Lionsgate execs today are despondent as they try to figure out what went wrong for Conan The Barbarian to only earn a dismal $10.5M from 3,015 theaters. “It’s one of those weekends that gives me a stomach ache,” one Lionsgate exec told me Friday night. “It’s a headscratcher, but it won’t kill us.” But they also know that with Carl Icahn back breathing down Lionsgate’s mane by buying up company shares, and the annual stockholders meeting scheduled for Sept. 13, this is a really lousy time for this secondary studio to have such a box office bomb. Over the last two weeks, Icahn has acquired 756,840 shares in Lionsgate, growing his ownership to 33.2% from 32.6%, presumably in his so-far-unsuccessful effort to gift his son Brent with a Hollywood studio. Last year, Icahn tried but failed to seize control and, after a brief respite, he’s trying yet again, all the while carping about Lionsgate’s profligate management and moviemaking strategy. Here’s more ammunition for him. First off, being in business with Avi Lerner’s Nu Image/Millennium film company is a dicey proposition at best. Especially when this reboot cost nearly $90M, which makes this weekend’s opening disastrous even if Lionsgate’s exposure was mitigated by the co-production and co-release. Not even spreading the buzz that previous Conan the Barbarian Arnold Schwarzenegger was treated to a private screening and “really liked it” helped box office, which didn’t come near to even Lionsgate’s low-ball expectation of $15M from a wide release.
This R-rated 3D reboot of the 1930s Robert E. Howard original source material, portraying the character as the Cimmerian warrior, was supposed to have a devoted fanbase. And tracking showed strong interest from African-American and Hispanic male moveiegoers. There seemed to be a ton of interest when Deadline’s Mike Fleming broke first news of the remake. That is, until Conan was cast. Even Lionsgate admits that the film absolutely hinged on finding the right Conan, and fanboys reacted horribly to then virtual unknown Jason Momoa even though he has since become a break-out star from his role on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Problem: “There’s so much history with this character and this brand they needed someone who could both really ‘own’ Conan (making him feel relatable for this generation), but also who offered continuity with what fans already know and love. Because there’s no competing with Arnold, Jason’s performance bypasses all of the comparisons, playing the character in a very different way than Arnold did and instead taking inspiration from the written source,” a Lionsgate exec emailed me. I happen to think the studios should have bet on a wrestling The Rock-style star with a ready-made fanbase.
The concensus among Avi Lerner and Joe Drake, who had successfully released The Expendables together, is that Conan The Barbarian didn’t have the “brand equity” they hoped it would. The pair had convinced themselves that the brand was ripe for a reboot and that the fans were ready for it, so they rescued the film from the major development purgatory it had been caught in for so long. The backstory is that Paradox Entertainment bought the rights in 2002 when the brand was hitting rock-bottom, with a bevy of licensed products in the marketplace but also quality and consistency issues at every turn. The duo’s first move was to take everything off the market. Then they connected with select partners to introduce the rehabilitated Conan via just three laser-focused licensed products that appealed to a core demo of young adult males (comics, toys, and a computer game). Marketing generated considerable awareness, with a significant Comic-Con presence (which included: talent appearances, bar invasion promotions, interactive fan experiences at the booth). They targeted Hispanic outreach with Momoa traveling to Miami. They also released an online redband clip to reassure young males fearing this reboot would be sanitized. But it was all for naught. In the end, the execution was just poor, poor, poor. Rotten Tomatoes showed only 26% positive reviews. The director was remake specialist Marcus Nispel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th) and the credited screenwriters were Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood, and Andrew Lobel.