Thanks to The Bourne Supremacy moving a week later to August 10th, we have another relatively light weekend at the box office, with only Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days and Sony's Total Recall remake opening wide. There is an uber-tight lid slammed shut on any advance word on Total Recall, with an embargo apparently existing until Wednesday for some and all the way until Friday for others. I did not pursue and was not invited to a screening, and considering how busy I'm going to be for awhile I may not even see the film for a good long time (I'll see Diary of Wimpy Kid 3 before I see Total Recall). But I digress. What I come here to discuss is a relatively new phenomenon, which I would like to call 'pulling a John Carter'. I don't mean that Total Recall will flop, although it *could* due to what appears to be a general lack of interest beyond morbid curiosity (is anyone in the blog-sphere talking about anything other than the relatively 'hotness' of Kate Beckinsale versus Jessica Biel?). But at a cost of $200 million, Total Recall *has* to be a world-killing blockbuster both here and abroad just to break even. And is there anyone here who thinks that Total Recall, sans a major global star or even 3D-enhancement, has the muscle to gross even $400 million worldwide, let alone the $550-600 million arguably necessary for a decent profit?
Disney's John Carter was the first and most publicized variation of this problem. As I've written before, the problem with John Carter wasn't that it 'bombed', but that it cost so much that anything other than a record-setting worldwide gross doomed it to financial failure. At a cost of $250 million, its worldwide gross of $282 million lost Disney upwards of $200 million. It was only the first of 2012's 'flop by budget' films. Two months later, Universal's Battleship cost $220 million but barely crept to $300 million worldwide. And Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman is an awkward case. Surely the Kristen Stewart/Chris Hemsworth fantasy film is grossing the higher end of realistic expectations, with $381 million worldwide thus far and a shot at $400 million by the end. But Rupert Sanders was given $175 million to make the film, making its profitability a bit of a question mark, and that's without taking into account whether the whole 'lead actress had an affair with the director' scandal that may hurt the film among its fan-base when the DVDs and Blu-Rays arrive. Comparatively, when The Golden Compass, at a cost of $170 million, earned $372 million worldwide ($300 million of that overseas), it signaled the end of New Line Cinema. Sony's Men In Black 3 was arguably very nearly a prime example of this. The threequel went way over budget, ending up costing between $250-$325 million depending on who you asked. Fortunately the film turned out to be pretty good, and Will Smith was able to pack them in overseas (IE - he's still a movie star), giving the film a massive $618 million worldwide take thus far. Still, said $600 million+ worldwide take was basically the bare minimum that the film had to gross in order to break even and/or eventually make a profit in the long run. Just as Fox's Prometheus barely broke even with $300 million worldwide due to its (comparatively reasonable) $130 million price tag.
All of the above movies, with the arguable exception of the 'money clearly onscreen Prometheus', would have been rock-solid hits had they kept their budgets in check. Imagine how profitable Men In Black 3 would have been had costs been kept at or under $200 million? Had John Carter cost a more reasonable $125 million, we'd probably be getting a sequel. Why exactly did Tim Burton's Dark Shadows cost $150 million instead of a more reasonable $80 million (or about what it looked like it cost, natch), which rendered its $236 million worldwide take a candidate for flop-hood. This isn't a general 'movies are too expensive!' rant. There are certainly some films that are such sure-fire financial monsters that hardly any budget could be considered too high. The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II at $250 million apiece? Sure! Transformers: Dark of the Moon at $195 million? Why that's $5 million cheaper than Revenge of the Fallen! Inception at $200 million? Normally an insane figure for an original and dour brain-teaser, but as a down-payment for The Dark Knight Rises, it's a no brainer! Brave for $180 million? It's Pixar, so who cares if the film makes any money, it'll make it back in merchandising (my daughter hated the film but still ended up buying a Merida dress and archery set). Or how about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, budgeted at however many hundred-million dollars they feel like spending? Sounds smart to me! The problem comes with a recent trend, not overwhelming in volume but enough to be noticed, of not-quite sure things being budgeted at such high levels that they have to be among the biggest grossing films of the year just to not lose their shirt. The math should be simple: If you can't make a profit without your film becoming a mega worldwide blockbuster, you better be damn sure the movie you're making is a guaranteed mega-blockbuster.
So no, I don't think Total Recall will be an out-and-out flop this weekend. But it would seem that the most likely outcome at this point is one where it opens to $25-$35 million before crapping out at just over/under $70-$100 million and barely scraping to $250-$300 million worldwide. In normal objective terms, a film earning $300 million worldwide should be a hit. But when your seemingly generic remake of a still timely and finely-aged science fiction thriller from 22 long years ago cost $200 million to make, that basically qualifies as a flop. Or, as I would put it, pulling a John Carter.