It's been a bad summer for Hollywood at the box office. Industry projections put audience attendance at 15.7% less than the summer of 2016, marking this year as the largest decline of its kind in modern times. A combination of under-performing blockbusters, tougher competition in other mediums, and extenuating real-life circumstances (such as Hurricane Harvey) put attendance at a 25 year low. Audiences are less willing to fork out the increased prices for tickets nowadays, and are increasingly eschewing going out to the movies in favor of staying home and browsing the riches of on-demand streaming.
All of this makes Marvel Television's decision to premiere its latest ABC series, Inhumans, in IMAX theaters so much more confusing. It was clear that both Marvel TV and IMAX hoped to make a big splash by turning the new show into a real event - one that fans just had to turn out for - and the first two episodes were filmed in part on IMAX cameras to ensure a more cinematic experience. However, the television branch of Marvel has struggled to keep up with its movie counterpart in terms of buzz and scale (much has already been said about the alleged tensions between the departments that are said to have kept the two from crossing over), and treating Inhumans like a movie in its own right, with a theatrical release on the biggest screen possible, signaled an attempt to bridge that gap. Unfortunately, with Inhumans' IMAX debut having grossed a mere $2.6 million worldwide (across 66 territories) in its opening weekend, this experiment definitely appears to have been a failure.
Inhumans already had a major mountain to climb before it even premiered. Early word on the show was mixed to negative, particularly regarding the special effects of Medusa’s sentient hair and the giant teleporting dog Lockjaw. While the Inhumans themselves are a staple of the comics, they’re less familiar to wider Marvel loving audiences beyond those who keep up with ABC’s other Marvel show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so even with the franchise name attached, the studio has had trouble drumming up buzz for the property. There’s also the simple problem of cost and convenience – why pay $20 to see two episodes of a TV show that you can watch for free if you’re patient enough to wait until the end of the month? It didn’t help that, for many Marvel fans, journeying to their nearest IMAX cinema could incur a hefty cost for travel expenses. In order to make that cost worthwhile, the IMAX experience had to be utterly necessary - something that inspired awe and truly played like a cinematic experience, not just a TV show on a very big screen.
Critically, the response has been mostly negative, although not quite to the depths reached by Iron Fist. Most have questioned why this show even needs a cinematic release, particularly since the effects look noticeably fake on an IMAX screen. Effects aside, the show hasn't given audiences much to make paying for the IMAX experience worth their time, with the acting, script and scope also heavily criticized. It’s one thing to check out a poorly reviewed show for free on TV: It’s quite another to pay over $20 for the opportunity. Not even Marvel, whose Midas touch seems unstoppable at this point, can make that happen, it seems.
It doesn’t help that Marvel seemed to have little ambition to make the series truly cinematic in the way they’re selling it to the public. IMAX cameras were used for part of the filming but the shoot for those first two episodes was still tight in the way a TV shooting schedule is, and their choice of director - Roel Reiné, whose most high profile credits are The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption and The Man with the Iron Fists 2 - raised eyebrows. Reiné himself admitted in interviews that their shooting schedule was tight and he thought he’d been hired because he could work quickly and cheaply. If Marvel wanted this television show to be a truly cinematic experience, why not bring in the right team for that? Even the pilot to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got Joss Whedon on board.
If there was ever a time to do an IMAX release for Inhumans, this month would seem like the ideal moment to do so. The blockbuster season has come to an end, the awards friendly releases are still a couple of weeks away, and right now is a very quiet period for new releases. With less competition, something like Inhumans could arguably flourish. Sadly, that doesn't seem to have been the case.
Earlier projections had the screenings, taking place across 393 locations in North America, grossing around $2m over Inhumans' opening weekend, but Deadline lowered that estimate to $1.39m. That would place it outside of the box office top 10: 10th on that list is Girls Trip, which looks set to take in $2.1m in its opening weekend despite being on its 7th week of release. Compare that to two years ago, when HBO's IMAX presentation of two episodes of Game of Thrones took in $1.5m from 205 locations in its opening weekend. That's a show that, like Marvel, has a rabid fan-base, but it's also naturally more cinematic than Inhumans seems to be, and it had already garnered sufficient buzz from several years on the air, something Inhumans has yet to do. If Inhumans can't draw in the bigger numbers now, imagine how its box office numbers will play out when it has to go up against the hotly hyped – and possible future record breaker – big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s IT.
That's not to say that theatrical presentations of TV shows are always doomed to failure; Marvel TV's biggest mistake may have been limiting Inhumans to IMAX theaters only. The Sherlock special episode "The Abominable Bride" received a worldwide theatrical release that ended up grossing more than $38 million - though Sherlock had the benefit of a built-in fanbase and the promise of a theatrical version with bonus footage (conversely, the IMAX presentation of Inhumans actually features less footage than the TV version).
All is not lost for Marvel. Audiences may not have been willing to go to IMAX for Inhumans but there's no indication this will affect the ratings for the show once it premieres on ABC. What may simply be ill suited to the bigger screen could play more effectively in its intended format, and Marvel fans aren't necessarily swayed by bad reviews, if the popularity of Iron Fist on Netflix is anything to go by. As an experiment in bridging the gap between their film and television divisions, Inhumans does not seem to have paid off, but as a new television show, it still has everything to play for.
Inhumans is currently playing in IMAX theaters for the next two weeks, and will premiere on ABC on September 29th.