Marvel and ABC’s Inhumans just debuted in IMAX theaters across the world last weekend as a first-of-its-kind deal debuting a TV show in movie theaters months before its actual TV premiere. It didn’t go well. The reviews were dreadful, and the box office total – $1.5m, only good enough to finish 18th in the top 20 of the lowest-grossing Labor Day weekend in decades – decidedly ho-hum. Now the industry trades report the obvious which is that this result could dissuade the industry from trying any TV-shows-in-movie-theaters experiments in the future, beyond the occasional re-run of a Game of Thrones episode. IMAX actually covered the costs of Inhumans first 2 episodes, i.e., the ones aired together as a 75-minute movie this weekend, and that turns out to have been a bad investment.
The question now becomes did this happen because the concept of airing TV shows in movie theaters is a non-starter, destined to always be a novelty item supported by diehards only, or did it happen because Marvel’s Inhumans, um, how to put this gently, sucks balls? Did ABC and IMAX actually have a good idea here only to be let down by Marvel Television? Or is there simply a limit to how much a TV show, especially one which audiences can otherwise get for free if they simply wait (Inhumans debuts on ABC on Sept. 29th), can be expected to gross in movie theaters?
First, let’s do the numbers:
According to THR, Inhumans launched in 676 Imax theaters around the world, grossing just $2.6m, including the underwhelming $1.5m from 393 theaters in North America. The 40th anniversary re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually grossed more, both domestically ($1.7m) and worldwide ($2.66m). The more pertinent comparison, though, is the 2015 IMAX screening of the Game of Thrones season four finale over Super Bowl weekend. Even though the episode had aired several months prior, the IMAX event, which came with an exclusive sneak peek of season 5, managed an opening gross of $1.4m in the U.S., just a shade under what Inhumans pulled in. Two years earlier, Doctor’s Who 50th anniversary special, which was simulcast across the globe both on TV and in movie theaters, grossed $10m across worldwide in just 3 days.
So, we’ve got a Marvel TV show premiering in theaters nearly two months before its linear debut, a beloved, big budget HBO fantasy epic exclusively debuting a trailer in theaters along with a rerun of one of its best episodes and a remarkably unique anniversary event for sci-fi’s longest-running franchise. It’s hard to then look at the box office for all three and draw conclusions because each situation was remarkably different. The one commonality between them is simply that they are all TV shows. It just happens, though, that Game of Thrones and Doctor Who are also good TV shows. Inhumans, eh, not so much.
A sampling of the critical response, first from RottenTomatoes and then from Letterboxd:
Letterboxd | A boring, dirt-cheap, repetitive product that has no business being shown on IMAX screens, ABC’s Inhumans is without question the worst thing to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with poorly staged and choreographed action sequences, terrible production values, and shoddy writing.
Now come the rumors of a troubled production plagued by infighting between ABC and Marvel, reshoots, and a rushed Comic-Con presentation that showcased the lackluster visuals before they were actually ready.
Beyond that, the marketing sure dropped the ball on even letting audiences know this IMAX screening was a thing that was happening.
It’s all so unfortunate, though, because this whole thing represents exactly the kind of experimentation the industry needs. Let’s walk this through:
Problem: Movie attendance is in the toilet. Films have long since ceded the pop culture conversation to TV. The movie theaters need to start innovating to survive long term, and Hollywood simply needs to actually learn the lessons from its chronic failures and make better product.
Partial Solution: Let’s start debuting certain TV shows in movie theaters. If TV shows are really what people want to talk about these days then let’s give them one on the biggest screens possible as part of a co-financing deal whereby IMAX will cover most of the show’s budget in exchange for getting to premiere it around the world months before it ever airs on TV. Hopefully the movie screening will get the conversation started, and by the time the TV premiere arrives the word-of-mouth will be so positive that the audiences will follow the show form the theaters to their TVs (or, more likely, tablets and phones since fewer and fewer even watch traditional TVs anymore).
Result: A shitty TV show and ho-hum box office.
Maybe the core concept is flawed, and outside of the fanboys and fangirls getting people to pay to see something in theaters which they’ll soon thereafter be able to see at home for free (or next to free) is a nonstarter. If only Inhumans had actually been good we’d have a better read on whether or not that’s true.