Critically and commercially, reactions to Duncan Jones' Warcraft have been mixed. On review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, only 29% of critics gave the film a positive score, though general moviegoers were more receptive and the film's Audience Score sits at a far more respectable 79%. Audiences are generally more forgiving than critics, especially of cult franchise fare, and the Warcraft game series has a dedicated fanbase numbering in the millions.
At the domestic (United States and Canada) box office, this would-be blockbuster, budgeted at a reported $160 million, could muster only $46 million in ticket sales as of the time of writing, and is poised to close below $50 million - not a successful local run, by any stretch of the imagination.
Many are currently championing the importance of the international box office and its ability to turn domestic under-performers into global hits... But is that theory really true? Can countries like China, Russia, South Korea, and other growing markets genuinely turn a a box office disaster into a win, the way people are claiming China is reversing Warcraft's fortunes for Universal? Is the film's current global box office haul of $422 million enough for us to expect Warcraft 2 somewhere down the line?
Reported Budget vs Reality
Duncan Jones' swords and sorcery epic was an outright bomb at the domestic box office. Its $45 million haul is about half of legendary misfire The Lone Ranger, and also significantly less than other duds like Battleship, John Carter, and Fantastic Four. However, of these films the highest-grossing one (Battleship) finished its run with $303 million worldwide, a far cry from Warcraft's $422 million and counting.
In China - the film's largest market by an extremely wide margin, and the second-biggest film market in the world after the United States - Warcraft grossed a stunning $220 million, nearly five times as much as it made in the U.S. To some, that number seems like enough to call the film a hit, close the book and move on. After all, if the global box office of a film is bigger than its reported budget, then it is a success, right?
Not so; in fact, if that were the case, then each of the box office bombs mentioned above would all be well on their way to being massive hit franchises. The truth is, it takes a lot of money for a film to break even, and budgets are often much larger than we are told, due to marketing. It costs money to put up billboards promoting a movie, to put commercials on television, to put those advertisements on websites, and to have lavish premieres and promotional events. This added costs can amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, pushing profitability even further out of reach.
Money Made Over Here vs Money Made Over There
Budgets are higher than ever, and astronomical marketing budgets are following suit, but before a studio can attempt to reap profits from the film, they must use a middle-man to get their movie out there to be consumed by the masses. This middleman is your local movie theater: AMC, Regal, Alamo Drafthouse, etc. In the United States, it is generally accepted that film studios and movie houses split ticket sales more-or-less evenly. In other countries, particularly China, it is a different story.
In China's state-run system, Hollywood movie studios may only see a maximum of 25% of a film's gross. What this means is that every dollar a movie earns in China is worth only half the amount of a dollar earned in America. If Universal takes home a quarter of Warcraft's Chinese gross, then that's only $55 million. Not a number to scoff at by any means, but certainly not a blockbuster take-home, and definitely not enough to justify the oft-repeated claim that the film is a runaway hit and that a deluge of sequels is inevitable.
Between the larger-than-reported budgets and the fact that only about half of a film's box office returns go to the studio (and about 40% of international grosses, plus only 25% from China), big-budget blockbusters really need to win big in order to break even. During the Great Sony Hacker Attack of 2014, leaked e-mails reported that Men in Black 3 would have to gross well over $600 million worldwide for Sony to turn a profit. Ultimately, the film grossed $624 million, so it could probably be said that it broke even, if just barely.
The Graveyard of Ostensible Hits
To those who may think that we're downplaying the importance of the global box office, and China in particular, look no further than last year's failed summer blockbuster, Terminator Genisys. Its budget was $150 million, comparable to Warcraft, and its domestic performance was underwhelming, but the film made headlines by breaking out in China, where it made $113 million. All told, Terminator 5's global total stood at a healthy $440 million: stronger than Warcraft, and with more of that money coming from countries where the studio (in that case, Paramount Pictures) will see a greater percentage of the gross.
Like Warcraft now, Terminator Genisys was touted as proving the death of the importance of domestic ticket sales when it came to building franchises. Genisys was planned and marketed to be the first in a new trilogy of films for the series, but in January 2016 further Terminator sequels were quietly removed from the schedule after it was reported that the film had failed to break even at the box office.
The annals of box office history are filled with would-be franchise-fare that delivered a middling performance in the United States, seemed to save face with their global performance, but then ultimately failed to spawn sequels. On the other hand, if a film manages to break out domestically, it doesn't necessarily need overseas support. 2009's Star Trek reboot set the American box office on fire to the tune of $257 million. However, as Star Trek has never actually been a particularly valuable product globally, the film could only bring in $127 million overseas, for a worldwide total of "just" $385 million. But the fact that most of that money came from the U.S., where it didn't have to travel far to reach Paramount's coffers, led to the production of 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness, and this month's highly anticipated Star Trek Beyond.
Pacific Rim was one of 2013's most talked-about movies. With a reported production budget of $190 million, the film barely cracked $100 million domestically but gained plenty of ground overseas, closing with $411 million worldwide - $111 million of that total coming from China. Sequel plans were touch-and-go for a while, and Pacific Rim 2's current momentum (and official 2018 release date) may have more to do with China's Wanda Group acquiring Pacific Rim backer Legendary Pictures than anything else. The sequel to Edge of Tomorrow is basically in the same boat that Pacific Rim 2 was in before the Wanda Group purchase, for similar reasons. We, the fans, will just have to wait and see what happens there.
Warcraft: Hit or Miss?
So, is Warcraft a box office success? With all of this information in mind, it's hard to call it a victory for Universal, but we'll hold off on discounting it completely: the film, like Pacific Rim before it, is a Chinese co-production, partially financed by companies like Tencent, China Film Group, and Huayi Brothers Media. Because Legendary Pictures, producers of the film, is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group, China's impact in this specific case may be stronger than usual. In an interview with Wired, box-office analyst Jeff Bock said, "There's a distinct possibility that Warcraft 2 goes into production, is fully financed in China, and does not get a major North American release." We're not there yet, but if this prediction comes to pass, it will mark the turning point of the global box office scales away from North America and towards China.
While the international box office cannot turn sour grapes into sweet wine, it can drive interest for long-term prospects. The truth is, a film's ticket sales, globally and otherwise, are only part of the story. For starters, buying and renting discs is not as popular these days as it was in the heyday of Blockbuster Video, movies can still earn lots of money after they come out on Blu-ray and Digital Download. Then there's cable television rights, Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, and the numerous other streaming sites, all of which slowly earn money for the film studios. Then, most importantly, there's the fact that many big-budget franchises make most of their money from endless merchandising. Disney is the current champion in that realm; every toy store in the country is filled to the brim with toys related to Star Wars, The Avengers, and Disney Princesses, and that's not even getting into novels, video games, comic books, model kits, and the endless other ways a film can be milked for even more money.
Some movies are breakout hits from the jump, some films fall flat on their faces, while still others take the long road to profitability. We're confident Warcraft will earn money for Universal eventually, but a sequel isn't a done deal just yet. Recently, it was announced that Warcraft had become the highest-grossing videogame-based movie of all time, edging out Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. This is faint praise, as Prince of Persia is a notorious under-performer that failed to spawn a sequel of its own. At the end of the day, the profit margin for Warcraft will likely be negligible at best.
By the time the dust clears on merchandising, home video sales, and streaming rights, Duncan Jones's film may ultimately come out ahead and earn a few dollars for Universal. However, we're not currently confident that it will be enough to justify the cost of circling around for another trip to the world of Warcraft.
Warcraft is now playing in theaters worldwide.