This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
If ever there was a studio that could withstand a serious stumble, it’s Disney, home of Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. And stumble it has with Tomorrowland, the Brad Bird-directed fantasy adventure. Sources say the film will lose $120 million to $140 million by the time it finishes its global rollout, becoming Disney’s first major financial misfire since The Lone Ranger prompted a $190 million write-down two summers ago.
It’s also the third big-budget original tentpole of 2015 to bomb after Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son, highlighting the risky nature of nine-figure filmmaking at a time when relatively lower-budget hits such as Spy and Pitch Perfect 2 are causing studios to look closely at the costs of creating franchises.
Tomorrowland, which cost $180 million to produce plus a marketing spend of $150 million or more, had everything going for it: a hot filmmaker in Bird, 57 (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol), and a global star in George Clooney, 54. But it debuted to weak reviews (was it for kids or adults?) and a soft $42.7 million during the long Memorial Day weekend. As of June 8, the film had earned $76.4 million domestically and $93.5 million overseas for a global total of $169.9 million. It might not gross much more than $200 million, far from enough to cover Disney’s costs.
China, ravenous for American event movies, has been a particularly harsh blow. Tomorrowland bowed to $13.8 million there in early June, getting trounced by the $38.3 million opening of the Japanese animated title Stand by Me Doraemon.
“Yes, they took a miss with Tomorrowland, but there are so many things working for Disney,” says analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners, noting that Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron has earned nearly $1.35 billion worldwide since May. “And coming up, there’s Inside Out (June 19), Ant-Man (July 17) and Star Wars (Dec. 18). Disney will do just fine this year.”
That’s why Tomorrowland hasn’t stirred media or shareholder uproar as did Lone Ranger and John Carter ($200 million write-down). (Disney stock hasn’t budged.) But it has raised the issue of whether studios will spend at this level on original tentpoles. Even the hit San Andreas, which Warner Bros. has marketed as an event pic, cost “only” $110 million.
“There’s a reason you’re seeing more sequels, prequels and known properties because you never know how films like Tomorrowland or Jupiter Ascending are going to turn out,” says Handler.Jupiter was a pricey miss for Warners, Village Roadshow and other partners who paid nearly $180 million to make the sci-fi fantasy, which topped out at $181.9 million worldwide and lost about $120 million all-in.
Despite the flop, few fault Disney for taking a chance on a director like Bird. Says a rival executive, “When a guy like that comes to you with an original idea, and Clooney is part of the package, you’ll take the swing.”
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