Warner Bros. and Sony
I know it may be in poor taste to declare a big and ambitious film to be effectively DOA after three days of domestic release, but as last night’s Saturday Night Live musical guest once sang, the writing’s on the wall. Blade Runner 2049 opened with just $31.525 million this weekend, including $5m in IMAX, with little reason to hope for huge legs beyond the slightly frontloaded (2.48x weekend multiplier) debut. Yes, the film may have legs due to a lack of big movies between now and Thor, and yes it may do a little better overseas. But (barring an overseas miracle) it’s essentially time to die for Blade Runner 2049.
Truth be told, it’s not a surprise, as I was always skeptical of the idea that a long, R-rated, adult-skewing sci-fi drama sequel to a 35-year old cult flop would magically produce a global blockbuster result. And in the end, it failed this weekend precisely for all the reasons that we assumed it would. So, without further ado, here are the ten reasons why Blade Runner 2049 turned out to be such a commercial disappointment. In all likelihood, they will all be quickly forgotten in time, like tears in rain.
10. There is a ton of R-rated, adult-skewing competition.
There was a time when being a big-scale, R-rated sci-fi film would automatically make Blade Runner 2049 into an event. Heck, I’m still convinced that was part of Prometheus’s initial appeal, existing as a somewhat original, R-rated, big-budget sci-fi movie in a PG-13 time. But today Blade Runner 2049 is merely one big R-rated movie alongside It, mother!, American Assassin, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, American Made, The Foreigner and The Snowman. Heck, in this marketplace, maybe Blade Runner 2049 should have tried to stand out by snagging an NC-17 or a G. After all, not even My Little Pony could manage a G rating.
9. It stole the thunder.
While Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. is distributing Blade Runner 2049 in North America, they are merely taking a distribution fee. The budget was split between Alcon Entertainment and Sony, the latter of whom is distributing the movie overseas. So WB will come out fine, especially as word around the campfire is that Alcon is responsible for the marketing, both commercially and artistically. Nevertheless, while Blade Runner 2049 wanted to be the event movie of the season, WB and New Line’s $35 million scary clown movie completely stole its thunder. Yes, It has been out for a while, but those adults who only see one or two movies in theaters a month already used up their date night on the Stephen King adaptation.
8. The Mystery Box marketing backfired.
Alcon was outright draconian in terms of allowing any plot or character details to be included both in the marketing or in the eventual reviews. Some critics got a detailed list of elements they were forbidden from outright referencing in their critiques, so even the mostly rave reviews were unable to tell audiences what the movie was about. The Blade Runner 2049 campaign was merely the fact that it was a Blade Runner sequel, it looked gorgeous and starred Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. I’m all for spoiler-free marketing, but that usually only works if you have something that audiences are inherently interested in seeing. There was little offered for those not already onboard with the mere idea of a Blade Runner sequel.
7. There was little conventional female appeal.
To be fair, the actual film contains a handful of notable female characters, even if most of them fall into certain tropes (virtual prostitute, actual prostitute, etc.). It desperately needs more Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks. Hoeks (essentially the film’s Darth Vader/Oddjob) is pretty great, but A) the film is mostly about Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford and B) the marketing emphasized both the whole “dudes being dudes doing dude things” narrative and certain male gaze imagery. Gosling interacting with a gigantic (nude) holographic hottie was a key marketing image, as was a giant statue in the desert of two attractive women making out with each other were key marketing images. Heading into the weekend, the marketing and overall perception of the film was that it was very much a bro sci-fi movie for male fans of the original.
6. Reviews emphasized that it wasn’t an action-filled crowdpleaser.
As I’ve noted before, positive reviews can sometimes backfire depending on how they describe the film. The rave reviews for How to Train Your Dragon 2 which referenced or hinted-at heartbreaking plot turns and emotional rollercoasters didn’t work on parents who didn’t want to see their kids cry in the theater. Blade Runner 2049 had mostly rave reviews, but those rave reviews emphasized the length, the mood and the lack of conventional action. Again, some of this was a byproduct of not being able to discuss plot details, but the overall impression was that Blade Runner 2049 was a gorgeous looking tone poem where not much happens, which isn’t unlike the first film. So for general moviegoers, Kingsman 2 may have seemed the safer bet.
5. It was too long.
Yes, I know, no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short. But for those adults on the fence about Blade Runner 2049, especially those with kids who would have to be left at home, the prospect of a 2.75-hour movie, with related babysitter, ticket price and food-related expenses, well, that wasn’t quite as enticing as the 90-minute Gravity or even the 135-minute It. Like a lot of adult movies in the last two years, Blade Runner 2049 was a victim of improved at-home viewing options. Sure, folks may have been curious, but it was all too easy to wait 90 days and watch the film on VOD or Blu-Ray from the comfort of home.
4. Blade Runner 2049 was not remotely kid-friendly.
If you’re playing the generational nostalgia card, it helps if the adults who now have kids and jobs have the option of taking their kids with them to the theater. That’s the difference between Tron: Legacy (a PG-rated, Walt Disney-produced sci-fi actioner released during the Christmas season) and Blade Runner 2049. The film had zero youth appeal. Even if adult fans of the film were intrigued by the prospect of a sequel, were they intrigued enough to A) ditch the family or B) spring for a sitter and related expenses? No, not every movie has to be geared toward kids, but if you’re attempting to snag fans who were young when the original debuted but are now old, it helps if we geezers can take our kids to the theater as well.
3. Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford aren’t openers.
Harrison Ford is worth his weight in gold for Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. But outside of those flagship franchises, he hasn’t had a big opener since What Lies Beneath way back in 2000. And hell, a $31 million debut for Blade Runner 2049 isn’t even his biggest non-Star Wars/Indy debut, as Air Force One snagged $37m back in 1997 ($71m adjusted) and Cowboys and Aliens opened with $36m in 2011. Ryan Gosling may be the Internet’s boyfriend, but he can’t open an envelope, which makes him like most would-be big (white male) movie stars of today. Heck, Gosling’s biggest hit outside of La La Land is the $86m-grossing Crazy Stupid Love (an ensemble film). They may get attention online, but they don’t put butts in the theater seats.
2. Blade Runner means nothing to general audiences.
This turned out to be a case where online fandom was not remotely representative of general audience interest. We’ve been down this road before, with Scott Pilgrim versus the World or John Carter. General audiences aren’t anywhere near as obsessed about Blade Runner as we film nerds, and plenty of general moviegoers (young and old) have little-to-know interest or connection to the original film. So making a very expensive sequel that damn-well requires you to have seen the original isn’t exactly a good bet. The Internet freaked out over Zoolander, No. 2, but general moviegoers flocked to Deadpool instead. Yes, social media-friendly nostalgia works when folks can stay home and watch more Gilmore Girls or X-Files, but when feeding said nostalgia involves leaving the house, especially without the kids, it’s a trickier game.
1. Don’t make a Blade Runner sequel that’s so expensive that it must perform like a Star Wars sequel.
If we ignore everything else about how Blade Runner 2049 performed this weekend, we should note that it was totally insane that Alcon and Sony spent $155 million (after rebates) on a sequel to a cult classic that made less than $30m back in 1982. In a vacuum, a $31m domestic debut for a 2.75-hour, R-rated sci-fi tone poem isn’t half bad. If Blade Runner 2049, with its rave reviews and Oscar buzz, had cost maybe $80m I would be singing a very different tune. But at $155m (or more), this project was doomed from the start, another victim of conventional wisdom about what a hit movie theoretically looks like.
Maybe China and Japan will help it save some face, but Blade Runner 2049 shouldn’t have needed overseas grosses to save it. Besides, more often than not, films that bomb in North America bomb overseas too. And sure, the arty, acclaimed film may have legs, but A) even a Dunkirk/Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation-ish 3.5x multiplier gets it under $115 million and B) Warner Bros. has other (superheroic) priorities at the moment. They’ll be fine, as this is more of a moral blow than a financial one for them. On the plus side, It has topped $300m domestic and $600m worldwide. Still, I feel bad enough for them that I might let my wife ghost-write the Geostorm review.
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