To paraphrase Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s signature sarcasm, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword bombed? You’re kidding! You’re kidding!

[Smirk]

[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 firedArthur 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 charactersÀstrid 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.

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

13 Comments

  1. I feel you *might* be a little harsh on Sam Worthington. He was the only redeeming actor in “Terminator: Salvation”. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jai Courtney. He hasn’t done anything good since “Spartacus”.

    Reply

    1. You’re not wrong. I didn’t mean to be overly harsh on Worthington. Like you, I too find him to be the one redeeming feature of Terminator: Salvation. He out-acts Christian Bale (and probably didn’t yell at anyone on set). And, dangit, how could I have forgotten about Jai Courtney? I’ve updated the article to include him (as well as Armie Hammer).

      But the reason I picked Worthington is because he’s the first actor I remember causing the “stop trying to make him a thing” internet backlash. I’ve since seen/heard it applied to any number of actors, but with Worthington it was such a thing because James Cameron had been the kingmaker deeming Worthington the next big thing and next thing we knew he seemed to be everywhere.

      It’s not dissimilar to how NFL people will fall in love with certain college quarterbacks because they fit the right profile and simply look the part but rarely ever actually pan out. Sometimes Hollywood collectively looks at someone and thinks “movie star” and then the rest of the world declares, “This guy? Really? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

      Of course, a lot of this has nothing to do with Worthington, Courtney, Hammer, Hemsworth or whoever the latest name might be. The continued failure is not down to the individual actors but instead attributable to the death of the movie star in general, with IP and brands taking over as the primary marketable commodity in the industry.

      Reply

  2. This is a fantastic post.

    Reply

  3. Putting “Legend of” into the title. Honestly, has there ever been a “Legend of” movie which didn’t bomb?

    I just don’t get Hollywood. Whatever you think of Guy Richies style, he is a terrible fit for an Arthur movie. Which is in itself a bad idea, especially if you go grim and gritty. This is why Merlin worked and Camelot didn’t, why Sword in the Stone is still a beloved classic for many while Disney’s other attempt (which I was unfortunate enough to see in theatres….one of my worst cinema experiences ever after Vanilla Sky) remains forgotten. People are fascinated by the Arthur Legend because it provides escapism, romantic notions and a little bit melodrama, they certainly don’t want a realistic take on it.

    In addition, there is so much good material out there, why is Hollywood not using it? If you really want a movie series which can be stretched out to a shared universe, preferable with some magic, swords and medieval feeling, just adapt the Tortall Series by Tamora pierce. Which also has the advantage of a female lead, thus being a perfect fit for the current Zeitgeist.

    Reply

    1. “Putting “Legend of” into the title. Honestly, has there ever been a “Legend of” movie which didn’t bomb?”

      Challenge accepted!

      The list of box office hits with the word “Legend” in the title include:

      Um.

      Hold on.

      I swear I had something for this.

      Oh, fine. I’ll check BoxOfficeMojo.

      Ahem. So, the list of the box office hits or at least non-box office bombs with…ah, you know the whole song and dance. Cue the list:

      Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (where the use of “Legend” is part of the joke) – $127m dom/$173m world vs. $50m budget
      Water Horse: Legends of the Deep – $40m dom/$103m world vs. $40m budget – not a hit, but not a bomb either
      I Am Legend – $256m dom – feels like this one shouldn’t count
      Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – $90m world vs. $26m budget
      Legends of the Fall – $66m dom/$160m world vs. $30m budget

      And that’s it. Those are the only non-bombs among every “legend” film listed on BoxOfficeMojo. Everything else flat out bombed or, in the case of last year’s Legend of Tarzan, fell just short of breaking even. Even the movie actually called Legend, the 1985 Tom Cruise fantasy flick, bombed ($15m dom vs. $24m budget).

      So, you’re absolutely right. My article probably should have included the “Has the word ‘Legend’ in the title” among the list of box office impeachable offenses committed by King Arthur.

      I imagine the thinking with giving King Arthur to Guy Ritchie was no more sophisticated than “Huh. He’s British. He revived Sherlock. He can probably revive this other old British thing, too.” Based upon some of the internal heckling we’ve seen in the past, I’d guess there were those in the lower ranks at WB who hated the idea and said so, but were overruled.

      Of course, the biggest problem is why they’re even making a new King Arthur movie in the first place, and that, I think, is honestly as simple as “Game of Thrones is big. What IP do we control or have access to in the public domain that we can bend and contort to make it look like Game of Thrones on steroids?” I doubt anyone involved in the decision-making process at WB actually gives two shits about Arthurian legend. They simply saw exploitable IP, but IP they wouldn’t have to actually work all that hard to explain to people. Something like Tortall would actually take some work the same way Valerian is struggling to educate people in the “this is based on a thing a lot of people have read and loved.” I don’t think the studios are all that interested in getting into any of that because the actual creatives have all left for TV leaving the studios to be run by number crunchers with business degrees and no actual filmmaking experience.

      Reply

      1. Some of those don’t even count, because I said “Legend of” not just “Legend”. So, there are two movies with “Legend of” in the title which managed to be a reasonable success. Opposed by a long list of movies which bombed. There is something really uncreative about “Legend of” something.

        I actually think that the Tortall series is way better known that Valerian. It has a very solid fanbase especially in Europe and his the additional benefit of fitting into what people currently want to see. Plus, with Valerian they mostly bank on “from the director of the fifth element”. Which is the main reason I am interested in that movie at all.

      2. Apparently, box office-wise “legend of” always equals “legend of crap.”

        I agree that Valerian is making the faintest of efforts at the whole “based on a beloved blah blah blah” and instead sticking with “from that one guy who made Fifth Element.” Your description of the Tortall series certainly sounds zeitgeisty, but in this current environment that has a far higher likelhood of ending up a SyFy TV series than it does a movie because Hollywood – at least at the major film studio side of things – is fundamentally broken.

      3. Oh, you never read it? But then, it is an European property…

        Granted, it is kind of in the medical fantasy realm (in: it starts out pretty grounded, but there is also magic and gods), which is a mark against it. And it is not as “gritty” as Game of Thrones, though this might actually be a good thing. There are currently five series set in this world. The first one is about Alanna, a young girl which pretends to be a boy in order to become a knight (it’s better than it sounds) and then manages to become a legendary fighter. The second is about a young girl with very strange magic power who after her family gets killed travels to the main city and ends up in the circle of the king (it’s a little bit complicated to explain, but her books even include a travel through the land of the gods). The third one is about the first official female knight candidate, and her heroics in a terrible war. The fourth one is about one of Alanna’s daughters who wants to be a spy and gets the opportunity to be one when she ends up captured and sold as a slave. And the current one plays in the past (which is the reason I haven’t read it yet, I really like those books despite not really geared towards my age anymore, but half of the fun is encountering the various characters you already know).

      4. “Oh, you never read it? But then, it is an European property…”

        Brrr. I suddenly feel a chill. It must all that shade you just threw my way 🙂

        To defend myself here, this is not a American vs. European thing, me being the uneducated, ugly American. This is more that, to be honest and I know this is a somewhat damning admission, I rarely ever read fiction anymore. I read a lot, but it’s mostly non-fiction, blogs, newspapers, comic books, etc. Actually sitting down to read a new or old fantasy series is something I rarely ever do. The most recent fiction I’ve picked up is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. So, I don’t mean to be woefully unfamiliar with European culture and IPs. I just haven’t really made the time in recent years to read much fiction.

        The series you’ve described sounds interesting, though, and I can see even more why you think they’d fit the zeitgeist perfectly if Hollywood would give them a chance.

      5. That was actually not what I meant. American publishers are oddly reluctant to translate European work into English. For example the book series by Cornelia Funke was a smash hit in the UK, but she had to pay for the translation first by herself. Tamora Pierce is a Scandinavian writer, so it is entirely possible that her work isn’t as well known overseas than it is over here. IE the books of Astrid Lindgreen have all been adapted at one point and fairly successfully, but only for the European market. What ends up from this literature in the US market tends to be very distorted (like, Das Doppelte Lottchen a very thoughtful work about the impact divorce has on children, the struggles of parents raising to have a child on their own and the various ways they might end up neglecting children either by putting too much responsibilities on their shoulders too early or spoiling them with money while never being around turned into The Parent Trap, a very light comedy which is fun to watch but has nothing of the depth of the original book or the first (german) adaptation of it.

        I have a small list of properties which I think are worth an adaptation for the big screen, but this one is pretty much on the top. Well, aside from Cherryh’s foreigner series, which manages to be a mix of costume drama and science fiction, but is particularly difficult to adapt because it is about a translator having to deal with an alien culture and huge chunks of her books are about him reflecting about their differences and if he reached the right conclusions about their reactions.

  4. […] I wrote about King Arthur’s legendarily terrible box office performance. Today, I take a look at whether or not the movie is as bad as its box office would lead you to […]

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  5. […] already had a candidate for biggest box office bomb of all time (King Arthur), a quick and sudden end to Amy Schumer’s brief reign as a bankable leading lady (Snatched, which […]

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