To paraphrase Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s signature sarcasm, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword bombed? You’re kidding! You’re kidding!
[Confidently walk away]
Yes, that movie everyone said was going to bomb has done just that. It’s old news by now. King Arthur, an Excalibur prequel directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Charlie Hunnam and carrying a $175m production budget, was declared dead long before it came out. So, this wasn’t so much a case of “will it fail?” as it was “will it be one of the biggest box office bombs of all time?” Sadly for Warner Bros, Village Roadshow, RatPac-Dune Entertainment and Steve Mnuchin (the film financier-turned-unqualified-U.S. Treasure Secretary), the answer appears to be yes. THR currently projects King Arthur could lose as much as $150m after its weak $15.4m domestic, $44.5m worldwide debut. WB, of course, disputes the $150m projection, but if it comes anywhere near that it’ll be in the running for the second biggest bomb of all time behind John Carter.
What went wrong?
Oh, just, ya know, everything. As box office analyst Jeff Bock told THR, “King Arthur is a paint-by-numbers Hollywood disaster — wrong director, wrong cast, wrong script, etc. The whole Game of Thrones-on-steroids direction the studio went with from the get-go just didn’t get anyone psyched to see this.”
Really, you’d be hard-pressed to draw up a better recipe for a box office disaster. Let’s see how many of the normal box office pitfalls engulfed poor, beleaguered Arthur:
Delayed release date – A delayed release date is quite often the film studio’s equivalent of a vote of no confidence, but sometimes it’s a necessary step to get all the ducks in a row. However, when something keeps getting pushed back and pushed back and pushed back the signal to the market is clear: we’ve got a lemon, and we have no idea what to do with it.
Arthur was ultimately delayed 10 full months from its original release date of July 22, 2016 to May 12, 2017, but at various points WB committed to releasing it on February 17, 2017 which then changed to March 24 before finally hitting May 12. In interviews, Guy Ritchie blamed the delay on the peak blockbuster year-round scheduling which has overtaken Hollywood and made it difficult for movies to find viable release dates away from overly grueling competition. In truth, WB likely hoped a year of extra post-production could help them fix the mess and build a better marketing campaign. It, um, didn’t work.
Stars one of those actors Hollywood keeps trying to make into a thing despite clear audience disinterest – Remember Sam Worthington? Of course not. Nobody does. But for a good couple of years Hollywood tried very hard to make him a thing before realizing his presence had very little to do with Avatar’s success. This kind of thing keeps happening where casting agents and studio executives all fall in love with the next big thing at the same exact time, and then that next big thing never quite makes it either due to overexposure or lack of talent or simple bad luck or all of those things. See also: Joel Kinnaman, Josh Hartnett, Liam Hemsworth, Armie Hammer, Jai Courtney etc.
Charlie Hunnam is another actor trapped in that mode right now, beloved from Sons of Anarchy but wholly incapable of carrying a blockbuster on his own. First there was Pacific Rim, which is getting a much-delayed sequel he won’t be in, and now King Arthur, which will never get any of the sequels it so desperately hoped for. That doesn’t mean Hunnam is untalented. He’s remarkably compelling in the low-budget indie The Lost City of Z, and he has his moments in Arthur. However, the more Hollywood likes to pretend someone is the next big thing despite evidence to the contrary the more audiences resist.
Greenlit by studio executives who’ve long since been fired – Arthur was greenlit by WB President Greg Silverman in 2014. He was fired last December and replaced by Toby Emmerich, turning Arthur into a lame duck movie without an advocate at the highest level at the studio.
To be fair to Emmerich, it is under his leadership that WB deployed the highly aggressive and seemingly unprecedented “King for a Day” event which attracted approximately 30K people to 200 AMC Theaters on April 27 for a free screening of the film as well as some free swag. Plus, WB also created a VR experience called King Arthur 360 Sword in the Stone, which was made available in select major markets. So, it’s not like Emmerich just dumped this movie into theaters, wiping his hands of it and declaring it Silverman’s mess. Still, Emmerich knew he could evade blame for impending failure since he was busy running New Line when Silverman oversaw the creation of this film. Plus, Emmerich has no need to maintain any loyalty to Ritchie since the director’s relationship with the studio began two regimes ago, predating Silverman even and going back to when Jeff Robinov was in charge.
Is directed by a man who hasn’t had a hit in years – Guy Ritchie’s over-caffeinated style is very polarizing, but not so much that it kept people away from his two Sherlock movies, the first of which grossed $524m worldwide in 2009 followed by the 2011 sequel which modestly grew to $545m worldwide. However, those films didn’t build up a bankable Guy Ritchie brand; they simply let him come along for the ride with Robert Downey, Jr.’s post-Iron Man ascension. Ritchie’s next film, 2015’s would-be franchise starter The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is arguably just as good if not better than either of the Sherlock films, but it bombed with just $109m worldwide off of a $75m budget. Perhaps that’s because Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s cultural moment had long since passed, and “From the Man Who Directed Sherlock” didn’t really mean much in terms of marketing.
Tries to revive a brand no one was asking for – Who, in 2017, was actually asking for another King Arthur movie? Just because something is in the public domain and was once popular doesn’t mean it will become popular again.
Devotes way too much money to an unpopular genre – Since 1978, only two (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robin Hood) out of 34 films set in medieval times have grossed over $100m domestic, seven if you adjust for inflation. That’s not a solid success rate, certainly not encouraging enough to embolden a studio to throw $175m at King Arthur in defiance of the odds.
Transparently tries to piggy-back on the success of something else – Casting a couple of Game of Thrones actors in a medieval movie isn’t enough to trick people into seriously thinking they’ll get something as good as Game of Thrones.
Is too preoccupied with setting up sequels and a shared cinematic universe – Absent from this film are Lancelot, Merlin and Guinevere, although some claim The Mage is supposed to be Guinevere even though the film never actually calls her that. The actual round table doesn’t even show up until the very end.
Yeah, that’s because it’s a prequel. The Knights of the Roundtable stuff was going to happen in the sequels. However, like so many post-Avengers wannabe franchise starters King Arthur is a bit too preoccupied with setting up what’s to come that it loses focus on what’s happening right now. As THR argued, Arthur “undermines its own stakes in favor of hinting at more consequential stories to come.”
Is a live action fairy tale movie made by someone other than Disney – Seriously, Hollywood, just leave that shit to Disney. Jack the Giant Slayer, Pan and Arthur prove you don’t know what you’re doing. On top of that, the last time Disney tried a live action Excalibur movie, 2004’s King Arthur, they also crashed and burned to the tune of $201m worldwide off of a $120m production budget. What made WB think it could do better?
Has a troubling treatment of its few female characters – Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey’s Mage is Arthur’s token “badass female,” and if you can get past the French-Spanish actress’ often-phonetic-sounding dialogue she does have a couple of standout moments. As for the rest of the women in the cast, well…most of them who are lucky enough to actually have names end up being killed by Jude Law’s character. There’s another one who spies on Law, and is eventually imprisoned by him, not that we ever actually learn anything substantive about her other than “she’s not evil.” Compare that to Man from U.N.C.L.E. where Elizabeth Debicki and Alicia Vikander absolutely steal the show from Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Not that their standout performances did anything for U.N.C.L.E.’s box office, but it’s a recent example of Ritchie proving he can do better with his female characters.