"The Great Gatsby," likely the priciest costume drama ever made, will be in a tight spot at the box office when it opens Friday.
The latest tracking and analysts' projectons have the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, opening at around $40 million. That's better than it was looking a month ago, and that sort of opening is nothing to sneeze at. But when a film's production budget and marketing costs approach the epic range, grosses have to as well if the studio's going to make a profit.
Warner Bros. on Monday said the decision to shift the film's production from New York to Australia kept the budget on "Gatsby" around $100 million, but most observers believe that's low. And marketing on the film is likely at least half that much.
Baz Luhrmann's take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel – originally planned for a Christmas release last year — was always going to be a tricky sell to summer audiences primed for superheroes, sequels and super-sequels like "Iron Man 3." And Warner Bros. has mounted a pricey marketing campaign comparable to those normally reserved for movies with men in tights.
They've played up the spectacle and Luhrmann's unique directing style, in 3D no less, and the Jay-Z-produced music from the film, featuring Beyonce, Andre 3000 and Lana Del Rey. That part seems to be working. The Twitter and Facebook activity on "Gatsby" is strong, indicating a connection with younger audiences, and that's likely driven by the buzz around the soundtrack.
But "Gatsby" will be opening one week after the second-biggest movie debut ever in the U.S., and one week ahead of Paramount's highly anticipated "Star Trek Into Darkness." Coming the following week are Universal's "Fast & Furious 6," Fox's animated "Epic" and Warner Bros.' own "The Hangover Part III."
Of those five films, which one doesn't fit? Offering something different could in theory be a selling point, but banking on word of mouth to build box office over time would be a mistake, particularly given the mixed early reviews for "Gatsby" and the competition.
Also read: 'Great Gatsby' Early Reviews Are Mixed
Last year, with "Dark Knight Rises," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and Best Picture Oscar winner "Argo," was a banner year for Warner Bros. But 2013 has been rocky for the studio. It's had a string of misses – including the belly-flop of the $195 million “Jack the Giant Slayer” – broken only by the success of Legendary Pictures’ Jackie Robinson movie “42.”
But there's help on the way. Analysts are projecting an $85 million opening for "Hangover III," and next to "Iron Man 3," the summer’s most-anticipated movie could be "Man of Steel." That one has a whopping $225 million production budget, but Warner Bros. knows that if Henry Cavill can connect with audiences as Superman, it could revive the franchise for years to come and turn the year around.