Last weekend saw shocking box office results for a film that paired an esteemed filmmaker with a fast-rising star, and fused them to a hot-button issue that couldn’t be more timely. No, I’m not talking about American Sniper, which posted a record $105.3M holiday weekend. I’m talking about the year’s first big flop, the $70 million Michael Mann-directed action drama Blackhat. The film that stars Chris Hemsworth in a strong lead performance, and deals with the global threat of cyber-hacking we saw play out with North Korea sabotaging Sony Pictures, and ISIS infiltrating Defense Department computers. Blackhat landed in 11th place with an anemic $4.4M opening weekend.
How could a film that on paper had so much going for it — and which, by the way, is a Michael Mann-quality crime thriller with several shocking plot twists — fail so badly? I asked that question of everybody involved, and they didn’t want to compound the loss with finger-pointing. But this was a bad one, maybe the most shocking flop of a star-driven film with a notable director and star since Transcendence, which last year ate up all those The Blind Side winnings for financier Alcon Entertainment. Blackhat goes in the loss column of Legendary Entertainment, which not long ago left a long and lucrative relationship with Warner Bros to come to Universal and tries again shortly with Seventh Son on February 6. When Universal and Legendary inked their deal in July 2013, Blackhat was already in production, having been set up during the financier’s tenure at Warner Bros. Part of the deal entailed Universal releasing the film.
Even though distributors and pundits try to boil box office performance down to a formula, the truth is that there is always room for surprises, and broken hearts. That was never more evident than last weekend’s big winner American Sniper; helped by a highly emotional marketing campaign and a smart platform rollout, that film did twice what Warner Bros expected.
Was Blackhat too complex to properly market in this ADD rapid-fire messaging that defines the challenge of hooking youthful moviegoers to turn up on Friday night? Did Universal and Legendary err, opening Blackhat in a crowded MLK weekend holiday that had action films Sniper and the returning Taken 3, as well as previously platformed Oscar nominees broadening and competing for the same adult audience dollar? Let’s put this one on the slab and perform the post-mortem.
On paper, Blackhat had much going for it. Hemsworth, the rising star of the Thor films; and Mann, who took his signature mastery of shooting architectural vistas and exploring of good and bad guy angst, and transported it to an international stage with venues that included China and Jakarta. The drama is a manhunt for a shadowy cyber-hacker who hobbles a Chinese power plant and manipulates trading on the livestock market and is headed for much worse. The good guys are U.S. government agents guided by an imprisoned master hacker (Hemsworth) and a Chinese soldier (rising Asian singer-actor Leehom Wang) who happens to have been the hacker’s M.I.T. roommate.
This would seem to lend itself to global playability, but the film is off to a rocky start abroad so far. It has so far made $2.2M from 810 playdates, playing below expectations in Denmark, Greece, Poland, Taiwan, Turkey and Vietnam. Sources tell us that there’s a chance the film could get into the China marketplace this March, which potentially could make up a lot of the box office shortfall. Legendary is backing the China-set epic The Great Wall and may hold some sway with the government gatekeepers.
After speaking with insiders and outsiders, here’s where the film may have gone wrong. Start with the marketing, a plan hatched and executed by Universal with input from Legendary and the hands-on Mann. A blur of gunfire, explosions, sex and action imagery that doesn’t reflect some of the film’s most appealing elements. That includes a subtle romance between Hemsworth’s burly hacker and his Chinese counterpart’s sister (played by Wei Teng, who starred with Wang in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution).
Despite its sinister connotations, hacking as a sales tool is nerdy and unappealing. Even though, in Mann’s hands, and with a script by Morgan Davis Foehl, you are made to understand it far more than you did time travel in Interstellar. No one I’ve talked to could figure out an innovative way to make that seem sexy, and to convey the high stakes and sophistication of the manhunt. Insiders pegged this as the major challenge they were unable to overcome and it’s backed up by what I’ve heard was a 61% awareness level of the film when Blackhat opened last Friday.
The film was applauded by tastemaker reviewers like Manohla Dargis, Peter Travers, Kenny Turan and others, and that should have favored a film that drew a mostly older (82% over 25) and 59% male. But it was not universally beloved: moviegoers gave Blackhat a C- CinemaScore.
One would have to lay that blame at the feet of Mann, a very hands-on filmmaker whose controls as producer and director go all the way down to influence on the marketing campaign, insiders said. There were rumors of turbulence behind the scenes as the director whipped the picture into shape, manifested by Blackhat composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ public exasperation of seeing his score get sliced and diced by Mann as scenes got tweaked. There is also sure to be a debate over whether Hemsworth can rise to the level where his presence in a movie puts butts in seats. He hasn’t shown it yet, outside of swinging a hammer in Thor and Avengers movies for Marvel. “His fans didn’t show up,” griped one person close to the film, “and he was in every single frame of the film and piece of the marketing.” Testing for the film was “so-so” per one source, with Mann tinkering with the film up until the end to get it right. Post work on the film was longer than average, not to mention — giving a title to the project. For months it remained on the release sked as “Untitled Michael Mann” until the fourth quarter when it was named Blackhat, a term used for evil hackers (versus Whitehat which refers to those who hack for the greater good).
But there’s blame to go around and let’s face it, the film wasn’t helped by a marketing campaign that failed to convey a sophisticated plot and a romance. Clint Eastwood’s spare style on American Sniper lent itself to spots that created an emotional connection between audience and the film’s characters. Blackhat instead chased a young audience with action footage that did not seem fresh.
“They might have tried a more sophisticated approach with adult themes, in the vein of a Bond or Bourne Identity film, infused with romance to get more women,” said one marketing consultant. Indications that the action-heavy marketing campaign wasn’t working became evident in the tracking. Blackhat hit the tracking charts four weeks ago, and its numbers didn’t improve greatly week-to-week, even though Legendary spent a lot of P&A money. Said one rival studio marketing strategist: “When you’re opening a movie, Friday night is all about the marketing, and Saturday and Sunday are more about a film’s word of mouth.” During the week of January 4, only 1%-2% said that Blackhat was their first choice for a film. On January 15, this grew to 3%-4%, whereas American Sniper was tracking in the 20% range for first choice. Total awareness for Blackhat was in the 40%-50% range on January 4 and grew to 50%-60% on January 15 (versus American Sniper‘s 80%-90%). Insiders feel that Blackhat needed that number to be in the 70&-80% Total Awareness range. The studio screened the movie to tech firms, trying to plug in that audience.
So this comes down to a number of variables in the all-or-nothing arena that weekend box office has become. It is something Johnny Depp will test this weekend as he tried to turn around his cold streak — Lone Ranger and Transcendence — with Mortdecai. No one, not even Warner Bros, expected American Sniper to suck all the oxygen out of MLK weekend, at the expense of Blackhat and even films like the MLK drama Selma. That unexpected juggernaut left Blackhat in need of a marketing campaign for the ages. It didn’t happen. Mann is a premier American storyteller with a finite number of movies left in him, so it is disappointing when a film such as this goes down in the loss column. Perhaps China can give a much needed second wind to a worthy film, and redefine how it goes down for Legendary.