If you are paying any attention at all to the movies coming out over the next few weeks — and if you’re reading this column, then chances are that this is the case — then you might have a movie on your radar that is a huge, epic tale set in space, and features people trying to save others on what might be a doomed mission.
Which would be Rogue One.
There’s another movie coming out shortly after, a big, bombastic sci-fi tale that features a rising star as the male lead, and a very talented Oscar winner in the female lead.
That would be Assassin’s Creed.
The thing is, though, there is a third movie that, in fact, could be described in both above fashions, but is not projected to beat either one at the box office. Passengers stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence and comes from a much admired original script, with an Oscar-nominated director at the helm, but is tracking to perform … well, it should do just fine, but that’s not why Sony spent $160 million to make it, so that it could do just fine. This was a movie made to do boffo, gangbusters, a smash, and now, nine days before it opens, it doesn’t project to be any of those things.
Good reviews, positive word of mouth and the general success of the holiday season could goose the grosses, sure, but when things are looking this suspect this close to release, it’s going to lead to a fair share of sweaty palms, y’know?
There are a couple things that come out of this, one of them because of a piece of information that most people don’t know: that Sony at one point had the rights to Assassin’s Creed, but put the project into turnaround, where it was eventually scooped up by Fox, though only after the video game’s company, Ubisoft, agreed to pick up most of the film’s nine-figure tab.
Bad enough that a film once owned by the company will now be a direct competitor with said company’s big holiday blockbuster, but the fact that Assassin’s Creed is tracking to soundly beat Passengers at the box office is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. It also serves as Exhibit A to show why it is that studios are so reluctant to place projects into turnaround. For this very reason, that the film might come back to bite the company on the proverbial posterior. This is, when you think about it, the kind of thing that gets people fired, because obviously there has to be someone to blame, right? A scapegoat must be found for a catastrophe like this, whether it’s deserved or not.
This sort of leads into the second item, which is a bit more complicated. Assuming that the numbers bear out and that Passengers comes in well behind the other two, you will read a fair amount about the “lessons learned” from the film’s failure (or, if that is too strong a word, which is entirely possible, then we can also refer to its lack of better success).
I am here to tell you, maybe even to guarantee to you, that those lessons will be the wrong ones.
I have some precedent here, and it comes from earlier in 2016. When Deadpool turned into such a smash for 20th Century Fox, the assumption was that it did so because it was an R-rated superhero movie, and therefore what the audience wanted was more of those, but that missed the point entirely. The reason why Deadpool did so well, and the lesson that should have been driven home with a sledgehammer, is because it was so true to the source material and, therefore, not only an incredibly fun time at the movies (perhaps the most important fact of all, really), but also a film that had to be R-rated to do it justice. It’s the same thing with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy making people think that superhero flicks need to be brooding and edgy and gritty and dark, hence the travesty of a sham that was Man of Steel, even though Superman as a character is the exact opposite of those things. He flies around in a brightly colored blue suit, for crying out loud. How on earth can you be brooding, edgy, gritty and dark when you’ve also got a fire red cape that could fit nicely on a Pride Parade float?
Which brings me back to Passengers. The movie’s cost is high for what appears to be a romance set in space. Assuredly, there will be more than that, and from I know of the story, it’s also something of an action suspense thriller, that looks like it’s being sold as a romance to appeal to a certain type of audience that otherwise might not be interested. Even so, and no matter what kind of movie it is, $160 million is a lot of money, but let’s set that aside for a second and focus on the erroneous lessons in store.
For one, there will be yet another backlash against original stories and that they are not as dependable as previously established intellectual properties. There will also be criticism aimed at Pratt and Lawrence and their potential draw, as well as the amount of money each was paid (my understanding is that she got $20 million and he got 12), as well as the stock once again placed in the age old clunker that women don’t care about going to the movies, and when they do, they aren’t interested in science fiction or big budget tent poles.
But all of those concepts are complete nonsense. Is it easier to sell something that has some pre-established name recognition? Or course it is, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested in new stories, and that non-IP projects should be shelved. I talked Friday about the overpayment of actors, but Lawrence has proven a potent draw, unless you can find another reason why a hunk of dreck like Joy can crack $100 million at the worldwide box office. And I will argue this all day long and twice on the weekends, but the studios need to be constantly reminded — seriously, they seem to forget it all the time — that women love going to the movies, and are generally as interested in the bigger budget fare as men are.
No, these “lessons” to be learned aren’t anything but scared reactionary thinking. The real lesson to be taken from this, and as far as I’m concerned, there is only one, is the importance of release dates.
If Sony had chosen to release Passengers in August, or even in October, it couple potentially have added $100 million to its box office grosses. Perhaps a lot more. But instead, the choice was made to put it out five days after a new Star Wars movie, and against another big, popcorn tale that has the built in IP crowd ready to line up to see it. The movie won’t achieve a certain level of success not because of what it is or is not, but quite simply because of when it’s being released.
The folks at STX understand this, which is why they moved their own star-crossed teen romance epic, The Space Between Us (referenced to me with a smile by a publicist friend as The Fault in Our Mars) to February, well away from the competition that would have undoubtedly crushed it. Is STX’s Adam Fogelson smarter than Sony’s Tom Rothman for understanding this? Probably not, as Rothman clearly ain’t no dummy, but Fogelson is right about not taking this particular gamble, a gamble that appears to be a bad one for Rothman and Sony.
Look, we won’t know how this is all going to shake out for a couple weeks — Passengers could rally and actually end up with a stronger showing than anyone who doesn’t work in Culver City believes it will get — but when it does, it’s important we don’t jump to the wrong conclusions.
Obviously, knowing how this business thinks and operates, that seems like a bit of a reach, but hope does spring eternal.