Well, Hollywood is at it again. They canceled yet another long anticipated film because a completely unrelated film tanked at the box office. While the poor performance of Tomorrowland has absolutely no correlation what so ever on the fan favorite Tron, the latest installment of the popular franchise has been canceled.
Ok, looking at this simple box office comparison it’s easy to see why studios pulled the plug. I get it. CHAPPiE- another robot sci-fi with a hastily built world- hasn’t made it’s budget back- yet. Tomorrowland was Disney’s big bet to compliment their futuristic theme park exhibits and compete with, well itself, considering six films being released this year belong to the Mouse or its subsidiaries. Forbes breaks down a financial hypothesis that makes it easy to guess the probable future for Tomorrowland that does not look promising.
I have not yet seen Tomorrowland (or CHAPPiE), so I cannot comment on their quality. I can compare them to another recent sci-fi flop- Jupiter Ascending. Tomorrowland and Jupiter Ascending have A - list Oscar winning talent, bulging budgets and horrific ROI for their studios. CHAPPiE managed to score a modest budget for a studio film, but unless it kills it overseas, the return future looks grim.
Three sci-fi flicks, three new worlds heralded by celebrity talent- three major “flops” in less than year. If I were a studio suit, I’d look at the films on my roster and start slashing too.
But I have this theory.You see, genre films tend to have a very rabid fan base. Those fans have certain expectations, and their expectations are very different than the suits sitting behind a green light at a studio. There are elements unrelated to the caliber (read celebrity) of talent in the film that fans expect and demand. These expectations have everything to do with world building and story, and rarely rely on the talent in the roles. And by talent, I mean celebrity (they still want them to have some chops). This reality crosses genres. It is true for horror films, westerns, sci-fi, and racing.
The Mad Max franchise sits on some critic lists as a horror film, but is resolutely aimed a gearheads and action fans. The current installment has two established and known actors who can command a small audience on their own, both with an average box office draw of only $40 million or less on average. That tells you something about the appeal of the universe it sits in when as of this writing, it has pulled in $239 million. The original Mad Max… well it was America’s introduction to Mel Gibson and what became one of the most lucrative action film careers of the 80’s and 90’s. What’s interesting is that the Mad Max’s universe of a world gone to hell apocalypse, also classifies it as a sci-fi.
Sci-fi, or science-fiction if you’ve been living under a rock, is probably the broadest spectrum of genre films out there. Studios only think in terms of the last successful sci-fi they’ve had or wished they had, so their definition depends on the year. Fans on the other hand know what sort of sci-fi they like and tend to be ruthlessly loyal to it.
Traditionally, it means space travel and aliens (Star Wars, Star Trek TV series, Aliens). Sometimes it refers to experiments gone wrong (Weird Science, The Fly). On occasion it embraces technological evolution where machines become smarter than we are (The Matrix, War Games). Harrison Ford, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Goldblum, Gina Davis, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Matthew Broderick are just a few of todays Hollywood elite and were virtually unknown before they were in the films mentioned above.
Then along comes Tomorrowland. It falls squarely in the sci-fi category- but fails the audience’s expectations to be transported to Oz, er- I mean Tomorrowland. The resounding response of critics and fans alike is that Brad Bird’s latest film is more a lack luster climate-change piece than a thrilling sci-fi adventure into a brave new world.
Sci-fi fans expect to see inside the Matrix, they expect to travel to the galactic core and visit Tataouine. The fans/audience expect these worlds to be specific, fully developed and integral to the story. Earth and Asgard are uniquely tied, but Chris Hemsworth was not Thor before Asgard was built.
In the 1982 Tron, the audience was zapped right onto the Grid. Computer graphics were new to film, and if it had failed to make the audience believe they could be transported into a computer system, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It did work and it changed the game for movies.
Nearly 30 years later, we zap right back to the new and improved “bio-digital-jazz” of the Grid. Both Jeff Bridges and Garret Hedlund had a handful of films under the belts previously, but were still relatively unknown when they took their roles in Tron (Bridges) and then Tron: Legacy (Hedlund). Their star power had little sway over the universe that was built. Subsequently, the success of the films was built on the fans love of Tron and the grid. If the studio understood that, they might not have been so quick to pull the plug on a film that made 25% gross profit.
This is why the absence of a star or celebrity is actually beneficial to a genre-film attempting to establish a new world. Clooney is a popular and talented actor. Its almost impossible to see him as anyone other than Clooney with the exception, possibly, of Daniel Ocean (they're basically the same person, right?).
It’s like high school, the same five kids in the leads, you stop seeing the characters or the play. You only see the actor so that is what you focus on. If they can’t carry the material, you notice. When the actor is unknown, you focus on the character, the story and the world surrounding them. If it’s done right, we experience one of those rare moments where you get to be completely immersed in the film from beginning to end. And if it's good on top of that, well... It could just be the star making vehicle audiences have come to know and love: read, successful ROI.