Social Icons

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

If “Secretariat” Can’t Save Us

For all the hype and aggressive marketing, Disney’s “Secretariat” underperformed its opening weekend, taking in a mere $12.6 million and finishing third behind the Facebook movie “The Social Network” ($15.5 million) and the romantic comedy-tragedy “Life As We Know It” ($14.6 million).

Do you fault Disney’s marketing plan, focusing on faith-based groups and Middle America? Disney marketing president MT Carney recently told The Hollywood Reporter: “We always knew it was going to play better in the center of the country than elsewhere. We did hugely well in the smaller towns and didn't do so well in New York and L.A. But we knew that would be the case.”

Really? Because there are no horse-racing fans or tracks in the major coastal cities—a natural audience for a film rooted in the sport’s history? Besides, aren’t those socially-conservative small-town folks the ones who usually look down their noses at horse-racing and its environs as of interest only to a bunch of degenerate gamblers and low-life characters?

Or is the film itself flawed by its very story-telling and packaging as an “inspirational drama” lacking any real conflict or depth? As one “Middle America” (St. Louis Suburban Journals) critic noted, its “trials and tribulations are strained through the always-sunny Disney prism, leaving us with a movie content with simply skimming the surface and piling on lots of feel-good moments.”

Whatever its issues—and the movie may very well gather steam and yet make back its $35 million cost (and then some)—how about we admit, as fans of the sport, that if a movie about the great Secretariat—one of the most iconic names in modern sport—can’t capture the public’s interest, there’s no hope for horse racing to grow without a radically new campaign and aggressive reforms by those who run it?

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but we need to reshape how racing meets are conducted (“less is more” should be the mantra), with careful planning in terms of when the highest-caliber stakes races are run (appropriately spaced in date and so post times don’t overlap), and with less restricted, more open company races. And how about more access to information for fans and handicappers? The list is long—probably too long, to be honest.

Its days like this that give me pause as to why I’m so emotionally invested in the sport, an anachronism in a world that has forever forgotten its agrarian roots and seemingly moved on without me and my fellow horse racing enthusiasts. And if the story of Big Red can't inspire passion for the sport, all is lost, my friends.


Ian Lozada said...

Here's the thing: there are no surprises in Secretariat's story. Dominant horses make for bad drama. At least with Seabiscuit, the horse was unknown to today's America, and the story could be told as a metaphor for optimism in the face of the Great Depression.

Why are we surprised when a movie about a fringe sport without a compelling plot doesn't blow the doors off the box office?

Wowhorse said...

To think that a horse racing movie can save the sport is where your outlook needs to change. Did "Seabiscuit," a much better-made and exciting adaptation, save the sport? Hardly, though it did bring the sport into the public eye. Even if Disney's "Secretariat" had been a good movie (which it was far from), it would not have saved horse racing.

People need something they can root for for longer than 2 hours. Horse racing itself needs to be marketed better. I think the Breeders' Cup is taking the right approach by promoting the crap out of Zenyatta's last race. I only wish her races had been broadcast on network TV for the last two years to garner public interest. The last line of your post should've read, "If the public can't get excited about Zenyatta, then the sport is lost."

Valerie Grash said...

Jamie, I don’t think a horse racing movie can save the sport—my blog title was meant purely as hyperbole.

I do find the high expectations expressed elsewhere in the industry press regarding it bringing new fans to the sport and the actual box office performance only further evidence that the sport is so far out of the mainstream, and off the radar of the American public, that virtually nothing can save it from oblivion. Sad but true.

As for Zenyatta generating excitement…meh! Passion in sports only works if there’s some worthy competition built up over time, and, beyond those already fans, what interest is there in a horse whose owners have regionalized her to the point where only once a year—in the Breeders’ Cup—does it “count”?

Carl Lewis had Ben Johnson. Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier. The Green Bay Packers had (have) the Minnesota Vikings. Swaps had Nashua, Affirmed had Alydar. Honestly, the establishment of and proliferation of the Breeders’ Cup event has done more, IMHO, to hinder the sport than just about any of one single entity. Exactly why, as you said, “people need something they can root for for longer than 2 hours”—or two days. Jumping on the Zenyatta bandwagon now is the very least they can do.

Pull the Pocket said...

I tend to agree with the above comments. $13M is pretty good for a niche sport and a movie without that certain cache.

Non-animated Disney movies usually do this kind of business anyway. "Miracle" (a hugely compelling story) with the sport of hockey, was decent fare, marketed to the same type demo and did only about $15-20M opening weekend and $60M overall. I think it is what these movies usually do.

As Ian above said, Seabiscuit had the period piece angle. I would harken a guess that a movie about "Dan Patch" from a recent book would do better than this one, because it is a better story and set in the late 1800's. It would certainly not mean harness racing is more popular than thoroughbreds.

If we were a pure sport I think movies would help, but we are a gambling sport. Unless a cool movie like Rounders comes out telling an interesting story about a horseplayer, it is all we have to hang our hat on I guess.


Anonymous said...

What is wrong with $12.6 million and coming in third behind "Social Network", a movie with tremendous appeal to young people? Part of the problem with Horse Racing is the very people who should be it's cheerleaders, are the ones putting it down. "Secretariat" is a realistic movie that plays out the Triple Crown quest of a great horse almost exactly as I remember it.

Elizabeth said...

I've been a racing fan since the days of Secretariat. But over the last 5 or so years I find myself losing interest. This year I'm becoming so disinterested that I've even forgotten to watch several important races and that's never happened before.

I can only speak for myself but the following is what's pushing me away from racing (and a cheesy Disney movie can't fix any of it).

1. Mega-barn trainers. Their horses generally dominate so racing has become increasingly boring. And quite frankly, Asmussen, Pletcher, et al are boring people. I sincerely mean them no offense but they're hard to root for.

2. The horse breakdowns are nauseating and seem to have increased in recent years.

3. The little marketing that's being done for racing seems focused on attracting teenage girls and drunken college students.

I have nothing in common with those two groups. Truth be told they annoy me and consequently marketing campaigns aimed at them annoy me.

I'll wager that people my age spend 10 times what teenagers/college students spend at the races, yet it's us middle-aged money spenders that the marketing execs have apparently deemed expendable. And it's offensive. So I'm developing the attitude that since racing doesn't seem interested in competing for my money, I'll spend it somewhere that is interested.

4. Greed. Racing has always attracted greed but it's gotten to an intolerable level.

5. I am really, really fed up with all the whining about the sport dying. The pessimism is a huge turn off.

Anonymous said...

The only decent point made by Elizabeth is the fifth; I am really, really fed up with all the whining about the sport dying. The pessimism is a huge turn off.

Valerie, you complain about the Breeder’s Cup, you complain about Zenyatta, and you complain about American style racing. What are newcomers to the sport suppose to think when they are constantly being sent mixed signals. They are told, “Watch the Breeder’s Cup, but it is not really a championship. Check out Zenyatta, but she really isn’t that special. Go to the races, but the surfaces and trainers suck.” New fans don’t care about that stuff – until the cynics bombard them with it.

SaratogaSpa said...

Social Network is a good movie, but losing the #2 spot to a Chick Flick?

Valerie Grash said...

I was going to just let it go, but the comments about “whining” and “complaining” exasperate me.

Suck it up. Go with the flow. Everything is hunky-dory. Don’t rock the boat. Believe everything that is told to you without question.

That’s all bullshit. Once upon a time, it was desirable to have free-thinkers, people who questioned the status quo. It’s what drove innovation. Somehow our culture has now de-evolved to the point where no one should point out deficiencies or offer constructive criticism; otherwise you’re accused of being a pessimist, expecting and seeing the worst in all things. What a crock!

The way I see it is if you are perfectly happy with the way racing is conducted in this country, the horses, the medication, the racing surfaces, the field sizes and the quality—then go stick your head in the sand, or place your fingers in your ears and hum “lalalalalalalala”—and nothing will change for you. And blame the people who speak up for turning off new fans. Yeah, it’s our fault. Don’t worry, there are plenty of public relations specialists masquerading as journalists to keep you happy and drone out the nay-sayers. They’ll tell you, without quantification, why a multitude of end-of-the-year championship races are so necessary to the sport, and why you should celebrate certain horses without expressing frustration that they aren’t challenged to their fullest potential. Accept mediocrity.

Let’s get real. There are SERIOUS problems with the sport of horse racing, and if they aren’t addressed, the sport will die from a lack of interest when this generation dies. That’s a fact. Bitching about other people’s “complaining” won’t change that. Supporting open dialogue and offering your own ideas about how things can be done better will.

Thank you for contributing to the dialogue here.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Anonymous wrote:

What are newcomers to the sport suppose to think when they are constantly being sent mixed signals. They are told, “Watch the Breeder’s Cup, but it is not really a championship.


The Breeders Cup wasn't a championship event the past two years. This year it might be, pending participation from key players. But it will never be a World Championship if it cannot even settle the divisional honors in American thoroughbred racing.

Horse Racing has a tremendous amount of problems. Many of them should be addressed before we invite the so called "newcomers" to indulge in our passions.

Speaking about it and proposing solutions helps towards that end.

To simply write about a trip to a new racetrack:

"I went. I drank. I had a good time. Whoa! What a heck of a track". Does not serve as a catalyst to solving horse racing's problems.

Enough of the blogging fluff and kudos to Foolish Pleasure for tackling these issue head on.