The Expendables 3 opened in theaters this weekend, although you wouldn't know it by looking at the top three grossing films. It was beat out by Let's Be Cops and the second and third weekends for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy, respectively. The disappointing opening weekend box office haul for Sylvester Stallone and his crew of mercenaries continues the downward trend of the series' financial earnings in their theatrical runs, potentially made slightly worse by online piracy.
The Controversy: Piracy
Unfortunately for Lionsgate, the box office appeal of The Expendables 3 potentially took an extra hit from online piracy. Somehow, a high quality screener leaked online on July 23rd, a full three weeks before the film was scheduled to release in theaters. The studio was able to get a little help from the U.S. District Court in rushing the process of uncovering the identities of websites they are now suing, for alleged responsibility in sharing the film online. Since many torrent and filesharing sites are overseas, there may be little the studio can do - and certainly nothing they can do to stop downloaders from seeking out the file. All of the headlines surrounding the leak only helped draw more attention - and potentially more pirates - to it. There's no telling how much of an impact the leak had on the opening weekend for the film, as many of the downloaders may not have paid to see it in theaters anyway - or are in markets where it's not available in theaters.
We do know The Expendables 3 fell short of Lionsgate's expectations. It made less than half of what The Expendables 2 did in its opening. According to "experts" (via The New York Times), only a smaller percentage of the total downloads occurred in North America, and had every one of those half a million viewers bought an opening weekend ticket, that would have only resulted in another $4 million or so - still making it the least successful opening of the series, by far.
The Truth: Mediocrity
The bigger issue is how The Expendables 3 falls short of fan and critic expectations, indicating that the biggest negative factors might simply be the quality of the film itself and franchise fatigue. On Rotten Tomatoes, The Expendables 3 sits with the lowest score of the three films, and it has the lowest average score according to Metacritic as well. If you couple that with lackluster marketing efforts in the film's bland posters and trailers, there really wasn't much going for the third film - especially when you take into account Nu Image, Millennium Films and Lionsgate dropping its "hardcore" R-rating to shift focus towards lesser-known youngsters instead of the franchise's trademark of featuring older celebrities. That's not going to help the already sour word-of-mouth.
The film seemed to have lost sight of its selling points, trading screen time of veteran action stars for attractive fresh faces, while toning down the action for the PG-13 rating. Combining that with an overall package - which is clearly less appealing for existing fans - and the series is killing itself with its own attempt at pandering to younger viewers during a month where there's stiffer competition. Piracy or not, The Expendables first needs to worry about headlines like this one from The Verge, which reads "I watched 'The Expendables 3' in theaters and I want my money back." Ouch.
We'll have to wait and see if The Expendables 3 can perform nearly as well as its predecessors worldwide when it's all said and done (they made $274-304 million each). Is there room for The Expendables 4 and should the series stick to its original target audience as a way to differentiate itself from the pack?
Share your thoughts in the comments!
[November 24, 2014 Update: Sly's been reading and agrees! The Expendables 4 will be rated R and potentially very different.]
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes