Monday, May 21st, 2018
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We Can’t Blame Audiences For BLADE RUNNER 2049’s Failure

Blade Runner 2049 may be acclaimed by critics and cinephiles alike, but why did the general audience fail to love it as much?

The Blade Runner 2049 post-mortem have been flooding the Internet over the past few days as the film’s theatrical run begins to draw to a close – and the word is not good for the science-fiction sequel and otherwise acclaimed film.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alcon Entertainment and its investors are expected to lose an estimated $80 million due to the underperformance of the Warner Bros/Sony release, which had once been poised to administer the box office with a much-needed energy boost after a disappointing end-of-summer downturn.

Alas, it did not, and with current global receipts standing at $243 million, against a rumoured production budget of between $150-$185 million (before promotion, distribution, the cut cinemas take and various other expenses), it is something of a commercial disaster. It has now opened in all territories across the world and, save for reissue potential should it score any award-season goodwill, probably won’t reach $250 million. Now, for a moody, thematically-profound, and poetic piece, that’s a pretty decent run – but not for a film that cost as much as Blade Runner 2049 did.

Blade Runner 2049

Supposedly (according to me), more than half of the budget was spent on fog and lighting – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Since THR broke the news that 2049‘s loses are as substantial as they are, my timeline has been awash with people condemning general audiences for ignoring the film, with a few suggesting we deserve to suffer through Transformers sequels and barrel-scrapping remakes as punishment for our cinema sins. 2049 has been dubbed a masterpiece by so many, with some celebrating it as one of the century’s greatest films; it is bound to top many a critics year-end list when they start pouring out next month.

So why, then, did a film with such insane buzz fail to make a dent in the movie-going populace? Why could it not translate such glowing acclaim into the all-important financial success?

Failing Despite Insane Buzz

For a multitude of reasons, Blade Runner 2049 was never going to be a hit. It needed to break records to break even and when you start playing with fire, you’re more than likely going to be burnt. To be considered a success, Blade Runner 2049 would have been expected to do the following; double the figure of director Denis Villeneuve’s previous highest-grossing film, Arrival; be swinging in the same ball-park as Ryan Gosling’s top-grosser and Oscar darling, La La Land; and – here’s the killer – sell (at the very, very least) ten times the number of tickets than the original sold in 1982, inflation notwithstanding. Those figures only concern covering the initial costs of the film; we haven’t even considered turning much of a profit at this stage.

You see the main issue, right? Let’s break it down some more and examine who, or what, is to blame for Blade Runner 2049‘s failure.

Blade Runner was, without deliberation, a flop in 1982. To date, the Ridley Scott-directed film has made just $33.8 million on a budget of $28 million – and that includes numerous reissues and re-cuts made available for home and theatrical re-release, the latest arriving in 2007. Over time, it has established a small but ferociously dedicated fanbase, developing the status of a cult hit within the cinephile community.

That, alongside endless re-runs, home media releases and its position in the United States National Film Registry, has probably rounded the film into a minor hit for Warner Bros, more than three decades after the fact. Great for them – but did it really justify a sequel, 35 years later?

Blade Runner (1982) made just over $33 million at the global box office upon release – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

It is absolutely staggering that any studio would pour a nine-digit figure into the production of a follow-up – and another eight or nine digits into the post-production, promotion, marketing and distribution of it. It’s unfathomable to me that anyone would think that was a good idea. 2049 looked absolutely gorgeous, a magnificent visual treat and an almost unparalleled aesthetic accomplishment – but why dress for The Ritz when you can really only afford The Travelodge? It’s splashy, luxurious sets, towering cityscapes and luscious cinematography obviously cost a bomb to create – and ultimately caused it to bomb.

Overestimating Sentimental Value

Warner Bros thought Blade Runner, as a franchise property, meant more to the world than it actually did. In the promotion of the final product, they relied on nostalgia, a sentimentality and connection to the original that very few held. If anything, the underperformance of 2049 has proven that us ardent film fans really do live in a bubble – we do not represent the general movie-going public, not in the slightest. As with September’s mother!, all the online think-pieces and critical outpouring mean nothing if the interest is not evident to begin with – we really are screaming into empty air sometimes. No amount of ‘this is a masterpiece!’ or ‘the greatest sequel ever made!’ will matter when someone’s connection to the series isn’t considerable to start with.

“Could they have promoted it differently to achieve better success?”, some have asked me. A lighter tone may have helped matters, as it frequently indicated heavily-philosophical subject matter in the marketing alone. A sombre, moody atmosphere pervaded through the various trailers which, alongside a seemingly complex premise that would involve prior understanding, may have been too much for some. We are not talking about individuals who visit our site (may I add that you have great choice, dear reader of ours) and live and breathe film updates, but your everyday folk who may pitch up at the theatre with a couple of hours to spare, or a potential first-date with a table booked for dinner afterwards, or someone looking to unwind after a long day at work. In these instances, would Blade Runner 2049 be your first pick, having not seen Blade Runner 1?

Blade Runner 2049

Although no production budget has been confirmed, it is rumoured to be closer to $200 million than $100 million, discounting promotion and distribution costs – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

What’s more, Blade Runner 2049 is 161 minutes long: it works out at over three hours when you’ve endured trailers and adverts before hand. A ‘long and heavy’ Blade Runner sequel has even turned fans of the original away: a colleague at work told me that he left the cinema before buying a ticket, having spotted just how long the film was and realising just how much of his day off would be wasted. My own mother, a Gosling-lover and lady who watched his now-viral interview with Harrison Ford and Alison Hammond on repeat for days, skipped opening weekend, telling me ‘I’ll come with you next time if it’s really good”; when I reported back with positive-to-mixed feedback, the 2.75 hours didn’t convince her otherwise. Those are just two examples of people deterred from experiencing 2049 on the run-time (and tone) alone.

Blade Runner 2049 Was Never Going To Be A Hit

And so I say it again: Blade Runner 2049 was never going to be a hit. I didn’t rave about the feature-length as much as some, but I am as disappointed as most to see a good film fail. You might argue that it’s a complete success in terms of reception and fan appreciation, with the potential to score some award-season love in the coming months – but focusing strictly on the financial aspect (which seems to speak loudest to the heads of Hollywood) and the future of the franchise, 2049 has been a disaster.

It’s worth stressing that a domestic total of $88 million and foreign total of $160 million for any film in today’s cinematic landscape would be worth celebrating – but crucially, the budget killed this one. An overestimation of the original’s worth to general movie-goers was another fault. The hype that invaded online space in the days, weeks and months leading up to its October release was amplified by the small army of us immersed in the film community, but disregarded by everyone else. Passing consumer interest in the series would never justify a $185 million Blade Runner sequel, and those involved realised that the difficult, crippling way.

Blade Runner 2049

One of 2049’s most recognisable images. Was it worth it? – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

And so my ramblings lead you to this final question, one Alcon Entertainment and friends should have considered asking themselves: can we really, truly, honestly blame audiences for generally passing up on a 2.75 hour, moody, sombre and heavy sequel that was sold through nostalgia that few people, outside the film bubble, actually care about? It’s an undoubtedly sad state of affairs – but not at all a surprising one.

I worry the wrong lessons will be learnt from 2049‘s performance – audiences do want smart sci-fi, beautiful imagery and high-concept ideas on their screen, and I point you towards Villeneuve’s own Arrival as proof. That Amy Adams-starring, highly-nominated Oscar contender earned over $200 million worldwide on a budget of $47 million, becoming a tidy achievement for all involved. It illustrates what can be done when a well-liked film is accepted by audiences. The budget (and run-time) was kept in line, adjusted so that an unproven film didn’t have to change the tide to be worth the investment, understanding the niche where appropriate.

This oversight cost Blade Runner 2049, and now they must pay the high price for it.

What are your thoughts?

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Nathan decided to take a gap year after completing his A-Levels (Media Studies, English Language & Literature and Drama & Theatre Studies) to gain some journalism and media experience before making the next step. In that time, he has continued to run his blog - PerksOfBeingNath - which is now approaching its second anniversary and crammed in as many cinema visits as humanly possible. Like a parent choosing their favourite child, he refuses to pick a favourite film but admits that it is currently a tight race between Gone Girl and La La Land. Self-admitted novice on cinema of the past and always open to suggestions.

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