The Adventures of Tintin, the movie based on the internationally bestselling comic by the late Belgian artist and writer Hergé, produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Steven Spielberg, despite is struggles at the US box office, is getting a sequel.
The movie has grossed $63 million at the domestic box office since it opened in North America on December 21, 2011. However, that number is has been boosted considerably by box office grosses from the Canadian province of Quebec. The movie opened in Quebec December 9 and had accounted for $16 million of the $25 million in domestic grosses as of the week of December 27, 2011. Take into account the fact that Quebec comprises a small fraction of the total population of North America and then put Tintin's domestic gross up against the $269 million the movie has made internationally to date, and it's pretty safe to say that the The Adventures of Tintin has, as many predicted it would, bombed in the US.
All facetiousness aside, the sequel has, of course, been ordered based on Tintin's huge international success and not the character's relatively poor showing at the US box office.
No surprises there, really.
The Tintin comics are massively popular throughout the world. In the United States, however, Tintin is, at best, an obscure character with what could generously be described as a small cult following.
Tintin is a globe-trotting Belgian boy journalist. In a typical adventure, he journeys to an exotic location and quickly becomes entangled in adventure and intrigue. Occasionally, simplistic social or political satire and commentary would figure in the stories. Americans, for instance, were sometimes portrayed as greedy and selfish people, only interested in money. Non-European races were often viewed with dated, colonial and paternalistic attitudes
Tintin has been compared to a boy scout in his values and sensibilities. His dog Snowy, a white Terrier speaks directly to the reader via thought balloons, not heard by anyone else. Captain Haddock, Tintin’s best friend, is a salty sometimes heavy drinking sea captain who was known for such catch phrases as “Blistering barnacles!” and “Thundering Typhoons!”
Titin was drawn in a style originated by Hergé known as “lingle clair” (or “clear line”). Linge clair is a style that gives comics a somewhat flat appearance. It is sometimes seen in other European, particularly French, comics but pretty much never appears in mainstream American comics.
Since the character’s debut in 1929, it is estimated that over 200 million Tintin books have been sold. The new Tintin movie spent at least two weeks as the #1 movie in no less than 9 different countries. None of that changes the fact that The Adventures of Tintin faced an uphill battle at the US box office practically from the git go.
Quite simply, Tintin is the soccer of the comic world. And, like soccer, Tintin has been unsuccessfully attempting to break into the US market for some time.
During the 1950’s, Tintin comics were moving over 250,000 copies a week in Europe alone. Towards the end of that decade, the first of several attempts to introduce Tintin to America was made. Accompanied by a large publicity campaign, newly translated and adapted versions of four of Tintin’s most popular adventures hit American bookstore shelves just in time for Christmas 1959. The Tintin titles sold only 8000 copies each over the entire Christmas season.
Why the failure? There are a few possible reasons. Tintin comics were sold as books in Europe, often bound in hardcover and sold at higher price that most comics. In the United States, the Tintin books were seen merely as just another “comic book” that, for some reason, was being sold at a much higher price. Another problem was that not long before Tintin’s first appearance in the US, comic books, particularly the gory and violent crime and horror comics that dominated US newsstands in the early 50’s, were extremely controversial. A 1954 US Senate Sub-Committee investigated comic books as a possible cause of juvenile delinquency. The whole genre still had something of a black mark on it. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, no one was really sure whether or not Tintin translated into the American idiom.
Tintin re-emerged on the American scene in 1966. A US magazine, Children’s Digest, began publishing serialized editions of Tintin adventures. The magazine appearances proved popular enough to warrant a 1969 American re-launch of the hardcover Tintin comics. By 1971, Tintin reached what would become the pinnacle of his American popularity. The books were selling a reported 1000 copies a day. Unfortunately, in 1972, Western Publishing, one of the biggest comic publishers in the US at the time, passed on new and bigger contract to publish and distribute all of the Tintin books in the US. Their argument was that fancy-pants European hardcover comics could not compete in a marketplace where the monthly adventures of such popular characters as Superman, Spider-man and Batman were going for just 20 cents a pop. The books did continue to publish in the US, but, starting in 1974 with a much smaller publisher and distribution.
In Canada, Tintin has fared somewhat better. The original French versions of Tintin have been the educational comic of choice for many a Canadian elementary school French teacher over the years. In Quebec, as recent box office number in the province confirm, Tintin has seen European levels of popularity. Montreal even had for a time its own Tintin boutique that specialized in related books, merchandise, collectibles and memorabilia.
www.IMDB.com, on the page promoting the Adventures of Tintin's US release, the first FAQ reads "Is this based on a book?”
The message boards on the popular movie site www.aintitcool.com are even more alarming. Comments posted under a still from the movie depicting Tintin reading a book with his trusted Terrier, Snowy, by his side read “I thought Rin Tin Tin was a German Sheppard, not some Terrier.” and “ Rin Tin Tin isn't reading ... He's watching that little boy read. ...did you even look at the picture when you wrote your headline?”. Rin Tin Tin, being a now fairly obscure canine movie star of Hollywood movies of the 20’s and 30’s and later the star of 1950’s TV series of the same name. Obscure or not, US audiences apparently make a quicker connection to the German Sheppard screen hero than they do the Belgian boy reporter.
Even some of the more informed comments are not much more encouraging, “Spielberg is trying to force Americans to love a comic they've had little exposure to.” reads one comment below the latest trailer for the film. “Sorry but why should I give a shit about this boy and his dog?” reads a slightly more extreme comment. Well, at least Spielberg and Jackson have already doubled their 130 million dollar investment in Tintin in the international markets.
One comment that was little more positive refers to the movie as “...a combination of Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean”. While Tintin predates and has seen longer lasting popularity that either of those franchises and while the comment does not suggest any familiarity with the character it is, at least, positive.
So is it just bad marketing that has robbed Tintin of his potential US fandom? Or is it the fact that Tintin is Belgian and not American? Is it that the rare portrayals of America in Tintin are usually not very complementary? Or is it simply that the whole “linge clair” look of the art and the characters is, for lack of better word, too European?
It seems clear in retrospect that Tintin's best path to US box office gold would have to have been a total overhaul and reboot of the character for American audiences: change Tintin's nationality to American, set at least part of the movie in present day America, redesign the whole look of the Tintin world, have Tintin use current tech like iPads and GPS and so forth. In other words, wreck the franchise completely and kill the movie's prospects for international success (which, in fact, has become the backbone of the film distribution industry in the 21st century). It is unlikely that the Tintin sequel will follow any of these potential directions nor stray all that far from the clear formula for international success that the first film established.
With a second and perhaps third Tintin movie in the works, the Belgian boy journalist could be poised to become an internationally (yet not domestically) successful big screen franchise. If that's the case then future Tintin movies may make incrementally larger and larger inroads onto the US pop culture landscape. If you look at the recent increased interest and awareness of the last World Cup tournament in the US, then perhaps Tintin will see a gradual rise in American popularity, ever growing yet still largely marginalized in the mainstream media. In that case, Tintin will continue to successfully carry the mantle of being the soccer of the comic book world for years to come.
Portions of this post reprinted by permission of the National Post