There is nothing more daunting right now in the current franchise-obsessed box office marketplace than launching an original piece of sci-fi/fantasy. This weekend, we’re seeing the Peter Jackson-produced, $110M+ Mortal Engines a casualty of its own ambition to create a brand new world on screen, with a disastrous opening of $7.5M and a running worldwide total of $42.3M.
Rival film finance sources project that should Mortal Engines chug its way to a global gross of $120M–and that’s a lofty projection–it would still lose around $105M. However, they believe it could be much greater, in the neighborhood of $150M, after all ancillaries are factored-in down the road. Some film finance sources who were even asked to participate in the project claim that the production cost is even higher than the $110M being floated around.
The reason why Mortal Engines failed to fire up is inherent in the property itself, an early millennium Scholastic series of novels by Philip Reeve, which, as we can see from the pic’s global ticket sales, is not known or cared about by many. Mortal Engines’ tanking was never a case of problems on the set, a director dropping the ball, or a producer losing sight of the project while juggling several others. Jackson and director Christian Rivers made the movie that they pitched, and Universal and Media Rights Capital were always behind them, fully aware that it was a risky concept from the onset.
The thinking by the production was that Jackson’s name on the project would get audiences into seats, and that clearly didn’t happen. And Mortal Engines’ fate isn’t unlike a number of obscure and expensive sci-fi/fantasy projects that have tried and failed recently, including Valerian and Jupiter Ascending. Name a title since Avatar that has worked in this genre (By the way, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t count – it had the Good Housekeeping seal of Marvel, which put audiences into seats; from there, the film’s soulful story of a young man lost in the universe away from his dying mother and enigmatic father sold itself, together with its zany colorful alien characters and great retro soundtrack).
Mortal Engines centers around a female protagonist, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), and the concept of ‘cities on wheels’ at war, specifically London, which is leading the charge. For Jackson, who produced this movie with a capital ‘P’, solely devoting himself to it after finishing The Hobbit trilogy, he always saw a cinematic quality in the IP and owned the rights for roughly a decade before moving ahead with it in 2016. Jackson wasn’t looking to direct after The Hobbit, and so he entrusted the film to his long-time protégé, Rivers. Rivers’ working relationship with Jackson extends back to being a storyboard artist on Jackson’s 1992 Dead Alive, and he served in various capacities for the Oscar-winning filmmaker, from winning a VFX Oscar on King Kong to directing second splinter units on such films as The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies. The story is that Rivers first reached out to work for Jackson years ago, sending him illustrations. For Rivers, Mortal Engines was graduation day, and despite the pic’s tanking, many say it has a lot to do with the material. Rivers is a filmmaker who knows how to work with VFX on a large canvas, and the best is yet to come from him.
Early during development, Jackson approached Media Rights Capital, who then staged the meetings with studios for co-financing. MRC has a history of swinging for the fences and delivering original, audacious experiences on the big screen. Without them, we wouldn’t have Baby Driver ($227M at WW B.O.), which proved that streaming-obsessed millennials will get away from their iPads and mobile phones and head to the multiplex for a unique action ballet of sound, music and cars. Warner Bros., which made Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with Jackson to a combined near $5.9 billion global box office result, took an interest in Mortal Engines but couldn’t make the numbers work.
Universal, who had made such Jackson projects as The Frighteners and King Kong, took the leap of faith, and we hear it was an all-in meeting with a boardroom of executives from various departments on board, including distribution and marketing, when Jackson and Rivers first came in to talk about the project. Everyone knew the risk here: Obscure property, first-time director, and a fresh-face cast (Jackson, after all, is the guy who launched the careers of then-unknown Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures and Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Rings). But here was an opportunity for Universal to extend its franchise footing with a world-creation series co-adapted by Jackson, and having him being solely devoted to the production gave them comfort. Also, Mortal Engines was a female-led property, and those films, such as Hunger Games, Twilight, and ultimately Star Wars: Rogue One and Wonder Woman, have delivered at the global box office.
Many like to point the finger at distribution and marketing whenever a big project like this goes sideways, and again, with a Byzantine property like Mortal Engines, which did not hit a zeitgeist with young readers in the way that Hunger Games did, there’s only so much lifting either department can do at a studio. “What film is this audience for?” is the question often asked by film financiers, and the assumption here was that fanboys, fan girls, and anyone who showed up for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would be there. This weekend’s mid-December release date is a familiar one for Jackson fans, as it’s where his King Kong, Hobbit and Lord of the Rings pictures were launched. Not to mention, if this film was bound to fail, this weekend is the best date to open Mortal Engines, since it could conceivably be in line for the best multiple ever at the box office, given the Christmas season (Fox’s 2016 clunker Assassin’s Creed opened to $10.2M over the Christmas weekend and posted a 5.3x multiple of $54.6M; not enough for its $125M production cost, but the best that video game adaptation was apt to see at the B.O. on the calendar).
Some like to blame Universal’s marketing, and that the changeover in executives earlier this year had the department prioritizing films like Jurassic World 2, Halloween, and The Grinch. However, Mortal Engines was trailered on Star Wars: The Last Jedi last year at this time, so it’s not like the studio missed an opportunity in generating initial awareness for the film before the masses. What were the one-sheets of Hester Shaw wrapped in a big flowing red scarf suppose to convey? Who is she and why is she so cold? How was that suppose to attract moviegoers to stop what they’re doing and head to the theater? Star Wars: Force Awakens and Rogue One, in displaying their fresh-face characters, had the advantage of the brand getting people in the cinemas. Mortal Engines’ trailers were unclear. What, exactly, was this movie about? Rolling cities is a zany concept. But, again, it goes back to the challenges of selling world-building movies —Valerian, Jupiter Ascending, and Mortal Engines–and they all share the same problems of myriad storylines, making it hard for studio marketing to hang their hats on one angle and zeroing in on that. And, by the way, it’s not as though Uni didn’t spend on this movie. Sources believe that the studio shelled out around $120M WW in P&A. In Hollywood, at least, billboards and one-sheets were everywhere. Uni cut their losses with an exposure of around 30%, with Perfect World and Legendary taking some of the heat in the slate financing, while MRC was in for 50%, we understand.
In typical fashion for most of these sci-fi films, it was chiefly older males who came out at 55% guys, 64% over 25. And when you have a feature that’s built for the price of this one, you need all quads. There was no disconnect between audiences and critics here, with Rotten Tomatoes at 28% Rotten and audience exits at a B- CinemaScore and 66% overall positive on Posttrak, and an awful 43% definite recommend from those who actually watched the movie. If the critics were more on board here, as they were for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, we could be looking at better numbers.
Heading into the weekend, social media monitor RelishMix saw the smoke looming over Mortal Engines online, reporting, “Moviegoers are unimpressed with Mortal Engines, particularly those who have seen the film already. They claim that the movie ‘borrows’ some plot lines, outright steals others, and has very little originality when it comes to plot and character development. Everyone is willing to admit that the visuals and effects are spectacular, but the overall question is, ‘What do effects matter if we don’t care about the characters or story?’ A great example of this sentiment is represented by another contingent, who advises they were downright confused by the multiple villains and their motivation.”
The moral of Mortal Engines is that no matter how much audiences scream for original content, it’s clear that they, unfortunately, just want more of the same: Branded franchises.