American Ultra: Why Did It Fail At the Box Office?

Kristen Stewart in 'American Ultra'

When movies flop, more often than not it’s not a matter of dislike but of indifference. Sometimes it's not that poor reviews killed a movie’s potential, or filmgoers saw it and passed on bad word of mouth, but that the film just plain never found its audience.

American Ultra, a new action comedy that opened last Friday, flopped hard over the weekend, earning just $5.5 million at the domestic box office, according to weekend figures. This put it behind Straight Outta Compton and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, as well as new releases Sinister 2 and Hitman: Agent 47. It was even beat out by second-week holder The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The film, a genre hybrid of a stoner comedy and action spy thriller, stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, along with a substantive supporting cast, including Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, Walton Goggins, and Tony Hale.

On Saturday, once it became clear that American Ultra was not a box office success, the film’s screenwriter, Max Landis, took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the matter. Landis, best known for writing Chronicle, is also well-known for his outspokenness on social media. His thoughts on the travails of his Chronicle director, Josh Trank, drew widespread attention earlier this month.

Tweeting to his more than 41,000 followers, Landis had this to say about American Ultra:

So here's an interesting question: American Ultra finished dead last at the box office, behind even Mission Impossible and Man From Uncle...

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 22, 2015

...American Ultra was also beaten by the critically reviled Hitman Agent 47 and Sinister, despite being a better reviewed film than either..

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 22, 2015

...which leads me to a bit of a conundrum: Why? American Ultra had good ads, big stars, a fun idea, and honestly, it's a good movie...

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 22, 2015

...which leads me to a bit of a conundrum: Why? American Ultra had good ads, big stars, a fun idea, and honestly, it's a good movie...

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 22, 2015 I'm left with an odd thing here, which is that American Ultra lost to a sequel, a sequel reboot, a biopic, a sequel and a reboot.

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 22, 2015

Landis' tweet storm ended soon after, but not before the writer posed an important question:

That's the question: Am I wrong? Are original ideas over? I wanted to pose this to the public, because I feel, put lightly, confused.

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) August 22, 2015

After some time passed, Landis took to Reddit to follow up and to reiterate most of what he said on Twitter. But again, Landis brought up the issue of "original" films versus films based on a pre-existing IP, sequels, or biopics - all of which describe the films that performed better than American Ultra in its opening weekend.

Specifically, Landis wonders whether or not films like American Ultra really have a place in theaters any longer, or if the multiplexes are now solely home to gigantic blockbusters based on pre-existing properties.

Walton Goggins, Topher Grace and Kristen Stewart in 'American Ultra'

Landis said:

"My "talk" on Twitter was about how confusing it is to see movies like American Ultra not really know their home in theaters anymore, and it made me question my goal of being a generator of original, non-IP based content.

Studios buy less specs every year, and instead have grown to focus solely on prebought IP properties. This is alarming to me as a film fan, and also as a creator. Maybe you don't mind if everything is based on something or a reboot or sequel or biopic. I kind of do."

Whether you think American Ultra should be considered an "original" film or not, Landis does raise an interesting but still oft-heard question. In this world of blockbuster franchises that spawn gigantic movie universes, what once was another movie vying for someone's hard-earned dollar is now an unproven property that lacks a built-in audience. Do those films really no longer stand a fighting chance? It's a question that is seemingly answered any time recent films like Lucy, Neighborsor Ride Along perform well at the box office.

Additionally, one has to wonder if American Ultra would have found greater success had it tapped other forms of revenue, such as a VOD release the same day it hit theaters. Lionsgate (the studio that released it) opted not to take advantage of the shifting way in which people consume media, as a way of reaching as wide an audience as possible (which, considering American Ultra's subject matter may have consisted of those who prefer to stay at home, anyway). And so, maybe the question isn't whether original ideas are over, but whether a traditional theatrical release for something like American Ultra is simply an antiquated notion.

American Ultra Neon Blacklight Scene

There are other factors to consider as well. For one, American Ultra was saddled with a late-August release date, pegged to a week when a lot of moviegoers are either on vacation or thinking about going back to school. Secondly, Jesse Eisenberg, great as he’s been in a lot of movies, isn’t exactly a proven box-office draw on his own. And Kristen Stewart, much as her reputation as an actress has improved, hasn’t shown that she can bring the Twilight audience with her to non-Twilight projects, especially after so many years.

But perhaps the greatest problem of all for the film was that the trailers and TV commercials failed to convey exactly what American Ultra was all about - and not just in terms of the plot, but also with regard to the tone. This is often a problem when a film has the sort of jarring tonal shifts this film does. Looking at the trailers, they do seem to be focused too much on the middle ground of the film's two genre elements. In the end, it seems they weren't quite successful in selling the action or the comedy enough to entice theatergoers.

Then again, as demonstrated by Landis’ tweets, the film has its fans. Perhaps one day it will be known as a movie with sizable cult following; one filled with people who take to Twitter to argue over its merits and state how underrated it is.

American Ultra is currently playing in theaters.

Source: Twitter, Reddit

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