The Real Reason The Meg Feasted at the Box Office
Late last week, it seemed as though the very expensive, very Stathamy underwater thriller The Meg was on its way to becoming a dead shark. Even though the film—an adaptation of the 1997 novel by Steve Alten—had an online fanbase more than 20 years old, most predictions pointed toward a relatively low opening weekend at the box office. For a movie with a megalodon-sized $150 million estimated budget, this was ominous news. So were the The Meg's mostly meh reviews.
By Sunday night, however, the movie had become one of the year's few Hollywood surprise stories, making $45 million in one of the highest debuts of the year. That turnout helped obliterate the weekend's other long-in-the-works thriller: Slender Man, the adaptation(?) of a nearly 10-year-old meme that originated in the world of web-borne urban legends known as "creepypasta." Slender Man earned far less than The Meg, making about $10 million. That was better than expected for a barely marketed schlock thriller. But it will likely disappear from theaters soon, considering its damning D– grade on audience-reaction tracker CinemaScore. To get an idea of how uniquely calamitous that is, consider that 2015's Fantastic Four—a movie that actually ends with this scene—wound up a mere C– score.
Both The Meg and Slender Man are, in their own ways, "internet movies," a hazy descriptor that can be applied to any film with a uniquely nutty prerelease relationship with the web. Internet movies tend to fall within two categories: The majority are like The Meg, which was embraced online in the weeks or months (or even decades) before its arrival. A film like Slender Man is far rarer, as it works in reverse, trying to transfer a piece of internet culture to the big screen. In both cases, whatever online momentum an internet movie generates ultimately makes its real-world appeal tough to gauge.
Earlier this year, Warner Bros. released a mildly campy trailer for The Meg, one that was scored in part to Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea". It was clear the studio was selling the movie as the kind of dumb-fun stand-alone thriller that ruled in the '80s and '90s but had been squeezed out in the franchise-film era. And the fact that it starred Jason Statham—whose best movies, like Crank and its sequel, tended to pay little attention to boundaries of physics or taste—led Twitter users to dream that, at some point in The Meg, the actor would punch a shark. Did the studio know this? The studio did.
The Meg was the kind of high-concept, big-starring, presumably ridiculous film the web tends to preemptively embrace, as it did with 2010's The Expendables or 2012's Spring Breakers—both of which were hits online before becoming hits in theaters. But the excitement over The Meg most recalled the hoopla over 2006's Snakes on a Plane, the Samuel L. Jackson action-thriller that, in the months before its release, was seized upon by the internet, which churned out countless Snakes-related memes, parody trailers, and fan sites. The web chatter was so unavoidable that the filmmakers even shot additional footage to appease its pre-cog fans, who demanded to hear Jackson growl the movie's signature one-liner. It all culminated in a chaotically crowded presentation at that summer's Comic-Con International in San Diego.
For all of the excitement, though, Snakes on a Plane wound up making a little more than $30 million, nowhere near the (admittedly unrealistic) expectations the internet had foisted upon it. And when the first estimates for The Meg came in last week, it seemed like it was suffering the same demise—until millions of people headed to theaters to see the Statham-vs.-shark showdown for themselves. The Meg's surprise success is due to any number of reasons: A relatively sleepy weekend for big releases; subscription services like Moviepass and AMC A-List, which make goofy movies less of a dilemma for value-happy customers; and the chummy relationship between audiences and shark movies in these last few years. But the organically accumulating web-lust for The Meg, while impossible to quantify, no doubt helped it punch the film's low tracking numbers in the nose.
Slender Man, however, seemed like a 404-quadrant movie from the moment it was announced in 2016. By then, the widely circulated meme, about a blank-faced man who hunts children, was several years old and had become even more infamous after it allegedly helped inspire the 2014 real-life attack on a 12-year-old girl in Wisconsin. While last year's Emoji Movie proved that web ephemera could be turned into a hit, that movie at least felt slightly current. The advanced aged of the Slender Man tale—at least in internet years—made its meme-to-screen transition seem dubious. And its ties to a real-life crime made the film seem especially tacky.
But perhaps the biggest problem for a movie like Slender Man is that it cuts out the crowd-participation aspect that makes web phenoms so alluring to begin with. One of the appeals of the Slender Man mythos was its murkiness: You could take a few vague elements, insert your own horrors, and spread it to others, who would then come up with their own version. A movie like Slender Man fills in those gaps, essentially creating a "correct" version of a story that was intended to be malleable, and in the process kills the fun of building an idea together.
The lead-up to The Meg, on the other hand, was all about playing with others and best-guessing the movie's ridiculousness—then heading to the theater on Friday night to see how close you all came. One film was inviting you in; the other was logging you out. There likely won't be many more Slender Man-like meme-flicks in the future, but there will always be room for another Meg-like internet movie: a phenom that sinks its teeth into the web and thrashes everyone around briefly, before sinking back into the depths.