This past weekend saw the release of Blade Runner 2049 into theatres around the world. I went to see it on Saturday and fell in love with it. Saying nothing of the engrossing mystery and impressive performances, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. I can’t wait to pick from the plethora of it’s gorgeous shots when it comes time for me to put together my annual “Best Of” video. It’s easily one of, if not my favourite movie of the year so far. That being said, the film vastly underperformed at the box office over its opening weekend and unfortunately, that’s not very surprising.
Blade Runner 2049 (BR 2049) opened to a lacklustre $32 million opening weekend. Well short of projections that had the film coming in anywhere from $44-55 million. Internationally it hasn’t fared much better and has a total gross that is still about $60 million short of breaking even on it’s $150 million budget. Considering the film garnered positive reviews (88% on Rotten Tomatoes) and an “A-” Cinemascore it’s certainly an auspicious start for October's box office, in what has been a down year overall. Especially after a record-setting September.
So what’s happening here? How does a movie like BR 2049, that is well reviewed, well made, and well liked by the public seem to be failing financially. Let’s start by looking at the past for context. A good comparable for BR 2049 is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar; another well reviewed, well made, high concept sci-fi picture. Interstellar cost approximately $160 million to make and only earned $188 million over its entire theatrical run. Back then the talk was about the movie being too long, ponderous and slow. People who saw it liked it, but it appeared as though its length combined with heavy sci-fi concepts was putting people off. BR 2049 is cut from the same cloth as Interstellar, and it looks like it will suffer the same fate.
Coming in at 2 hours 43 minutes BR 2049 is also long, which contrary to popular belief isn’t necessarily a box office marker. Avatar, for instance, came in at over 3 hours and is the most commercially successful film of all time. Even though both films share some sci-fi roots, they couldn’t be more different. Avatar is an action movie through and through, dealing with easy to understand concepts dressed up in pretty colours. BR 2049 is light on action and deals with much more profound themes while asking the audience to keep up as it unspools a larger mystery. It’s a contemplative picture and it seems that people aren’t going to the theatre to watch thoughtful movies anymore. The movie theatre is reserved for bombastic comic book/action movies and animated children's movies. Or at least that’s the way it appears to be going.
Not that the marketing did the film any favours though. With Avatar you knew precisely what you were in for; not so with BR 2049. Although it has some gorgeous trailers, they also have little to offer regarding the plot. Personally, I adored the trailers. There’s something to the craftsmanship of a trailer that can sell me a movie without revealing anything. However, when combined with a strict no spoilers policy from the studio after press screenings, and I can understand, from a general audience standpoint, why that might have worked against them. Remember, the original film was released in 1982, and for many people, it’s probably been many years since they’d last seen it, if at all. Imagine watching these new trailers, having, of course, heard of Blade Runner, but not having a clue what it was actually about, only to get no useful information from the marketing. That’s a tough sell. The numbers back this up as well, according to The Wrap 63% of those who saw BR 2049 over the weekend were over the age of 35 (i.e. were alive at the time of the original film's release), while only 14 per cent were under the age of 25.
Others are looking at the film’s lack of gender diversity as a potential cause of its box office woes. Despite fantastic performances from Robin Wright, Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks, that same demographic info showed that the film played to a predominantly male audience. 71% male vs 29% female to be exact. Numbers that are, according to Box Office Mojo, “almost identical to those for Mad Max: Fury Road”. Another 80’s sequel made decades later that also barely made back its production budget, even with glowing reviews.
Hindsight is 20/20 though and it’s easy to point figures at this or that for the films financial flop, the most telling sign was right in front us. The original Blade Runner ALSO crashed at the box office. Back in 1982 the Ridley Scott film premiered in second place and only pulled in $6 million on opening weekend. Of course over its life, it grew in popularity and has become widely recognised for its influence on the sci-fi genre as a whole, but the film is a cult hit, and name me a cult hit who’s sequel blew the doors off the box office?
Even if I’m not surprised by any of this, I’m definitely discouraged. I carry this naive hope that when a movie is as good as Blade Runner 2049, it deserves a better box office fate. Unfortunately, it seems like every year I get pulled back to reality when movies like this one, Interstellar or Mad Max: Fury Road bomb. The last thing I want is for Hollywood to take the wrong lesson from these situations (as they almost always seem to do) and make fewer of these types of movies. Movies that I think should, and deserve, to be made. There’s still some hope though. With not much in terms of competition for the rest of the month, Blade Runner 2049 might find some extra push from the positive buzz that can carry it to a respectable finish; leaving open the possibility for a third instalment to cap what has the potential to be one incredible trilogy.
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