Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will open wide next week, following a flurry of publicity, both good and bad. From the recent hacking case with the perpetrators demanding a hefty ransom from Disney to prevent the film from leaking, to the negative headlines swirling around its leading man, Johnny Depp, one would be forgiven for thinking that the blockbuster is treading in muddy waters.
Initially, the film had been slated for a 2015 release, which was then pushed back twice due to script and budgeting issues. Its directors, Norwegian duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, had been hired on the basis of their Oscar nominated drama Kon-Tiki and their ability to stick to a strict budget. That quickly ballooned out of control, and what was originally hoped to be a $200m blockbuster – pricey but nowhere near the gargantuan estimated $410m budget of its predecessor, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – evolved into a $320m extravaganza, the second most expensive film of all time. Realistically speaking, a film of such a major budget, plus marketing and publicity costs, would need to gross around $800m just to break even. Blockbusters are the crucial foundations of the film industry, and it’s not uncommon for such studio tentpoles to garner such eye-watering budgets, but in the Marvel and Star Wars age, with audience tastes evolving and goodwill for its star waning, can Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales be the success it needs to be?
Johnny Depp needs a hit movie. It’s been a few years since the previously reliable A-List megastar had a major commercial success. Following the disastrous box office for The Lone Ranger, a film he also produced that made only $260.5m worldwide against an estimated $225m budget, Depp has struggled to retain the money making magic that made him a megastar following the first Pirates of the Caribbean film in 2003: Transcendence barely scraped back its $100m budget, Mortdecai became a running joke and failed to recoup its budget, and Alice Through the Looking Glass greatly underperformed in comparison to its wildly successful predecessor. Into the Woods was a surprise hit, but as an ensemble piece, its success could not be put solely on Depp’s shoulders. Audiences grew tired of what they saw as a repetitive shtick: The silly hats, the prosthetics, the weird accents. A return to critical form in Black Mass gave Depp a much-needed boost, but much-lauded Oscar hopes didn’t materialize. Even the surprise appearance as Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, setting him up as the main antagonist, didn’t help, as many fans expressed disappointment with the choice.
To alleviate those concerns – as well as draw attention away from his much-reported money problems and the abuse allegations made against him by his ex-wife Amber Heard – Depp has gone into full promotional mode. He has made appearances in character as Jack Sparrow at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland, much to the delight of visitors and reminding potential viewers of the character they love. Still, his presence in the film’s marketing has been remarkably muted. Jack Sparrow doesn’t appear at all in the film’s first trailer, instead focusing primarily on the villain, played by Javier Bardem, and he only pops up in the second trailer at the very end. He appears front and center in the third trailer, but you can’t help but feel Disney is testing the waters of fan reaction, particularly after a tumultuous year from the star. Even on the poster, Sparrow is shown as part of an ensemble rather than the undeniable star, as seen with the previous films. As the negative publicity continues to follow Depp wherever he goes, it seems that Disney is keen to present his latest film as less of a star vehicle than previous efforts.
As with much of the blockbuster landscape these days, many hopes are riding on the Chinese box office. Disney has worked hard to secure good relations with the Asian market – a marked contrast from the mid-90s, when their films were briefly banned from the country due to the Chinese government’s opposition to Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which they distributed – and the Pirates franchise has formed a crucial backbone of that partnership. Shanghai Disneyland, which opened last Summer, has its own Pirates of the Caribbean ride, titled Battle for the Sunken Treasure, that is totally unique from the old ride in other Disney parks that was the basis for the movies. The Walt Disney Company even took the rare initiative of holding the world premiere of Dead Men Tell No Tales in China, where they rolled out the red carpet for Depp, Bardem and Orlando Bloom, among others. It is unusual for major Hollywood films to screen first in China, although it is a decision Disney also took with Iron Man 3, which worked out well for that film’s box office successes. The film will also open wide across China on the same day as that of North America. While box office sales have slowed down in China, it remains a growing source of revenue a- one that can now make or break a major film.
Currently, projected numbers for the film’s opening weekend are surprisingly strong, with tracking of as much as $90-100m over four days (although that estimate was originally around $115m in April). Its preview at CinemaCon brought in some welcome positive reviews, and director Joachim Rønning has already stated that a sixth film in the franchise could happen. If these numbers stick, Disney will be able to retain another reliable money-spinning franchise, a home-grown property to sit alongside the Star Wars and Marvel universes. Its main competition is Baywatch, featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, currently the most bankable star in the industry, although its chances of topping Pirates are slim. Even if critical opinion for the film falls short, ultimately it probably won’t make much of a difference. Critics were muted on the merits of On Stranger Tides, but that did little to stop the box office sailing past $1 billion. Audiences tastes may change but there is always a desire for a good old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure epic, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales seems to be one of the few major films satisfying that hunger.