Deadline’s Most Valuable Blockbuster tournament took a hiatus during the pandemic as movie theaters closed for the majority of 2020-2021 and theatrical day-and-date titles on both the big screen and studios’ respective streaming platforms became more prevalent. Coming back from that brink, the studios have largely returned to their theatrical release models and the downstream monies they can bring. Not to mention their power in launching IPs around the world with big global marketing campaigns. When it comes to evaluating the financial performance of top movies, it isn’t about what a film grosses at the box office. The true tale is told when production budgets, P&A, talent participations and other costs collide with box office grosses, and ancillary revenues from VOD to DVD and TV. To get close to that mysterious end of the equation, Deadline is repeating our Most Valuable Blockbuster tournament for 2022, using data culled by seasoned and trusted sources.
While everyone waits with bated breath on the final two most profitable films in Deadline’s Most Valuable Blockbuster Tournament, let’s reflect on the most notable bombs of 2022. Realize that, at the end of the day, it’s better to take a loss in a theatrical window downstream model versus collapsing windows with Premium VOD or streaming — or even worse, sending a movie straight to streaming. If you’re going to do that, best to make your movies cheap.
On these five films, studios took the road best taken.
Walt Disney Animation
Total Loss: -$197.4M
It’s not enough to say that original animation is a challenge at the box office when it comes to Strange World‘s failure. The movie centered on a family of explorers, the Clades, as they attempt to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog and a slew of ravenous creatures. Some might say Disney’s embrace of a gay character in the film turned off red-state audiences, while critics found the fantasy pic to be clunky and incomprehensible, and the animation retro and stale. Disney nonetheless supported the movie with a full theatrical release and dated it during their traditional five-day Thanksgiving launchpad, where it saw a record-low start for a Disney Animation title during that frame with $18.8M. Disney knew the goods were soured and had Strange World on Disney+ a month later, by December 23. Disney has done better in their first go-rounds with original IP in Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia. However, one thing is clear: post-pandemic, it is getting whipped at the box office by Illumination with Minions: Rise of Gru and The Super Mario Bros Movie.
THE BOX SCORE
Total Loss: -$108.4M
This New Regency-financed film had to shift its planned production from Boston to Los Angeles due to Covid. Despite California tax credits of $2.5 million and the period nature of the film, the budget shot up from $50M to $80M. The pic also featured a massive all-star cast including Margot Robbie, Christian Bale, John David Washington, Taylor Swift, Chris Rock, Anya-Taylor Joy and Rami Malek to name a few. Bale got paid under his normal rate of $5M, while other stars showed up to play with filmmaker David O. Russell, opting for lower paychecks (read: Oscar winner Malek received a six-figure payday). That said, way too much spend for an early World War I era-set absurdist ensemble comedy that had zero draw. While the intent was to make another American Hustle here, Amsterdam did not have that title’s 1970s hipness, camp, and mobster hijinks. New Regency is the big loser here financially as it merely has a distribution deal with Disney. Still, the financier is known for getting behind auteurs’ visions that do have a history of paying off blockbuster- and awards-wise, including the $533M global-grossing The Revenant which won three Oscars.
THE BOX SCORE
Total Loss: -$106M
One would think an extension of the Toy Story franchise, a spinoff about Buzz Lightyear, would be a sure-fire win, but devoted fans weren’t thrilled that Tim Allen wasn’t doing the voice-over (Chris Evans took over), not to mention their issues with the movie taking liberties with Toy Story canon. The $50.5 million domestic start wasn’t going to get Lightyear to the moon at the summer box office. Also potentially impacting grosses: former moviegoers getting too comfortable with seeing Pixar movies at home on Disney+ after Soul and Turning Red were sent straight to the service. Per CEO Bob Iger, Disney is returning to the regular Toy Story franchise with a fifthquel. With an A- CinemaScore, Lightyear had the lowest grade to date for a Toy Story movie. Critical reception fell from the typical 90%+ on Rotten Tomatoes to 74% on Lightyear.
THE BOX SCORE
Black Label Media/Sony
Total Loss: -$89.2M
This Korean War fighter pilot story about Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first Black man to be trained by the U.S. Navy as an aviator and also the first Black pilot to see combat, was a passion project for all those involved including financier-producer Molly Smith’s Black Label Media; Top Gun: Maverick actor Glenn Powell, who read Adam Makos’ book when it first came out in 2015, and brought it to Smith; and filmmaker J.D. Dillard, whose own father was an African American naval pilot. No expense was spared and the production racked up a $90 million cost after Georgia and Canada tax credits. DNEG handled VFX, and there was a fleet of vintage aircraft. STX sold foreign which here amounts to $40M. Sony handled for a distribution fee on a rent-a-system basis, with $40M P&A backstopped by Black Label Media. Despite a world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and very good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes at 80% certified fresh and an A- CinemaScore, no one came to this movie, which was released at Thanksgiving in the wake of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soaking up business. Although the pic starred Powell after the $1.49 billion-grossing global success of Top Gun: Maverick and Majors pre-Creed III and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, it wasn’t enough to pull in the masses. Domestic streaming and home entertainment didn’t go through Sony’s rivers, which only counted U.S. and Canada here; instead it was sold off to Paramount Home Entertainment and Paramount+.
THE BOX SCORE
Total Loss: -$87.4M
If moviegoers last holiday season were going to drive in the snow to the movies, it was to see Avatar: The Way of Water, not this 3 hour-9 minute, R-rated raunchy tale about early Hollywood stars. This period piece, made for a lofty $80 million production cost around Santa Clarita, CA during Covid (some would argue still way too much for a film of this type) by Oscar-winning La La Land director Damien Chazelle, was greenlight by Wyck Godfrey, former Paramount president and producer of Chazelle’s First Man. Although he left the studio, the movie was championed by the current administration, screened a month before its opening, and notched five Golden Globe nominations (with a win for Justin Hurwitz’s nonstop jazz score) and three Oscar noms. How raunchy was this movie? Enough to possibly make people leave during the first 30 minutes, which included a hooker urinating on a Fatty Arbuckle-type in addition to an elephant going No. 2. Moviegoers gave it a C+, and critics weren’t wowed at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes. Armed with the star power of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, Paramount thought it had a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Babylon, but the latter was far too rambling. Not to mention, history speaks for itself when it comes to the lack of appeal for Hollywood insider movies at the box office: remember three-time Oscar-nominated Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr., which did only $9.5M domestic in 1992, and Robert Altman’s two-time Cannes-winning title The Player at $21.7M stateside.