Weekend Box Office Winners & Losers: The Not-So-Fantastic Four Goes Down in Flames

20th Century Fox

Even in the most insanely profitable, record-breaking of summers, there’ll be a down weekend or two at the box office. But then there are weekends like this, when a typhoon of critical rage and moviegoer indifference washes away pretty much all the new releases into the storm drains of financial ignominy. A tad dramatic, perhaps, but when movies bomb as bad as Fantastic Four did this weekend, that’s when you break out the waterlogged hyperbole.

Sure, this weekend already had big shoes to fill: Last year saw the one-two punch of a rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy in its second weekend. Basically, it was one of the bright spots in an otherwise lamentable year; no one reasonably expected 2015 to do better. But the domestic box office dropped more than 30 percent from last year, making this the weakest second weekend in August since 2009; Ethan Hunt alone kept it from total collapse, with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation earning $29.4 million for first place. The carnage left pundits and executives everywhere to behold the sodden wasteland, beseeching the dark and silent skies, “Why, movie gods, why?!” Here’s why:

Loser: The Floptastic Four

It’s not like you couldn’t see it coming, but despite a storied lineage, some bright young stars, and the shiny gleam of Marvel intellectual property, Fantastic Four went down in flames: It opened at no. 2 with $26.2 million domestic. “What’s so bad about second place?” you may ask. “Isn’t $26.2 million a decent chunk of change?” Not for superheroes. Not when your movie costs (at least) $120 million (plus who knows how much in reshoots and tens of millions more in marketing) and opens in almost 4,000 theaters nationwide. Not when even the most cynical analysts had already factored in your pitiful 8 percent Tomatometer but figured fanboys alone would power you to at least $40 million. Not when the studio was hoping to milk some of that sweet universe-building money out of synergizing you with the X-Men. And especially not when the usual bottom-line saviors, international audiences, coughed up only $34.1 million this weekend.1 Yes, you know your movie has truly bombed when box office analysts swap their usual anodyne pronouncements for quotes like “This turned into a nightmare for Fox.”

Even the previously panned Fantastic Four movies, with little more than Jessica Alba on a poster going for them, opened to $56 million and $58 million, respectively. In terms of superhero flops, this is even worse than The Green Hornet, which opened to $33.5 million back in January 2011 — January, i.e., where studios send bad movies to die. As The Wrap pointed out, this was the lowest opening for a Marvel property since Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Sure, the movie wasn’t good, but even bad movies can get away with it sometimes. When the best that can be said about The Fantastic Four is that it wasn’t as bad as John Carter or The Green Lantern, someone has some serious explaining to do. The question on everyone’s mind is who.

The first culprit may well be Hollywood’s addiction to reboots, theorizes Variety. Like any over-farmed field, letting valuable franchises lie fallow can certainly be in their interest: Just compare how the passage of time helped us forget Jurassic Park III and allowed our nostalgia to grow again in time for Jurassic World’s eventual arrival and the underwhelming performances of Sony’s hastily rebooted Amazing Spider-Man films. Certainly with the constant deluge of comic-book material, audience standards are getting higher, and jump-starting a franchise just for the sake of cash means you better bring the goods. That leads to the second potential cause: social media. A stench has been trailing Fantastic Four for a while, but the tracking seemed to indicate that Reed Richards and his pals might shake it off. But exceptionally negative reviews tend to go exceptionally viral these days, and while superhero movies have traditionally been more or less review-proof, an exhausted franchise can’t survive those bad notices when there’s so much else out there for fans to salivate over.

Speaking of social media, it also can’t help to have your director trash his own film. Josh Trank’s quickly retracted tweet pointed the fingers at Fox for hatchet-jobbing his vision, painting a familiar story of the big, bad studio squashing a brilliant auteur’s creation. But that was just the latest incident in a long, tortured backstory that saw Trank leave one of the Star Wars movies allegedly because of difficulties he had making Fantastic Four. And it’s one thing for a director to imply after the fact that his vision got muddled, but to preemptively firebomb a film that still bears your name is ill advised at best. At worst, it seems to substantiate the reports from a troubled shoot. No one but those who made Fantastic Four know what truly went wrong, but with a misfire of this proportion, no one is blameless.

Loser: Meryl Streep’s Bad Hair Day

It was so bad this weekend that even Meryl Streep wasn’t spared the carnage: Ricki and the Flash fizzled with $7 million in 1,600-plus theaters for seventh place. On the positive side, Meryl Streep movies aren’t exactly front-loaded. Since her audience isn’t made up of ravenous fanboys, hard-core Streepers may still come out as the movie expands into more theaters next weekend — and Sony has only an $18 million budget to worry about.  Still, the 59 percent Tomatometer rating doesn’t signify deep reserves of untapped potential. And this one definitely won’t live up to Streep’s other mainstream hits, like Julie & Julia and The Devil Wears Prada, which inevitably come to mind whenever you put the great Streep front and center on your poster (and hire Jonathan Demme to direct her). The takeaway here seems to be that even our greatest living actress can carry a mediocre movie only so far.

Loser: Animated Sheep vs. Anime Dragons

And then there’s Shaun the Sheep. Sadly, the cheeky barnyard creatures couldn’t even break the top 10, scraping together $5.6 million in the first four days of release in 2,320 theaters. By comparison, animation aficionados went Super Saiyan over Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection. Playing for only one week in fewer than 900 theaters — and only once a night at 7 p.m. — the latest Dragon Ball movie still managed to gross $5.58 million in North America.

Winner: Unwelcome Houseguests

For the silver lining to this otherwise grim weekend, thank none other than the patron saint of budget-minded financial success, Jason Blum. If the studio’s strategies these days are to rely on superhero home runs, Blum shows that you can build a winning game out of singles and the occasional double. The latest from his low-margin hit factory, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, placed third for the weekend with $12 million. Sprinkle a generous helping of critical praise and you have a bona fide, if modest, hit.

The only other relative good news of the weekend also came on the indie end of the spectrum: The Diary of a Teenage Girl posted the best per-screen average of the weekend, with $55,000 in four theaters, while Salma Hayek’s Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet made $26,000 in two theaters. But, frankly, that’s meter change compared to Fantastic Four’s (bad) wigs budget.

Historic Winner: Still Universal

But let’s pop a Tylenol of good news to battle this box office headache. Universal just keeps sacking away the cash: Even before the weekend, the studio made history as the first to gross $5.53 billion in a single year, and there are still five months to go. So Universal’s juggernaut run is far from over: This weekend alone, Minions crossed $900 million worldwide, which means Universal may pull off an unheard-of hat trick of $1 billion movies;2 then there’s the much-buzzed-about N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton coming next weekend, and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs biopic lined up for prestige season.

The Not-So-Fantastic Weekend Top Five

  1. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Paramount, $29.4 million ($108.7 million domestic total)
  2. Fantastic Four, Fox, $26.2 million
  3. The Gift, STX, $12 million
  4. Vacation, Warner Bros., $9.2 million ($37.3 million domestic total)
  5. Ant-Man, Disney, $7.8 million ($147.4 million domestic)

Filed Under: Box office, Movies, the fantastic four, universal, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, shaun the sheep, Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep

John Lopez is a Grantland contributor and a writer/filmmaker living in Los Angeles.

Archive @ jedgarlopez

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