Rum Diary: Anatomy of Challenging Movie, Commercial Flop

Moviegoers who love Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, stayed away from his latest film, The Rum Diary, in which he plays a fictionalized version of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, the journalist who committed in 2005, was famous for his intake of booze and drugs, and Depp’s newest movie was inspired by one of Thompson’s books.

Opening this weekend in 2,272 theaters, the R-rated movie grossed just $5 million, ranking fifth for the weekend and earning just $2,205 per site.

Captain Sparrow

A hugely bankable star, Depp has three movies among the top-ten worldwide grossers of all time: 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which ranks sixth with $1.07 billion; this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is eighth with $1.04 billion; and Alice in Wonderland, which is ninth with $1.02 billion.

The Tourist

Even Depp’s less successful movies have done better business than Rum Diary. Last year’s The Tourist, in which he costarred with Angelina Jolie, opened to $16.5 million and went on to gross $67.7 million domestically and $278.3 million worldwide.

Rango

The animated movie Rango, in which Depp voiced the title character, opened to $38.1 million in North America and took in $242.6 million globally this spring.

Rum Diary is Depp’s biggest box office flops since the arty fantasy movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which grossed just $7.7 million in the U.S. in 2009, although unlike Rum Diary, it had a limited release; it never played in more than 607 theaters.

The movie has been a passion project for Depp, who struck up a deep friendship with the author, who he portrayed in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but like many other passion projects, it bombed with audiences—and critics.

Based on a novel that Thompson wrote in the early 1960s but didn’t published until 1998, the movie follows a journalist, played by Depp, who heads to Puerto Rico in the late 1950s.

There were several earlier and unsuccessful attempts to mount a film version, but it wasn’t until Depp and his production company Infinitum Nihil joined forces with Graham Kings GK Films that the movie went into production, filming in Puerto Rico in 2009 with Bruce Robinson, whose 1997 film Withnail & I was a favorite of both Thompson and Depp’s, directing.

FilmDistrict, co-founded by King, distributed The Rum Diary, but held off its release until it could find a date when Depp was free from commitments to his most recent Pirates movie as well as shooting Dark Shadows, so he could  promote the movie.

In addition to a Vanity Fair cover, Depp went out on the road, doing a college tour that saw him visit UC Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University. Despite Depp’s support, though, the movie attracted few buyers once it hit theaters.

Cult Movie?

FilmDistrict president of theatrical distribution Bob Berney said, “The whole Hunter thing attracts more of a cult audience. While he and Johnny were best friends and the movie is a tribute to Hunter, Hunter is stilll a little too extreme for the mainstream.” While the film played well in Manhattan and Los Angeles, it did not in the suburbs.

CinemaScore polling gave Rum Diary a grade of C. Forty-four percent of the audience was over age 50 and they gave it a C-. Those under 18 were more enthusiastic, giving it a B, but the problem was they made up only two percent of the audience.

Reviews were mixed as well. The movie divided critics sharply: 51 percent were rated positive on the Rotten Tomatoes web site.

Berney holds that Rum Diary could ultimately find an audience on home video, as was the case with Fear and Loathing, which only grossed $10.7 million in U.S.theaters, but went on to attract fans on DVD.

This analysis draws heavily on the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, CinmaScore and Rotten Tomatoes.