Analysis: Guillermo del Toro's giant robots mobilized the base — but couldn't cross over into the mainstream
Hollywood executives heading to Comic-Con this week are wise to keep in mind that the power of fanboys at the box office is clearly limited — the disappointing opening for “Pacific Rim” proves it.
It was almost exactly one year ago when Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros. and Guillermo del Toro held court at ComicCon, presenting footage from “Pacific Rim” to thunderous crowd approval. In the coming months those fans blogged, tweeted and buzzed about "Pacific Rim" like no other film.
But the buzz didn't translate to box office — certainly not enough to offset its $180 million production budget.
Usually young, geeky and male, fanboys are the most ardent fans of a property or character, and can certainly be counted on to build heat for a genre project. So many recent blockbusters — “Marvel’s The Avengers,” “Dark Knight Rises” and “The Hobbit” — have benefited from that pre-release boost that it’s easy to take it for granted.
But those projects had a significant level of mainstream awareness coming in; fanboys provided a spark for them at the box office, but certainly not the flames. Fox’s “Wolverine,” which opens July 29, appears to be in a sweet spot of fanboy appreciation and mainstream consciousness (and unlike "Pacific Rim," which had not star power, having Hugh Jackman playing the lead doesn’t hurt).
It comes down to this: If you’re looking for blockbuster returns at the box office, you can’t do it on the fanboy crowd alone. And “Pacific Rim” now joins another group of films – like “Scott Pilgrim,” “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta" – that couldn’t click much beyond their hardcore base.
“Pacific Rim” had so much fanboy buzz, in fact, that in the days just prior to its release, many analysts projected an opening well in excess of the film’s tracking, some by up to $15 million. And most of that was based on a swell of social media activity, the vast majority of it positive.
"When buzz and hype is delivered directly from fanboy central, it's very difficult not to get caught up in the social media madness,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock, “especially with most of these channels are operated by the same hardcore demographic that love to champion films like ‘Pacific Rim.' Critics and fanboys love these films, but mainstream audiences don't bite … or at least not that hard.”
Though fanboys weren't able to make "Pacific Rim" pop, they're certainly not to blame, Warner Bros. president of distribution Dan Fellman said.
“They loved it, and they came out early and saw it in Imax and on 3D,” he said, and the numbers bear him out. Fanboys drove the $3.6 million haul from early shows Thursday, Imax made up 19 percent of the overall grosses and 3D screenings represented roughly 50 percent of the market share for “Pacific Rim.”
“We have great reviews, we have a great (“A-”) CinemaScore and now we have to turn that into positive buzz over the next few weeks,” he said.
He might have been more specific — what he’d really love to see is Sue Kroll’s Warner Bros. marketing team turn it into is mainstream buzz – and that will be tricky.
The same factors that made it so attractive to young boys — big, loud battles scenes with giants robots — made it more difficult to sell to the average moviegoer.
While "Pacific Rim" had a 72 percent positive rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, many of those positive notices gave the film points for ambition, style and willingness to create a truly unique property — not necessarily qualities that resonate with the masses.
The closest it came to a “name” movie star was the director Del Toro. The actors — Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day and Rinko Kikkuchi — aren’t the sort that can mobilize moviegoers on the late-night talk shows or via commercials.
And like another famous metallic movie character, Del Toro’s robots could have used a heart.
“There is a very good reason the majority of superhero films has a love interest and it's not just so the hero can save the damsel in distress,” Bock said.” Today's blockbusters need to function on multiple levels.
"Even though the visuals of "Pacific Rim" astounded audiences, the flimsy character development, lack of heart (romance or otherwise) and not throwing a true star into the mix ultimately doomed it," Bock said. "This is exactly where a brand name like Brad Pitt can be mighty important when attempted to sell a nameless brand to the masses."
So Warner Bros. was essentially forced to sell the movie itself, which it did well enough to bring out the base. But in the course of doing that, who knows how many adults were turned off by what seemed a “Transformers” movie on steroids?
We’ll find out this coming weekend whether Warner Bros. can turn the positive word-of-mouth from the true believers into staying power at the box office.
And overseas — where “Pacific Rim” will really make or break itself financially — is off to a solid start, with $53 million in its first weekend. It opens in France and Germany this coming weekend, and on July 31, we’ll find out how many fan boys there are in China.