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Why King Arthur tanked at the box office

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WARNER BROS

Not very legendary after all.

Not Charlie Hunnam’s ripped physique nor Jude Law in chainmail, nor director Guy Ritchie summoning supersized elephants and giant snakes could save Hollywood’s latest attempt to turn an ancient story into a mighty CG-extravaganza — and a possible new franchise.

Ultimately a long development process, a change in corporate regime, and a muddled script turned Warner Bros. Mother’s Day weekend into a mother of a disappointment when King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which had a reported $175 million budget, generated only $15.4 million in its domestic box office debut.

“This was a project that was shepherded by a prior production team and I think between inception and delivery to screen it just didn’t develop the way we wanted,” says Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, alluding to the efforts by the previous production president Greg Silverman to get the medieval spectacle to the screen.

“We anticipated some difficulty but we didn’t anticipate the valley would be so deep,” he added.

King Arthur entered into production in 2015 at a time when Sons of Anarchy star Hunnam was best known to moviegoers as the actor who bailed on the leading role in Fifty Shades of Grey. (Since that time two films from the E.L. James oeuvre have bowed, earning a collective $950 million worldwide.) With Ritchie at the helm, King Arthur was going to do for the Knights of the Round Table what Robert Downey Jr. did for Sherlock Holmes: make him dirty and fun and hopefully spark a multiple-movie franchise. (Screenwriter Joby Harold sold his script to Warners with a bible that included plans for six movies set in Camelot.) And on paper, that’s what it looked like — with Ritchie at the helm this wouldn’t be your father’s noble hero but rather a gritty street urchin raised by prostitutes who belies his rough beginnings to become a true leader. Instead, due to the still-reigning construct in Hollywood that bigger is always better, those intimate Ritchie moments were lost amid massive amounts of special effects. It generated a 27 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes primarily for a muddled storyline.

Also hurting its chances of success was a shifting release date. Warner Bros. had to delay the film’s debut three times before it landed on Mother’s Day weekend. A fluctuating release date isn’t always a harbinger of a flawed film, but in the case of King Arthur — originally slated for July 2016 — distribution moved the film to three different 2017 dates when production wasn’t complete.

But more than anything, King Arthur as a concept couldn’t lure in audiences. Though Warner Bros. is licking its wounds this Monday, back in 2004 Disney tried its hand at the historical property and also failed. That version featured Antoine Fuqua at the helm and Clive Owen as the rightful owner of the mystical sword and only grossed $51 million on a $120 million budget.

Goldstein admits that, early on, marketers struggled to get audiences into research screenings for the film. But once there, he says, they enjoyed it more than expected. That sentiment squares with the B+ Cinemascore that the primarily male audience gave the movie.

Perhaps though, the most likely reason for Arthur’s demise was ambition itself. It’s never easy when the importance of a potential franchise dominates the immediacy of the film. That’s something no king, regardless of his origin, can conquer.