The thriller, starring Star Trek lead Chris Pine as Jack Ryan, the less-than-memorably named hero of late author Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels, took in only $17.2 million during its opening weekend. It fell short of its $19 million projection on a weekend when even a comedy starring Ice Cube was able to rake in over $40 million, despite being uniformly hated by critics.
The enigma becomes more puzzling when other entries in the genre are considered. Jack Ryan joins the recent Jack Reacher, John Carter, and even bold outliers like the non-J-named Alex Cross on the list of “tent-pole” films with bland men’s names that somehow did not excite fans of action movies. It is feared that the shocking failure of a film with such a depressingly uninspired name will likely doom any attempt to jump-start a new franchise of films based on Clancy’s novels (many of which have already been filmed).
It remains to be seen to what extent, if any, these recent unexpected failures of the “generic male name” movie genre will affect Disney’s rumored plans to create a series of live action films (starting with a film bearing its lead character’s name) featuring the continuing adventures of Mel Gibson’s character from their successful 1995 animated film, Pocahontas.
The real question is: how did the Hollywood studios get it so wrong? There is little doubt industry analysts will be pouring over details for months, seeking to decipher how the most plain, vanilla, white-guy name you can think of ended up not being a compelling movie title. Some believe it is possible moviegoers did not see the franchise potential envisioned by producers, who consider such films an expression of their firm commitment to good old-fashioned entertainment, as well as titles which involve no creativity whatsoever.
Disappointingly, in each case, the lackluster name belonged to the hero of a series of bestselling novels, with each film intended to be the first in a franchise of movies featuring that protagonist. Similarly, each of those entries to fast-growing generic male name genre flopped, much like Jack Ryan, and this setback made the prospect of even one sequel, yet alone an entire series, extremely unlikely.
Despite prevailing studio titling trends and conventional wisdom that nondescript men’s names as movie monikers attract blockbuster ticket sales, a survey of the Top 100 Highest Grossing Movies of All Time reveals that only one film, Forrest Gump, had a title that was just the name of some dude you’d never heard of before. However, Forrest Gump is not technically in the same genre, since it is considered by many to be a distinctive, interesting male name, rather than a properly bland or plain one. Experts say key signs indicating Forrest Gump does not belong in the generic male genre include details such as the fact that it is unusual rather than commonplace, as well as the subtle clue that it actually does not feature the first name Jack or John.
Intriguingly, while there are no generic female names in the Top 100 either, top performing female name films outside the Top 100 tend to be of the “interesting name” genre as well, including such distinctly titled movies as Erin Brockovich.
Aside from Forrest Gump, movies that are just a person’s name remain mysteriously absent from the highest grossing films. The closest high-grossers would be the Harry Potter films, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2.
However, it is worth noting that these films fall into an entirely separate genre, since rather than merely being someone’s name, they feature a generic name, followed by “and”, and then a phrase which at least moderately descriptive or interesting. This is a crucial point of separation, placing these films in the same category as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom rather John Carter.
There are other notable differences, such as the fact that the books Harry Potter films are based on are intended for children and young adults, or that those books have sold several times more copies than books featuring the characters Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, John Carter, or Alex Cross (possibly more than all of them put together). Some outside the industry believe one or more of these factors may have influenced the Harry Potter films’ greater popularity.
Film enthusiasts have also noted that all previous films featuring the Jack Ryan character, including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears, were more financially successful. It is not yet clear whether this is related to their titles actually describing something, or even just being remotely memorable, as opposed to simply being two first names stuck together.
Other students of the industry noted that not a single one of the James Bond films are actually just named ‘James Bond,’ not even the first one, though the relevance of this observation was unclear.
Previous failures in the genre have surprised producers as well. John Carter, for example, was based on a novel entitled A Princess of Mars, the first book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of Mars adventures. Though the original title would have brought attention to that fact that the story involve a princess who lived on Mars, which seems like an interesting concept on at least some level, prevailing industry wisdom was that non-boring details relate to the story itself were less important than letting audiences know the main character was named John Carter. When John Carter proved to be one of the biggest bombs in the history of its studio, Disney, men in suits who control movie-making everywhere were left scratching their heads. After all, there was no specific history to indicate Disney films involving princesses would enjoy any popularity. John Carter was the clear title choice, as a potential franchise builder, paving the way for innovative sequel titles like ‘John Carter 2.’
Part of this has to do with the business philosophy that a single successful film which people actually watch and like is not necessarily a worthwhile endeavor, while the actual goal is creating a series of films featuring the same characters, which can make more money over time. However, certain naysayers have pointed out the successful franchises require not flopping the first time out. These critics often fail to note, however, that the reasons behind certain movies faring poorly are often unforeseen “X-factors,” such as a film’s only selling point being a blandly named character known exclusively to fans of a certain book, which obviously no one could have predicted.
Many industry insiders see these would-be franchise builders named after main characters to be attempts at emulating not only the successes of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and James Bond, but also the recent spate of interrelated hit Marvel films. These movies, such as Iron Man and Captain America, spawned sequels as well as a franchise-bridging team-up film, the mega-hit Marvel’s The Avengers. In fact, Director Kenneth Branagh’s previous film was the Marvel blockbuster Thor, also named after its white male protagonist. However, some industry insiders believe moviegoers considered “Thor” to be a more noteworthy name than “Jack,” though the fact the there are fewer movies about Norse deities than there are about spies was not discussed. In any case, Thor’s lack of a generic male last name does not seem to have hurt its tickets sales, a fact which puzzled many analysts.
The flops in this genre are even more surprising since all their posters were dominated by shades of blue, orange, or both, colors believed by studio experts to fill all necessary requirements for successful publicity.
Intriguingly, the movie itself is not reported to be distractingly awful, indicating total success in fulfilling the bravely pedestrian vision of Paramount Pictures studio executives. They dared to dream of an inoffensive, by-the-numbers placeholder product, meant solely to anchor a film franchise no one under 35 was clamoring for. According to reviews, the film succeeds in being un-terrible, as well as living up to the generic potential producers encapsulated in its name. Forbes Magazine calls it “capable but not memorable,” The L.A. Times calls it “serviceable but not compelling”, while The New York Times broke ranks by calling Jack Ryan “a competently made, moderately diverting variation on a genre standard.”
Inside reports indicate that studio executives will place the blame squarely on the heads of those actually involved in creating the workmanlike franchise relaunch they asked for, rather than assigning any responsibility to studio executives responsible for naming it. In their defense, if their goal in assigning the film’s title was to ensure that it told you nothing whatsoever about the actual story, save that the protagonist is a man with an extremely common name, these producers lived entirely up to their goal. In fact, given the failure of recent maverick attempts to tinker with the formula of this winning genre (such as the lead holding a sword instead of a the obligatory gun in the John Carter poster, or Alex Cross starring a black guy with a generic white guy name, instead of a white guy with a generic white guy name), executives are likely to hold even more tightly onto the rules of this reliably unsuccessful sub-genre.
By contrast, many were attributing the success of the Ice Cube film that trounced Jack Ryan to that critically abhorred comedy’s six-word tagline, “Propose to this cop’s sister? Rookie mistake.” Said tagline actually communicated information about what audiences could expect from the attached movie, even if that expectation could only amount to formulaic, childish nonsense. Is it possible that the more successful film benefited from being named Ride Along, which is at least a thing that happens in the movie, as opposed being named Ben Barber, or James Payton, whichever cartoon caricature Kevin Hart played.
(Update: It has been noted that late in the film’s development, as announced distastefully soon after Clancy’s death in October, the film’s title was eventually expanded to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Unfortunately, all reports indicate that literally no one not involved in the film’s production actually noticed or cared. Only HuffPo reviewer William Bradley engaged with the extended title, philosophically asking and answering his own rhetorical question when he wrote, “What the heck is a ‘shadow recruit?’ It’s meaningless.”)
The surprise flop Jack Ryan, aka Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, considered by fans of movies with generic male names to be something of a setback for the genre, is likely to appear soon on DVD and streaming video.
By: Jeremy Forbing