‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Dark Fate’, ‘Doctor Sleep’… Examining Surprising Box Office Flops.

Published on November 19, 2019

November box office woes continue, with Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels debuting to a paltry $8.4 million in its domestic opening weekend (its current international total is $27.6 million). The Kristen Stewart-led reboot is the latest November film to fare poorly at the box office, prompting considerable concern from the major studios.

November has been particularly unkind to box office premieres. Terminator: Dark Fate premiered to a $29 million November 1st debut, vastly under-performing industry expectations. Doctor Sleep, the newest Stephen King adaptation, premiered November 8th to a shockingly low $14.1 million, performing well under industry projections. The latest string of box office duds has studio insiders wondering what it takes to succeed in this market.

Charlie’s Angels, for one, had a complicated history to start. Rumors suggest that the script didn’t attract top Hollywood talent and underwent significant changes in its development. The result was a cast of relatively unknown leads alongside Kristen Stewart; their current relative lack of recognition no doubt complicated the film’s box office draw.

To be sure, Stewart’s performance is widely acknowledged to be excellent and funny, but script problems have also produced complaints that, for an action-comedy, the film has both too little or uninspired action while taking too little advantage of its comedic potential.

The film’s explicit feminist rebranding is overall well-received by many critics, but it does lock the film into effectively a one quadrant movie–all factors that potentially hurt its box office chances. It also didn’t help that the film opened alongside Ford v Ferrari, which is currently outpacing industry expectations with a $31 million opening weekend (and a current worldwide take at $53 million).

The most important question–and the one plaguing film executives–is why these dismal, often surprising, box office results?

Reboot fatigue may be one hypothesis, at least for Terminator: Dark Fate and Charlie’s Angels. Supporting that conclusion is the earlier performance of Men in Black: International, which despite heavy star power grossed only $254 million worldwide, failing to break even despite a hefty $120 million ad campaign. Shaft under-performed, making $21.4 million on a $30-35 million production budget. Hellboy similarly grossed $44.7 million on a $50 million budget.

Some remakes and franchise films did remarkably better. Disney’s remakes of Aladdin ($1.05 billion) and Lion King ($1.65 billion) overtly performed well, while Marvel’s franchise film Avengers: Endgame netted $2.8 billion. Warner Bros.’s technically independent Joker made $1 billion.

Rotten Tomatoes scores are certainly not the dividing factor. While some under-performing films were poorly received by critics, like MIB: International (23%, RT), Shaft (32%, RT), and Hellboy (17%, RT), Doctor Sleep (77%, RT) and Terminator: Dark Fate (71%, RT) were well received.

While there are certainly a host of factors for industry insiders to consider, franchise/property status seems to be a far bigger indicator of box office success than individual film quality or remake/franchise/reboot status.

Avengers: Endgame came as the conclusion of the popular Avengers: Infinity War and the current successful run of MCU films.
Lion King and Aladdin were both remakes of classic Disney properties.
Joker was a high-profile property, well-received and amplified by the mystery of how Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ performance would rank beside Heath Ledger’s.

By contrast:
Terminator: Dark Fate is coming off of Salvation (2009, 33% RT) and Genisys (2015, 27% RT). Despite its poor critical reception, however, Genisys made $440 million at the global box office (it did likely benefit from Emilia Clark’s high star profile due to her centrality in Game of Thrones). It is possible that the four year break was just enough to prevent franchise momentum from overtaking poor critical history.
-MIB: International and Charlie’s Angels are attempted franchise reboots, both involving recasts. Preceding films were profitable, but each reboot factors that made the prior films successful.
-By contrast, Doctor Sleep is coming off a strong history of successful King adaptations. By all rights it should have sailed at the box office.

The bottom line, it seems, is that there is no clear bottom line. Before hurrying to greenlight another reboot, studio executives need to ask is there realllly a demand for this property? Even that question won’t answer the questions left by Doctor Sleep, but it’s a start.

Jeff Ewing is a staff writer at Grit Daily. Based in Los Angeles, he covers entertainment news.

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