That’s the film we crave.


Oct. 17, 2013 7:43 p.m. ET

Why “Gravity” is turning out to be the breakout hit of the year, appealing to a wide range of moviegoers. But conventional Hollywood wisdom almost kept the film from ever getting made. Don Steinberg joins Lunch Break. Photo: Warner Bros.

Against all odds, “Gravity” is defying it.

The film has broken box office records by appealing to young and old, men and women, art-movie fans, sci-fi geeks and evangelical Christian reviewers.

Now heading into its third weekend, “Gravity” is an increasingly rare phenomenon: a movie that draws audiences in droves, yet also wins joyous praise from critics. Exhibitors are thrilled that word is out the film should be seen not at home but in theaters, on a big screen, with high-quality sound. Comedian Albert Brooks slyly underscored the rewards of the immersive big-screen experience, tweeting “Just watched Gravity on an iPhone. Not that impressed.”

Older people are acting like teens. “They’re calling the theater asking how 3-D works,” says Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres, which operates 50 cinemas in 21 U.S. markets. “We’re getting people out of the house who haven’t been to a movie for 10 years or more.”

If current trends continue, “Gravity” is likely to end up grossing more than $500 million world-wide, territory rarely seen by movies that aren’t based on a comic book or toy and released in summertime or holiday season. It is unlikely to approach the world-wide grosses of movies like this year’s No. 1 hit, “Iron Man 3,” which sold more than $1.2 billion in tickets around the world.

The movie does, however, provide a reassuring message to the industry after a year of accelerated soul-searching, when big-ticket movies bombed and Steven Spielberg wondered aloud about a coming movie “meltdown.” He praised cable TV as more adventurous. Now, “Gravity” joins a short list of recent movies that are fresh, high-quality fare for grown-ups and big business.

The entertainment industry is built on long shots and blind faith, but few projects came across quite as many shut doors on their way to success as this movie from Alfonso Cuarón, the director of “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men.”

Few saw commercial potential in an original story about a heartbroken not-so-young doctor struggling to find the will and the means to survive following a disaster in space. The notion that the film would rely on untested technology to simulate a weightless environment, where concepts like “up” and “down” have no meaning, only heightened the uncertainty. Some of the technology called for in the screenplay hadn’t been invented yet.

ROBO-CAMERA: Adding to the complexity of making ‘Gravity’ were several two-ton computer-controlled robotic arms — like those in car factories — to create its untethered, no-gravity feeling. Warner Bros. Pictures

“This was a movie filled with terrible ideas, at least by conventional thoughts,” said “Gravity” producer David Heyman. “It’s an action film with a woman in the starring role. It’s just two characters, with one alone for an hour. She’s behind a visor for half the film. Those all supposedly don’t work.”

The movie was originally in development at Universal Pictures, but the Comcast Corp.-owned studio in early 2010 put it in turnaround, Hollywood-speak for giving up on a picture before it starts shooting. Warner Bros. agreed to take it on, in part because it had a willing partner to share the costs in Legendary Pictures LLC. But Legendary, too, eventually dropped out. The studio unsuccessfully attempted to find a co-financing replacement, but one potential backer after another declined to foot even a portion of the roughly $130 million bill—brought down to $105 million thanks to a tax credit from the U.K., where the movie was shot.

Casting was no easier. As work on the movie’s complex technology dragged on, original stars Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. moved to other projects. Potential replacements including Natalie Portman Marion Cotillard, and Naomi Watts popped up, then faded away. Finally, soon before production began in 2011, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney agreed to star.

When the movie was completed, its prospects still appeared questionable. The results of early test screenings were middling, as people not prepped by the critical raves and pre-release buzz that preceded “Gravity’s” Oct. 4 debut simply didn’t know what to make of it. Some said they had trouble relating to Ms. Bullock’s damaged character. Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” Warner Bros. Pictures

“It didn’t look like it would go on to be a phenomenon,” said Warner’s president of world-wide marketing, Sue Kroll.

Only four days ahead of the film’s release Warner, part of Time Warner Inc., found a partner willing to share the risk. In late September, the studio announced a multiyear, $450 million deal with a company that agreed to cover up to 25% of the budgets of nearly all its movies. Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, comprising filmmaker Brett Ratner, Australian billionaire James Packer and investor Steven Mnuchin, could participate in 75 films.

In its second weekend, ticket sales dropped only 21%, an unusually strong performance for a big hit. It was a sign of strong word-of-mouth, also reflected in high weekday ticket sales. In just two weeks, “Gravity” has grossed more than $200 million world-wide, even though it hasn’t opened yet in such major foreign markets as China, the U.K., Japan, and Mr. Cuarón’s native Mexico.

“We had theaters that performed as well or better the second week, which is a big indicator of positive word-of-mouth,” said Mr. Mundorff, of Landmark Theatres. “They’re coming back and bringing people.”

Watch a clip from the film “Gravity.” A medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) and an astronaut (George Clooney) work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

Weaknesses on paper became strengths at the box office. Long-standing stars (Ms. Bullock is 49, Mr. Clooney 52) helped draw an opening-weekend audience that was 59% over 35 years old—an age group that rarely turns out in sufficient numbers to propel a film into the stratosphere. At the same time, getting a healthy share of 35-and-unders to a movie with middle-aged stars was no mean feat, either, said Mr. Heyman, the producer. Opening weekend audiences were slightly more male than female, according to the same studio exit polls that showed the age breakdown.

Also notable is how swiftly “Gravity” has come to occupy cultural center stage. In an age when “Pacific Rim” is for him and “The Great Gatsby” is for her, “Iron Man” is for the action fans and “Blue Jasmine” is for adults who don’t go to the movies much, “Gravity” has become a must-see for everybody.

Media-savvy astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson launched a series of tweets he labeled “Mysteries of #Gravity,” noting how unrealistic the movie is to anyone who knows how outer space works. “Nearly all satellites orbit Earth west to east yet all satellite debris portrayed orbited east to west,” he tweeted, adding that he enjoyed the movie “very much” anyway.

Late-night talk-show hosts found fodder. David Letterman quipped: “I say, hey, if you want weightless entertainment, we are here.”

The opening sketch on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend connected “Gravity” to the federal government shutdown. Cast members Taran Killam and Cecily Strong, shown floating in space, make a desperate call to Houston, only to reach a NASA janitor, the only person in the building.

“Mission control, we are at 4% oxygen and dropping!” Killam says. “Please advise!”

“Uh, mission control’s not here right now, but can I take a message?” says Kenan Thompson, playing the janitor. “I’m going to say that ‘Janet from space’ called.”

Even evangelical Christians, who rarely have much good to say about Hollywood, embraced the film. The Christian Post, which describes itself as the largest Christian newspaper in the world, quoted an editor at Focus on the Family’s blog Plugged praising the movie because it showed “the presence of God throughout the film” and could serve as an allegory for the Resurrection. The ordeal of Sandra Bullock’s character, while not explicitly Christian, leads to a revelation in which she is reborn, giving her “new purpose in the empty dark of space.”

Selling “Gravity” was nearly as tricky as the production, which relied on complex computer technology and robot-controlled cameras. “It was a special effects-driven extravaganza in space but with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who are intrinsically older-skewing actors,” Ms. Kroll said. “That was a very interesting dichotomy.”

Looking to find which audience would embrace the film, Warner in August promoted “Gravity” at Comic-Con, a gathering of sci-fi action fans, and premiered it at the Venice Film Festival, a showcase for serious cinema. The movie ended up drawing raves at both.

Over the next month, Warner focused its advertising on the visceral experience of being abandoned in space, but revealed little of the actual plot. While many modern marketing campaigns rely on unique advertising material for each audience segment in the U.S. and countries around the world, the “Gravity” campaign had relatively few variations.

Perhaps the strongest sign of audiences’ enthusiastic response came not in the box-office bottom line, but the number of people who chose to pay extra to see it in 3-D. Eighty-two percent of domestic ticket buyers have so far chosen to pay extra and wear plastic glasses, more than for such hits as “Life of Pi” or “Avatar.”

Landmark’s Mr. Mundorff said the 3-D version of “Gravity” is substantially outselling the 2-D version throughout his chain, in both box-office dollars and individual tickets.

“The senior audience, which has traditionally shunned 3-D, is also requesting 3-D,” he said. “We’ve got a resurgence of folks who haven’t come to the movies for a long time.”

Cliff Schoolcraft, a 59-year-old retiree, walked out of a Los Angeles showing of “Gravity” Wednesday and pronounced the movie “perfect.” The last time he went to the movies was “The Great Gatsby.” He said he preferred the 1974 Robert Redford version.

But Scott Wallace, who this year sold his Hollywood America Theaters chain to Regal Entertainment, said the popularity with older audiences really isn’t because of the 3-D spectacle.

“Any time you can get older people to theaters means that our storytelling has vastly improved,” he said.

For many viewers the immersion of 3-D added emotion to the story of the astronauts’ desperation. Laura Pallen, a student in Toronto, tweeted that she cried “like five times.”

“I didn’t expect to respond with tears, but Gravity turned on the taps,” she said. “Adrenaline was definitely a factor. The 3-D was so realistic that I found myself panicking. I felt like I knew [Sandra Bullock’s] character, and I was a mess at the thought of her not making a safe return to Earth.”

—Ethan Smith contributed to this report.