'Underworld: Awakening'

What is the great, mystical secret to the success of the thoroughly mediocre Underworld franchise? The January release of Underworld: Awakening marks a tetralogy for the vampire series anchored (in three of the four films at least) by vixen Kate Beckinsale.

Collectively, they have raked in a staggering $383 million and counting worldwide, more than doubling the return on investment made by Screen Gems. Commercially, Underworld is box office gold. Critically it is despised; of the first three films, the original Underworld tops the list at a 31 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Ultimately, it's a success in the way that matters most. There's every financial rationale in the world to make an endless string of Underworld sequels, and, if Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is any guide, you don't even need Beckinsale's Selene to justify one after another. Lycans, released in 2009, almost tripled its modest $35 million budget at the gate. (Can someone, by the way, explain why Beckinsale isn't more of a major star? She has hardly challenged herself as an actress, yet seems wildly popular and is definitely incredibly beautiful. Is it that she won't push herself or that she can't?) Yet, the receipts only tell half the story and solve none of the mystery behind Underworld's seemingly broad appeal. People keep buying tickets -- yours truly included -- and it's hard to figure out exactly why they do so in droves.

Underworld does not have the built-in angsty-teen/lonely-cat-lady/repressed-Mormon audience that successor Twilight has thanks to Stephanie Meyer's novels. It does not have a deep and impressive cast or a famed director behind it. We know it doesn't have good reviews, of course. There isn't even much about the movies that's particularly memorable. Action sequences, Beckinsale's husky voices, fangs, Bill Nighy, Covens -- that about covers it, right?

To me, it comes down to three main factors:

  • Simplicity. Underworld is mindless if unmemorable fun. You know what you're going to get going in -- an unironic B-movie with plenty of gunplay and even more Beckinsale in skintight leather.
  • Deliberately good timing. The first Underworld movie, which was released in 2003, came out in September. The next three in the franchise were released in January. Both are slower months on the movie calendar immediately following busy periods -- September after the succession of summer blockbusters and January following the rapid-fire release of Oscar contenders and holiday family fare. January, in particular, is generally devoid of quality competition. In short (and to borrow a terribly crude expression), it's the tallest midget in the proverbial room.
  • The third dimension. OK, this doesn't really apply to the first three films, but there's no doubt that shooting Underworld: Awakening in 3D has been a boon to the franchise when returns might have otherwise been leaner. Things were bad at the box office in 2011, but 3D -- gimmick though it is -- is a perfect shot in the arm when it adds $3 to each ticket and the movie itself is shown most everywhere in that format. What's more, my suspicion is that moviegoers actually prefer the 3D experience in B-movies like Underworld where mindless entertainment is, again, the entirety of the draw when compared with more serious offerings.

Vulture took greater care than I to run down a whole host of reasons why Underworld has had such staying power last week after it won the box office -- Liam Neeson's The Grey has since bumped it off its perch -- and there's some interesting stuff put forth, particularly when it comes to the franchise's appeal to women and it's slightly older demographic

The fact that it’s always been a rated-R franchise means that its audience hasn’t aged out of the experience. When the film travels to Comic-Con, it now routinely fills San Diego Convention Center's mammoth Hall H with decidedly not-teen fans. “The Goth kids that went to the first Underworld are now young adults who go to Underworld,” explains our agency spy. (The studio’s own stats back this up, too: Fully 60 percent of the Underworld: Awakening audience was age 25 or older, says Rory Bruer, Sony’s president of worldwide distribution.)

That loyal, hard-core following is reflected by audience research leaked by studio sources to Vulture: NRG audience polling found that in the three weeks before its release the latest film was on tracking, with those naming Underworld: Awakening as their "first choice" remaining relatively strong and constant. For several weeks, it hovered at 9 percent, before finally climbing to 11 percent and finally 12 percent the day before opening. “That means the audience is there, but didn’t grow,” explains our agent, “But it also means the fan base isn’t rejecting it, either. And that means this is going to be a film that can make $175 million worldwide."

Even more unexpectedly, Underworld does reasonably well with women. Though the audience for Awakening was decidedly more male than female, it wasn’t so by much — just 55 percent. In fact, in the run-up to its release, NRG tracking found that three quarters (73 percent) of guys over 25 were aware of the film, and half expressed "definite interest." Surprisingly, though, 41 percent of women over 25 aware of the film also expressed "definite interest." “It started out Romeo and Juliet with vampires and werewolves,” says our agent, “and becomes about a mother who’ll do anything to protect her child.”

Really, though, I prefer my simpler instinctual explanations to their cold-hard analytics. Critics, because it's their job to watch movies, often forget that formulaic action fodder is what the movies are all about for some -- maybe even many -- people. Ditto for cookie-cutter rom coms and so on. If it's been a hard week at the office, sometimes all you want to do is go have dinner, watch a crappy movie and go to bed precisely because it doesn't take much effort. You don't always want sit in the theater and go through emotional catharsis, do you? The Underworld movies certainly don't provide the latter, but they definitely fit the bill of the former.

Shut your brain off for 90 minutes, and it's easy to understand why the franchise is such a success.