Every March, Deadline compiles lists of both the most and least profitable films of the past calendar year. They don’t just look at box office vs. budget, either. No, they call upon anonymous industry sources to get a sense of each film’s actual financials, from ticket sales to home video to profit agreements. Finding out which film was truly the most profitable is their version of March Madness, and just like the real NCAA Tournament it carries over into April.
Yesterday, Deadline turned away from the winners and over to the losers, laying out the 5 films it believes took the biggest bite out of a studio’s quarterly profits. Surprise: 3 of them came from Disney.
Before I get to that, let’s just lay out the top (or should it be bottom?) five in order:
- The Mortal Engines (Estimated Loss: -$174.8m)
- A Wrinkle in Time (Estimated Loss: -$130.6m)
- Robin Hood (Estimated Loss: -$83.7m)
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (Estimated Loss: -76.9m)
- The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Estimated Loss: -$65.8m)
I actually paid – er, used by AMC A-List membership – to see four of the five and found them to at least be watchable. (High praise, I know.) Robin Hood, the one I haven’t seen, looked like a waste of everyone’s time from the get-go.
In reality, all five of the films simply turned into a waste of money: big bets on new – or new spin-off – franchises with questionable concepts, released into a crowded, unforgiving marketplace.
The Mortal Engines – Peter Jackson’s long-gestating adaptation of Philip Reeve’s sci-fi series about a future in which bigger cities literally swallow smaller cities for resources, a completely bonkers premise for any aspiring film franchise – missed the YA dystopia/steampunk cultural moment by a couple of years. Add to that a lack of any real stars in the cast and an absolutely brutal December release date opposite Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and a week in front of Aquaman, Bumblebee and Mary Poppins Returns and you get a blockbuster destined to fail.
Fox’s decision to shift Alita: Battle Angel out of that same release window seems all the more inspired now. Had it stayed in December as originally intended it would have surely failed alongside Mortal Engines. With its move to February and subsequent worldwide box office haul north of $400m, Alita has a shot to break even, although not at a level to guarantee a sequel.
No release date change would have likely saved Robin Hood, though. Another one of those foreign pre-sale financed Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate partnerships, Robin Hood simply had that increasingly common look of a blockbuster geared toward lowest common denominator overseas biz. You know the look – the cheap special effects, all thrills storytelling, genre fare in the grand tradition of the improbably long-running Resident Evil franchise. See also: the new Hellboy. It’s a film made according to what a group of producers think foreign exhibitors want to sell to their customers, which has been Lionsgate’s model for over a decade now.
No one, turns out, wanted this Robin Hood – even with Taron Egerton as the star, Jamie Foxx as a black Little John, and Ben Mendelsohn as a very Ben Mendelsohn Sheriff of Nottingham. Three Razzie nominations and over $80m in lost money later, this Robin Hood will now be but a mere footnote on the “live-action Robin Hood adaptations” Wikipedia page.
A Wrinkle in Time, Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Nutcracker, however, stand out as a group because of their obvious commonality: Disney. Deadline summarized it this way:
Disney towered over other major studios last year with a $7.3 billion global haul, the second-best industry take ever behind the studio’s own 2016 global B.O. $7.6B record. However, the Burbank, CA studio also owned three of the biggest flops on our annual list. With the studio raking in money from its Marvel Cinematic Universe, they were able to take big bets on director’s epic visions, even if they came up quite short.
Except that’s only true of A Wrinkle in Time, which Disney entrusted to Ava DuVernay. For better or ultra-confusing worse, the Wrinkle in Time we got is the one DuVernay wanted to make. (She has since booked directing gigs for Netflix and Warner Bros. while also expanding her empire of TV productions.) Solo and Nutcracker, however, each had to turn to the Directors Guild of America to determine accreditation. That’s because in each case the director (or directors) hired to execute their own epic vision ended up being fired very late in the game once Disney soured on the dailies.
As a result, this can’t be entirely waved away as high-risk bets that failed financially but still fostered good will re: studio/talent relations. No, their combined failure highlights Disney’s over-overlooked vulnerability and long-term problem with cannibalization. Wrinkle in Time, for example, simply couldn’t suck any of the oxygen away from Black Panther’s meteoric rise. There was only a two-week gap between the two, and even before her movie came out DuVernay conceded defeat to Panther, telling The New York Times:
“I’ll tell you right now. We are not going to be No. 1 this weekend because there is a cultural movement that is so important to me and so many people called Black Panther, and it is still moving and breathing in the world. I am not crying over spilt milk.”
Blaming it all on the #WakandaForever movement is a bit of an oversimplification. After all, Disney executed a slow rollout of Wrinkle in Time overseas, meaning it wasn’t being cannibalized by Black Panther everywhere it went. Audiences just didn’t click with the movie, resulting in $100m domestic/$132m worldwide box office totals and a projected loss in the -$130m territory.
Still, looking at those numbers you see why Disney signaled at CinemaCon last week that many of its incoming Fox films will have to be rescheduled to provide more distance between releases. Now that the Mouse House owns over 40% of the marketplace it’s going to be constantly challenged to find ways not to cannibalize itself.
That’s an old problem which just got a lot worse. The same goes for The Nutcracker since Disney’s run of live-action fairy tales has already seen its share of financial speedbumps, including Alice Through the Looking Glass and this year’s Dumbo. All three slightly-darker-than-expected movies, all three box office duds.
Solo, however, represents a slightly newer problem area. Star Wars movies had been among the studio’s safest bets. They simply got greedy and perhaps a little arrogant about the franchise’s box office invulnerability, testing out a one-new-movie-every-six-months model as a precursor to a future in which both Rian Johnson and the Game of Thrones guys might have their own competing Star Wars trilogies.
Now, the future beyond Episode IX is purposefully murky. The forthcoming trilogies remain total mysteries. The only guarantee is a new movie this Christmas and Jon Favreau’s live-action series The Mandalorian on Disney+. One financial miss out of five total tries shouldn’t be cause for panic, but it does send a signal to Disney that simply cruise-controlling these projects to completion and leaning on IP recognition isn’t always enough.
Ultimately, Deadline is right. Wrinkle, Nutcracker, and Solo are ultimately blips on an insanely record-breaking radar. Ever since Bob Iger took over, Disney’s film strategy has been to take nothing but big bets on blockbusters tied to some kind of IP. No studio hits it out of the park every time, though, and by only financing films at the blockbuster level, Disney is also guaranteeing itself a spot or two on every year-end list of the biggest money losers. (Early bets are that Artemis Fowl will end up on next year’s list.) We just tend not to remember those because of all the other Disney titles which scorch the box office earth and join the billion-dollar club.
So, what, really, should we take away from all of this?
That there is a moment in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms where Keira Knightley – playing a deranged version of the Sugar Plum Fairy – eats a strand of her own hair like cotton candy and it’s the best damn scene in the whole movie!
And that in a post-Netflix-deal future Disney will gladly regard these box office failures and others like them (sorry, Dumbo) as fresh content for Disney+. Eventually, all of this will just be content for some streaming service.
What do think is the real big takeaway here? Let me know in the comments.