What a ‘TRON: Legacy’ Failure Would Prove

The other day, we discussed the fact that TRON: Legacy was tracking below expectations and that it could earn as low as $35 million during its opening weekend (in line with that, HitFix delivered a devastating review to the film this morning). Such an event would be a box office catastrophe that would consign Legacy to the same category of flops such as Ishtar, The Postman or the more recent Speed Racer. Disney has spent a colossal amount of money over the past three and a half years making and marketing this film. For it to be anything other than a smashing success would be an embarrassment to the company and a severe wake-up call for those managing its creative course.

I have to say I’m fascinated by TRON: Legacy, both the fact of its existence and the question of how successful it will end up being. I always suspected that Legacy might be a disaster-in-the-making, and while I think $35 million is a bit low for a projection, even given the forces arrayed against Legacy’s success, I wondered what lessons the film industry could learn in the event of a TRON: Legacy failure. Here are a few, for your consideration. None of these are too shocking or revelatory, but it’s good for Hollywood to get a kick-in-the-nuts reminder every now and then.

The way in which Hollywood greenlight’s its films is nutso – Mike Bonifer, the publicist for the original TRON, tells this story of how the sequel/remake got a greenlight:

[O]ne day, like Jack getting his beanstalk on, [Steven] Lisberger’s dreams came true. “TRON’s” roots sprouted, and right inside the Disney greenhouse, too. The daughter of Dick Cook, chairman of the Disney Motion Pictures Group at the time, raved to her dad one day in the early 2000s about how she and her friends at USC thought “TRON” was the shit.

Of course, this is how business often gets done in Hollywood. One day your kids are eating Gummi Bears in the backseat of the car and in 20 weeks it’s a cartoon series on ABC. Based on the enthusiasm of his daughter and her friends, Cook decided to develop a “TRON” sequel.

In an ideal world, movies would be made based on the quality of the ideas, the greatness of the script, the originality of the director’s vision. But I didn’t fall off the back of a turnip truck yesterday. I understand that Hollywood is a moneymaking venture. Perhaps when I was younger and more innocent, I surmised that filmmaking would be a blend of excellent material and great marketing potential. And while that’s frequently not the case in reality, even the most crass producer would probably agree that greenlighting movies based on the say-so of some executive’s daughter is probably not the most financially sound strategy. TRON: Legacy’s very existence shows that movies are often made at the whims of powerful individuals who may not know what the hell they are doing, nor have a good reason to justify spending $200 million. Unless, of course, the movie is a huge success. In that case, Dick Cook is a genius.

Basing a film off of an existing property does not guarantee its success – Hollywood is obsessed with remakes and films based on existing properties, even when those properties will do nothing to help sell tickets. Sometimes these movies are sold on the strength of the idea alone, but often, the idea is that the property will make it easier to sell the film because you can save some money on the marketing side of the business (or augment the existing effects that your marketing spend has) by leveraging the property’s existing fanbase. In my opinion, this theory is far from proven. Example: Who on Earth thought that the Jonah Hex fan club was going to turn out in large enough numbers to make that film a success? Ditto Scott Pilgrim. Over at Filmschoolrejects, Cole Abaius wrote about how challenging it was for the directors of Skyline to get their film made. Said one of the directors:

There’s this phenomenon that people have been cynical about in the last couple of years that I happen to agree with – that if a property isn’t based on something pre-existing, a video game, a comic book, graphic novel, [producers] won’t be interested. There’s a real aversion to original properties, but if you’ve got a graphic novel that sold 500 copies, they’ll say, ‘Look! It’s based off a graphic novel! It must be cool!’

This trend will likely get worse until it gets better. Movies these days are primarily made for kids, and with an eye towards other revenue streams like merchandising, international movie rights, or Disneyland rides. A high-profile failure like TRON: Legacy won’t fix things, but may help slowly alter this trajectory.

Getting back to my point about existing properties, it’s already a risky proposition to base a new film on a decades-old property. But on top of that, the original Tron was, by many accounts, a financial disappointment. And while it’s certainly built a cult following over the years, the idea that there are enough fans of the original to help drive Legacy to mainstream success is ludicrous. If there are enough butts in seats on opening weekend, it’s going to be on account of Disney’s non-stop marketing of this film, and not due to some connection with a niche/cult classic, no matter how much foresight it might’ve had).

Comic-Con’s usefulness as a marketing tool is limited at best – In the past few years, we’ve seen two phenomena prevail at the annual San Diego Comic-Con: 1) The increasing infiltration of movie studios’ marketing arms, and 2) the continued failure of Comic-Con sentiment to predict mainstream success. Take two examples of films that had spectacular receptions at Comic-Con, both of which failed to translate that buzz into box office success: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Kick-Ass. While Kick-Ass did decently, given the unconventional way in which it was produced, Scott Pilgrim can’t be anything but a financial disappointment for Universal (despite our unabashed love for the film).

Note that I’m NOT arguing that any movie that has a panel at Comic-Con won’t do well. That would be ridiculous. But what I am arguing is that successful movies that are shown at Comic-Con would have done well anyway. Movies like Avatar and New Moon, whose insane and packed panels I was given the opportunity to sit in on, might have gotten a nice little attention-boost as a result of the convention, but Comic-Con is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce success, or even a significant uptick in box office numbers.

TRON has been shown at Comic-Con for the past three years, and at great expense on more than one occasion. Every time, fans have always gone wild and hundreds of mainstream newspapers and movie sites like ours have documented Disney’s marketing efforts. If TRON: Legacy tanks, studios should really question why they’re pouring all this cash into Comic-Con. Sure, it’s a blast for film nerds like you and me, but I highly doubt they are getting the bang for their buck that they think they are.

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All this being said, if I had to put money on it, I would say that I don’t think Legacy will be a box office bomb. I don’t think it will achieve Avatar-levels of success, but $35 million seems way low for a movie with this much awareness (many people are quoting $55-65 million, which would be very disappointing, but not a disaster). However, if opening weekend numbers do come in under $50 mil, you can expect some soul-searching over at the executive offices at Disney.

(An earlier version of this post appeared at my blog.)

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