Blade Runner 2049 may be a hit with critics but it’s not so lucky at the box office. Despite glowing reviews, strong word of mouth and an A- Cinemascore, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel is faring comparably to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, now a cult classic but at the time a notorious flop. But this was only ever to be expected – and isn’t as disastrous as it sounds.
Estimations have the film ending its opening weekend (including Thursday previews) on $31.5M domestically and $50M internationally, making a total global opening of $81.7M. That’s much lower than forecasts suggested and considering how much 2049 cost means the film risks being a major bomb.
Blade Runner 2049 is a legacy-quel continuing a long-discussed classic that sees Harrison Ford reinhabit one of his former iconic roles. The last time we got one of those it broke major records and wound up making over $2 billion worldwide. And Blade Runner 2049 is better than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What got in its way in theaters?
The go-to explanation has been that the film was working against too much resistance. It’s got a runtime 163 minutes, which both invites criticisms of being too long (a knock to word of mouth) and means there are fewer screenings in a day. Assuming a thirty-minute turnaround, you have one less showing every five per screen compared to a more modest, 120-minute film. That’s a 20% reduction in potential showings and subsequent earnings. There’s also strong competition: both Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League are on the horizon and so causal moviegoers may be saving their cash for those events, while there’s still buzz around the likes of IT and American Made which made $9.6M and $8.0M respectively over the weekend. But all of that accounts for slight adjustments – why is the box office so low in the first place?
Blade Runner Just Doesn’t Have That Big An Audience
As already mentioned, the original Blade Runner was not a hit at first; it made $33.8M back from a $28M budget ($86M and $71.2M respectively in 2017 money). While it was eventually rediscovered on VHS and became a seminal hit with its subsequent cuts and rereleases, this means that, unlike other series, there’s no precedent for box office success. That alone isn’t enough to explain 2049‘s struggles, but it does contextualize the sort of legacy-quel we’re dealing with.
Read More: How Blade Runner Became A Classic
Whereas Star Wars or Rocky have immense existing fanbases across a string of movies, here we’re dealing with one film best defined as a cult classic. Blade Runner may place on best of all time lists, but due to its gradual appreciation its stature isn’t comparable to most firmament greats; there’s fewer who’ve seen it and opinion is more divided. Simply put, the prospective audience of existing Blade Runner fans is not as large as many think, and without that cultural cache seeing Deckard doesn’t have the same impact as Han in The Force Awakens or Rocky in Creed and draw in outsiders either.
Indeed, unlike TRON: Legacy or Mad Max: Fury Road, which aimed to be strong standalone movies welcoming to newcomers who hadn’t seen their (somewhat outdated) originals, 2049 was more clearly marketed as being a continuation for existing fans than it was a new story. It was playing to too small a target market – cinephiles, essentially – and one that typically doesn’t flock to a multiplex on Friday evening.
The Budget Was Too High
But box office is relative. If two movies costing $10 million and $250 million respectively both make $50 million opening weekend, one’s in massive profit, the other massive trouble. Budget and expectations are just as important as gross totals. And this is where Blade Runner‘s story gets worse.
Official budget numbers aren’t available, but 2049 is reported to have cost in the $155-$185 million range. Assuming marketing doubles that to give total outlay, the film would need to make $300-$400 million to just break even. Feasibly, you’d want opening weekend to be covering the production costs, but the global total was just half of that. Sure, due to the reviews the film could have strong legs and get closer than many would now think to that benchmark, but, in short, the main reason Blade Runner 2049 is losing money is because too much was spent on it in the first place.
This is something we’ve seen all summer: Hollywood studios bankroll projects with ridiculously large budgets that don’t stand a chance of making it back. That is a key part of why 2017’s been such a disastrous year. However, while as it stands Blade Runner 2049 is sitting along the likes of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the long-term story’s going to be very different.
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