Robert Zemeckis had a beautiful dream. He thought performance-capture animation would save cinema. He believed in a glorious future where stars like Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks could play multiple roles in a single movie; where a beloved bulky Brit like Ray Winstone could play a glamorous six-pack-ripped action hero; where Seth Green could play a 9-year-old boy. Critics complained about the Uncanny Valley. “Bah,” responded Zemeckis, “I shall conquer the Uncanny Valley!”
The funny thing is, Zemeckis was probably right. After all, the highest-grossing movie in history was mostly created with performance-capture animation. Alas, not every movie is Avatar, and Zemeckis can now lay claim to having created one of the biggest flops in motion picture history. As reported by The New York Post, Mars Needs Moms — the final product of Zemeckis’ studio ImageMovers Digital — lost more than $125 million at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed just $21 million domestically and $17 million abroad, off a reported $150 million budget which was presumably significantly larger (since all Hollywood budgets are mysteries wrapped in riddles inside enigmas, and also lies).
The Post curiously adds Bucky Larson to their list, even though the low-grossing movie didn’t cost too much. (They also leave out the Conan the Barbarian remake, which only made $50 million off a reported $90 million budget.) Still, it’s good food for thought, and it’s a good time to peer into our financial crystal ball and ponder: What movies are most at risk of making this list in 2012? Some of next year’s biggest movies look functionally impervious to failure: The Avengers will combine three separate successful franchises, The Dark Knight Rises is the sequel to an era-defining mega-hit, and even if the first Hobbit movie is horrible (which, how could it be?) it could coast to massive grosses just on Lord of the Rings nostalgia. But there are some films carrying massive budgets that are a little less certain. Even a clear winner on opening weekend can wind up labeled an “underperformer” if it amounts to a mere fraction of the overall production cost.
(All budgets listed below are based on early estimates and do not include marketing costs, which will be exorbitant, or lies, which will also be exorbitant.)
John Carter — $250 million (or possibly $300 million)
The original title was John Carter of Mars, but Disney chopped off that last part not too long after Mars Needs Moms bombed. The film is based on a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I am a big fan of the Of Mars books, but only because my grandfather had a huge collection of them. Since most people didn’t have nerdy grampas, John Carter doesn’t come gilded with very much brand recognition. With a swing-for-the-fences budget and a curious mish-mash of genre tones — half sword ‘n sandals fantasy, half space-faring science fiction — this one is definitely a gamble. We’ll have to wait and see if it pays for Disney.
The box-office track record of reboots is uncertain, to say the least. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins rescued their respective franchises from the pop culture dumpster and accrued mega-millions. But those were franchises that had mostly been lying dormant for years, and both films were extremely unique takes on the material. Amazing Spider-Man is closer in spirit to recent attempted Marvel reboots The Incredible Hulk and Punisher: War Zone — neither of which performed particularly well. Well, Incredible made about $260 million worldwide. Amazing will have to make significantly more if rumors about its ever-expanding budget are true. The big question is: Do moviegoers want to see another Spider-Man origin tale less than a decade after Spider-Man 3?
Prometheus — $100 million
Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi looks fascinating and has been burning up the Internet with relentless “Is it an Alien prequel?” speculation. But Internet-buzz doesn’t always translate into actual box office: Shed another tear for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. If Prometheus is a genuine original property — if the title doesn’t quietly morph to Alien Origins: Prometheus in the next few months — then it will have to compete for attention in a summer filled with recognizable titles. (Note that all of 2011’s biggest flops were non-sequels.) And it’s been a long time since the movie-going public paid attention to a dark sci-fi movie not directed by Christopher Nolan. The film reportedly has a budget of $100 million, which isn’t much nowadays, but the need for a big marketing push makes this a gamble.
47 Ronin — $170 million
What’s that? You haven’t heard of this 3-D historical adventure, based on the famous true-life tale of 47 ex-samurai who plotted to avenge their dead master in the early 18th century? The film that somewhat controversially stars Keanu Reeves as a completely fictional half-white samurai? Hard to know what to expect — it may play well internationally. (Hey, The Last Samurai made money.) Best-case scenario is that this is exactly as interesting as it sounds.
Men in Black III — $215 million
The first Men in Black movie was one of the first modern blockbusters, cementing Will Smith’s status as the king of summer. The second movie grossed $400 million despite being fairly terrible. So the third movie should be a sure thing, right? Well… maybe. First off, 10 years is a long time for a new installment. Then there are the various problems that have dogged the threequel, including a production delay to allow a rotating team of writers to finish the screenplay, and scads of negative press about Will Smith’s imperial trailer. Smith is basically the last movie star in the world, but he hasn’t appeared in a movie since 2008 — when Hancock succeeded and Seven Pounds flopped. MIB3 will almost certainly open big, but it will be interesting to see how it fares in the long run and whether it catches up to that estimated $215 million.
The Great Gatsby — $125 million
A lavish 3-D adaptation of a novel everyone was required to read freshman year starring Leonardo DiCaprio using a non-Boston accent and runaway Spider-Man Tobey Maguire directed by a man whose only film in the last decade was Australia? Gatsby is hardly a sure thing. (But isn’t that part of the fun?)
Battleship — $200 million
Another day, another massive franchise-begging movie headlined by Taylor Kitsch. Next year’s most fascinating exercise in possibly satirical Hollywood movie-making takes a somewhat beloved children’s game, adds in aliens and Rihanna, and — to judge by the trailer — looks a little bit like Green Lantern crossed with Cowboys & Aliens with just a touch of Transformers. (Hey, one of those movies was successful!) No one really knows what to expect, and it’s entirely reasonable to think that Battleship — with its vision of incredibly attractive people fighting sci-fi monsters in a tropical landscape — could wind up being a fizzy summer hit. And maybe in the sequel, they can fight zombies!
PopWatchers, what movies do you think are 2012’s biggest gambles? Can one of Taylor Kitsch’s mega-movies break through at the box office? Should Universal have made the Ouija movie instead? Do you ever imagine Robert Zemeckis cast adrift on a raft on a lonely river, with all of his crew lying dead at his feet, forever searching for the Uncanny Valley? If you listen closely, you can hear almost hear the director of Back to the Future mumbling to himself: “If I, Zemeckis, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, they will drop dead from the trees. For I am the Wrath of God. Who else is with me?”
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