Oh, my. This is not how a “successful” movie franchise is supposed to go out.
The shocker at this weekend’s box office wasn’t the fact that Walt Disney’s “Zootopia” dropped only an estimated 27.6% to remain at no. 1 for a third straight weekend and reached a marvelous $200.9 million domestic. What was much more surprising was that “Allegiant,” Lionsgate’s latest installment in the previously successful “Divergent” series, came in at no. 2 with just $29 million. While pre-release tracking indicated a smaller opening than the original “Divergent’s” $54.6 million in 2014 or “Insurgent’s” $52.2 million just one year ago, few were expecting an actually drop of 44.4%. The idea that “Allegiant” could eventually cross the $100 million mark with expected blockbuster “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” dropping on Friday is simply too hard to fathom at this point. Still, let’s take a moment to put “Allegiant’s” performance in better context, shall we?
Based on Veronica Roth’s popular Sci-Fi novels, “Divergent” earned slightly positive reviews when it debuted two years ago (mostly thanks to Shailene Woodley’s charismatic performance). A huge success for Summit Entertainment at the time, “Divergent” found $150.9 million domestic and $288 million globally off a reported $85 million production budget (that’s pretty profitable). The sequel “Insurgent,” on the other hand, received mostly negative reviews and found a slightly less potent $130.1 million in the U.S. and $297 million worldwide (still a moneymaker). That’s a minor jump in international returns, but Lionsgate sold the rights to many of its international markets to lower its production overhead so that means a good $80 million or so of the film’s $110 million production budget was actually covered before it hit theaters (make sense?). Basically any increase in the non-U.S. markets doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue for the studio. Oh, and did we mention that after this disappointing performance there is another “Divergent” film, “Ascendant,” scheduled for next summer? Before we visit that potential debacle, a quick note on why this current scenario isn’t the greatest news for Lionsgate and why Wall Street analysts were not happy this morning.
The “Divergent” series was expected to help shoulder the short term franchise needs of the company after the end of the lucrative “Hunger Games” films in November. Lionsgate’s only other active franchises at the moment are the “Now You See Me” and “John Wick” series, but neither have performed anywhere near the level of a “Hunger Games,” “Twilight” or the first two “Divergent” films. Eventually the studio is hoping that “Power Rangers” will be their own version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” – an unexpected cash cow for Paramount – and an animated “My Little Pony” in 2017 will do significant business. Franchises are also pretty important to investors because they often provide the best opportunity for larger profits and ancillary revenue (it wasn’t at the level of a Disney animated flick, but every studio in town would have loved to have “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” for the additional merchandising revenue). Now, with potential stockholder pressure after such a disappointing opening Lionsgate has to decide if it’s even worth finishing the series.
Sure, the company told trade outlets such as Variety they believed “Allegiant” will “gain traction in the weeks ahead” but that’s wishful thinking. The film is already the first half of an unpopular finale that didn’t go over well with the established literary fanbase. Moreover, “Allegiant” landed just a B Cinemascore and that’s more bad news for its long term prospects (“Insurgent” and “Divegent” earned A and A- comparatively). So, even with international sales potentially covering a significant amount of the production cost is it prudent to make a final film that is currently scheduled for a summer release of June 9, 2017? Yes, that’s right. The studio thought it would be smart to end it all during the competitive summer season.
The two previous “Divegent” installments opened in March and it pretty much provided them with a safe haven from tougher competition at the multiplex. Summer means more teenagers are out of school during the week, but the competition is much fiercer. Not only does “Ascendant” currently find itself slotted on an opening weekend against Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” and Brad Pitt’s “World War Z 2,” but “Kingsman 2,” “Cars 3,” “Transformers 5” and “Wonder Woman” enter the marketplace over the following two weekends. Summer releases can also mean significantly larger marketing budgets that can rack up the costs across the board. Lionsgate may be able to reduce its negative cost to $20-30 million, but when you have a “summer-sized” marketing budget of $40-50 million will $80 million domestic (and that’s a reach at this point) be worth it in the long run? (Note: studios traditionally only received half of ticket sale revenue.) That’s what makes Lionsgate’s actions so intriguing because it’s hard to remember the last time a scenario like this occurred.
This is also a bit of déjà vu for the company. Lionsgate already witnessed diminishing returns for its blockbuster “Hunger Games” franchise that peaked with “Catching Fire.” The YA phenomenon is severely waning overall (watch out “Maze Runner”) and the studio needs to decide if they can take the chance that the “final” film still has a big enough fanbase to support it. Moreover, “Hunger Games” was Jennifer Lawrence’s baby and her popularity helped stem the franchise and YA fatigue. Not only does the “Divergent Series” have source material that’s not as well written but Shailene Woodley may not be the box office superstar many believed after the first “Divergent” hit big and the surprise success of “The Fault In Our Stars.” Pondering Woodley’s career choices is probably worth a completely separate think piece in and of itself, but the fact neither co-stars Ansel Elgort or Theo James have really stuck gold in their downtime between each “Divergent” film may also be contributing to moviegoer’s lack of enthusiasm. Clearly, when you’re trying to get people excited about Jeff Daniels joining the cast that’s a good sign there’s a lack of real starpower around the franchise.
No doubt the studio let it be known they knew “Allegiant” was in trouble when they replaced director Robert Schwentke, who helmed both “Insurgent” and “Allegiant,” with the much more stylish Lee Toland Krieger (“The Age of Adaline,” “Celeste & Jesse Forever”). Can Krieger, who has never shepherded a film at this budget level, really make a big enough impact to turn the box office fortunes around? It’s something Lionsgate seriously needs to consider before giving “Ascendant” the final green light because if they think nobody cares now just wait for the apathy to hit before “Ascendant’s” hits theaters next June.
Do you think Lionsgate should still make the fourth and final film? Let me know on twitter at @TheGregoryE.