Weekend Box Office Reflects a Season of Big-Budget Stumbles



The disasters were supposed to stay on the screen.

With extremely weak domestic ticket sales over the weekend for “R.I.P.D.” and “Turbo,” Hollywood has now sustained six big-budget duds since May 1, the start of the film industry’s high-stakes summer season. The other failing movies have been “After Earth,” “White House Down,” “Pacific Rim” and “The Lone Ranger.”

A couple of misfires, sure. But six?

Studios point to a number of problems, starting with that ever-pesky criterion, quality. In the Twitter age, audiences can spot a stinker from a mile away, and the unfortunately titled “R.I.P.D.” and “After Earth” in particular were both considered poorly made. But the deeper issue is an overreliance by studios on the same kind of expensive movie. One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience.

Studios have also tried to sell most of these as “original,” which in Hollywood-speak means not a sequel or a remake. In reality, movie companies have largely just reassembled familiar parts. “Pacific Rim,” which featured giant robots, seemed to share DNA with “Transformers.” “The Lone Ranger” was “Pirates of the Caribbean” in Old West drag. “R.I.P.D.” was “Men in Black” lite.

Moviegoers are pushing back. The No. 1 movie in North America over the weekend was “The Conjuring,” a period haunted house film that cost Warner Brothers $20 million to make and received stellar reviews. It took in $41.5 million, according to box office estimates compiled by Hollywood.com.

Universal’s “R.I.P.D.,” which starred Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds as ghost cops, took in a disastrous $12.8 million, for seventh place. Universal said the movie cost $130 million (not including marketing), but the Hollywood trade news site Deadline.com said the actual price was $154 million.

“It failed, and we’re unhappy, and I’m not going to make excuses,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal’s president for distribution.

Audiences have repeatedly made hits out of smaller films this summer. Another example is “Now You See Me,” an ensemble thriller that cost Summit Entertainment about $75 million to make. The movie — the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing.

What does this mean for Hollywood? No lesser a power than Steven Spielberg has predicted a wholesale shift in studio strategy.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm,” Mr. Spielberg said at a University of Southern California media event last month.

On Sunday, Ms. Rocco seemed to acknowledge as much. “Absolutely, this opens your eyes,” she said. “You would be stupid if you didn’t look really hard at what the audience is telling you.”

She noted that her studio had said no to proposed films like an ambitious adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” because of cost concerns. “You have to be very, very cautious when you’re spending money like this, and Universal has been,” she said.

It is possible to make so-called tent-pole movies for less money; “Despicable Me 2” cost $76 million, while “Turbo” cost about $135 million. But some investments are necessary. Skimping on computerized effects would probably result in even bigger messes, analysts say. What’s needed, some studio executives said, is a recalibration of the kinds of movies being put into production.

Cutting back on marketing is also difficult. Studios are slowly moving toward cheaper means to reach consumers — social media, Web campaigns — but executives are reluctant to trim spending on expensive TV ads and billboards, because those tools are still seen as effective ways to turn out an audience.

Don’t expect to see much change at the multiplex in the near future. The movie business changes slowly, in part because huge films now take two years or more to make. Computer-animated pictures — there are six this summer, up from three in the same period last year — can take even longer. Sony has “Amazing Spider-Man” sequels lined up through 2018.

And studios spent the last four days at Comic-Con — the annual gathering of comic-book, fantasy and science-fiction fans — previewing one mega-movie after another. Warner Brothers notably unveiled plans for a “Man of Steel” sequel featuring both Superman and Batman.

The unusually large number of high-profile failures in recent months creates headaches for studios beyond near-term financial losses. Movies like “The Lone Ranger,” which cost Disney about $375 million to make and market, were designed to start franchises. That will not be happening: “The Lone Ranger” has taken in just $147.6 million worldwide, roughly half of which goes to theater owners.

Another hopeful series in the making, “Turbo,” which also featured Mr. Reynolds (his voice, that is), took in $21.5 million over the weekend, for a total since opening on Wednesday of about $31.2 million — one of the weakest opening results in DreamWorks Animation’s history.

“At this level, we would expect a substantial write-down on the film,” Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen and Company, wrote in a research note on Thursday.

Anne Globe, DreamWorks Animation’s chief marketing officer, wrote in an e-mail on Sunday, “Turbo still has a lot of play time left, particularly in the international territories, where we had strong openings this weekend.” She added that the film’s A-plus score in children’s exit polls would “propel word of mouth through the rest of the summer.”

Not all of Hollywood’s major pictures have struggled. Universal has scored with both “Fast & Furious 6,” which has taken in $712.5 million worldwide, and “Despicable Me 2,” which has so far sold about $584.6 million in tickets. But “R.I.P.D.” was so expensive that Universal watched a portion of the hard-fought profits from those hits go up in smoke.

Still, Ms. Rocco dismissed the notion of too much soul searching. “When an ‘R.I.P.D.’ happens,” she said, “you pull up your socks, and you get going.”



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