“High awareness and high conversation don’t always translate to big box office,” media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says
When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recently asked its social media followers what film demands watching on the big screen, an overwhelming response flooded the organization’s Twitter feed for one unexpected movie — “Alita: Battle Angel.”
The effects-heavy sci-fi flick from director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron received middling reviews and a tepid domestic box office when it was released in February — $85.7 million on a $170 million production budget, according to BoxOfficeMojo — but it has grown a fervent following that appears emboldened by other recent fan efforts to save struggling TV shows and franchises.
As fandoms become more vocal and active, how do studios balance those passions with the realities of box-office returns and TV ratings?
The “Alita Army,” as they call themselves, is the latest example of fans pushing for the continuation of a beloved franchise. Last month, the loyal fan base for Netflix’s canceled sitcom “One Day at a Time” celebrated its success in helping to revive the show for a fourth season on Pop TV, in part because of the trending #SaveODAAT Twitter hashtag. In May, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” — whose existence was the result of massive home video and word-of-mouth support for its predecessors — toppled “Avengers: Endgame” at the box office — admittedly in the Marvel blockbuster’s fourth weekend in theaters.
The last few months have shown that social media conversation and solid home video sales can seriously inform decisions by studios to invest in lower-budget or small-screen properties. But it may be an uphill battle for “Alita,” experts say.
“High awareness and high conversation don’t always translate to big box office,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “The ultimate barrier to any kind of fan-based or sequel-inducing groundswell is that we’re just talking about so much money.”
The film’s disappointing $85.7 domestic box office, coupled with a solid but unspectacular $319.1 million overseas gross, was far from what the film would have needed to warrant an automatic sequel, Dergarabedian said.
This week, the film’s release on home video has the potential to breathe new life into the 20th Century Fox film, which is based on an early 1990s manga (Japanese comic book) series by Yukito Kishiro. Fox, now owned by Disney, and Cameron, who stewarded “Alita: Battle Angel,” began working on the chronically delayed project in 2003. Cameron handed the directorial reins to Rodriguez in 2015.
“Alita: Battle Angel” and “Avatar” were Cameron’s two premier post-“Titanic” projects, both of which he originally set out to turn into trilogies. “Avatar” has now ballooned into five films, with the first sequel due in theaters in 2021. Meanwhile, the prospects for “Alita” getting a second film remain up in the air, especially considering Fox’s new ownership.
Thanks to the strength of its international play, “Alita: Battle Angel” grossed $404.8 million worldwide, putting it just on the edge of profitability. The movie needed to garner somewhere between $400 million and $500 million to break even, Dergarabedian said, a difficult mark to hit for a movie released in a generally slow part of the year like winter.
It’s at that profitability edge that “Alita” fans think they can make a difference, by pushing the movie into the black through home video sales and grassroots promotion.
“If more people see this movie and make it financially viable, there are nearly 30 years of source material still waiting to be adapted,” a fan named Seamus said in an email, referring to the full story portrayed in the manga, only about a third of which was covered in the movie.
“James Cameron… has said that he is waiting to see whether audiences want the ‘Alita’ franchise to continue, and we have spent the last four months loudly communicating that we do,” another Twitter user named Adam said.
“Alita: Battle Angel” stars Rosa Salazar as a deactivated cyborg trying to find her purpose in a futuristic world she does not recognize. With a dystopian setting and partially-CGI protagonist, it borrows heavily from the visual language of manga and anime. Several fans noted that it was the best live-action adaptation of a Japanese property that they had seen from American filmmakers.
“They truly tried to make a live-action anime, and make it serious… which could set a major precedent,” said Peter Reyland, who makes videos about “Alita” on his YouTube channel, Enigma Seeker. He compared it to previous critically panned attempts to base films on anime and manga properties like “Dragonball Evolution,” “Ghost in the Shell” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender.”
Reyland thinks that if “Alita” proves a success, it could open the door to more high-quality anime adaptations. The movie’s insistence on staying close to its source material may have contributed to both fan loyalty and its modest domestic box office numbers.
Susan Napier, a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University, said that the unapologetic sincerity of anime can often be a barrier to success in North America. “There’s much less sarcasm, deadpan or clever humor that we see and we enjoy in something like ‘Thor: Ragnarok,'” Napier said. “Anime often has more realistic psychological interactions than Hollywood cinema does…and I think that people who love it are kind of grateful for a respite from superficial cleverness.”
The unique visual style and strong-willed “Alita” heroine clearly resonated with a cross-section of its audience, enough for fans to devote entire social media accounts to the movie and tirelessly push for the movie to get its sequel.
Many avid fans saw the movie multiple times in theaters. A thread in the “Alita: Battle Angel” subreddit shows dozens of users who saw the movie at least four times in theaters, and one forum moderator saw the movie a total of 77 times in theaters.
“People had no qualms about watching the movie several times or in general do(ing) their best to support the movie (by) preordering the Blu-rays and buying the official merch,” a fan named Readone said in a Twitter thread.
The push to spend may prove successful: Pre-orders for special-edition Blu-ray discs from Best Buy sold out in late May and are being sold for inflated prices on eBay. Three days after its release for home video, the movie sat at the top of the iTunes charts and holds two of the top 10 spots on Amazon’s list of best selling Blu-rays.
The response last month to the Academy’s Twitter question resulted in more than 3,000 retweets and was “liked” by 23,000, after one follower highlighted the unexpected outpour of support for the movie that had quietly dropped out of the cultural conversation since its early 2019 release.
According to Dergarabedian, the turning point that could push Disney toward financing a sequel will be the movie’s performance on home video and VOD. He compares it to the “John Wick” franchise, which, though much lower-budget, had a similarly lukewarm box office and exploded in popularity once it was available on streaming and VOD services.
Dergarabedian says that even though fan action may not be enough to justify another mega-budget film, he hopes the studios are paying attention to the passion surrounding the film.
“It is really sad when there’s this huge promise, and the movie doesn’t perform well enough to financially justify creating more,” he said.
But with the streaming service Disney+ launching later this year and the company looking to add more original content to its streaming roster, he said the “Alita” franchise may find a new platform on which to take flight.
“I think what studios and content creators should do is look at this as an opportunity to maybe create…some sort of small screen interpretation,” Dergarabedian said. “Obviously, the demand is there, but perhaps not enough to justify spending 100 million dollars on a movie.”