Dark Phoenix was not the X-Men movie that moviegoers were looking forward to: Critics showed that with a 22% Rotten Tomatoes score, while audiences demonstrated that both in exits (B- CinemaScore, lowest ever for the franchise, and an awful 69% positive on PostTrak) and with their wallets, only spending $33M stateside, the lowest debut ever for the Fox/Marvel mutant franchise.
Even though Dark Phoenix is the No. 1 winner around the globe with $140M –down substantially from the worldwide launches of X-Men: Days of Future Past ($262.9M), Logan ($247.4M) and X-Men: Apocalypse ($166.6M), finance experts tell us that the tale of Jean Grey will burn out with an estimated $100M-$120M loss after ancillaries, off a combined production and P&A estimated cost of $350M+ (which includes reshoots). Final global B.O. is projected at $300M-$325M, with one film finance suit telling us “If it drops like a stone, $285M. Don’t forget it was a holiday in China, and even that was pretty low ($45.7M).”
There’s a lot of finger-pointing to go around here, much of it falling on Fox, not new gargantuan parent Disney. It was Fox, in the end, that orphaned the finale of this once prized franchise to the Disney merger. Dark Phoenix completed shooting literally two summers ago, well before the announcement of the merger in December 2017. However, following that, paranoia set in among Fox suits, and, well, that only created further pox on Dark Phoenix.
Much of Dark Phoenix‘s failure comes off the stench of 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which critics pegged before the latest chapter as the worst X-Men ever (47% Rotten RT), and the pic was the second-lowest grossing in the franchise stateside, $155.4M, with its Memorial Day grosses of $79M+ coming in well below the $100M that the industry was expecting at the time. Also, as social media monitor RelishMix observed heading into the weekend, X-Men fans already said goodbye to the mutants with that movie and Logan.
Now, for quite some time, the last two Bryan Singer X-Men movies (Days of Future Past and Apocalypse) and even 2009’s Wolverine: X-Men Origins have been Frankenstein-ed together during their last phases of production. Richard Donner reportedly finished Wolverine, while the village-effort of producer Hutch Parker, producer/scribe Simon Kinberg (both not available for comment on this piece), DP Newton Thomas Sigel, and editor/composer John Ottman picked up the huge slack on Days of Future Past and Apocalypse whenever Singer would reportedly go AWOL from the set. Kinberg, after his long tenure on the X-Men franchise and after finishing directing on Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, was finally bestowed with Dark Phoenix, and with support from the Apocalypse cast, including Jennifer Lawrence.
Now, Dark Phoenix was originally planned to be two movies, we hear, and during late pre-production, the studio changed gears and said it was to be one movie. Kinberg, we hear, was flexible and rewrote. Days of Future Past erased the timeline of The Last Stand, so a rebooted story about Jean Grey was possible here. Our sources tell us that testing Dark Phoenix was a continual headache, and the feature adaptation of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and David Cockrum’s fan-beloved Dark Phoenix Saga comic was hard to get right.
We heard that in one cut, Jean Grey dies, which wasn’t received well. But overall, the major ending change-up, executed in reshoots, entailed going from an intimate ending with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) against Jessica Chastain’s Vuk. The feeling from the audience in testing was that they wanted to see all the X-Men heroes fighting in the end. There have been reports out there that the ending was changed-up because it was too similar to Captain Marvel. This isn’t true: No one on the Fox/Dark Phoenix production side had any intel of what Captain Marvel would be like before it was released. It was the all-team reshoot that pushed Dark Phoenix from its original Nov. 2 release date (which went to ultimate 4-time Oscar winner and Fox blockbuster finale pre-merger Bohemian Rhapsody) to Feb. 14. We understand Kinberg got to make the film he wanted to make, and was flexible about reshoots with the studio. Many would like to feasibly blame a screenwriter-turned-first time $200M production film director on missing the mark here. However, as we wrote, Kinberg demonstrated his finesse in saving previous Fox/Marvel and X-Men productions. Fox production executives could have gone with a more seasoned director, but decided not to, and in doing so, they failed in riding herd on Kinberg early enough. By the time they did decided to ride monitor Kinberg, it was too late, and production was too far down the road.
A note about reshoots: They’re completely normal on a superhero film of this size, and are routinely budgeted. Just because a superhero movie undergoes reshoots doesn’t mean that it’s destined to fail (i.e. Suicide Squad went from dark to funny in tone and dazzled with $746.8M). We hear that Dark Phoenix had even less reshoots than X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse. And this is where we turn to Fox PR and marketing mismanaging the image and perception of Dark Phoenix. Word was leaked and not controlled about reshoots for Dark Phoenix and New Mutants, and when that isn’t managed, it already transmits a message to fans that something is afoul. The headlines on Star Wars: Rogue One‘s reshoots were less so than the public divorce of the studio from original Solo: A Star Wars Story directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and that resulted in the former being a profitable film and the other a stinker.
The odor on Dark Phoenix became more toxic after the studio pushed the film back again from Feb. 14 to June 7 — and this was two days after they dropped the second trailer, which screamed out the release date of Feb. 14! Not only did that confuse fans, but it really sent the message that Dark Phoenix could be a potential turd.
First off, the movie was never intended to be a summer film. Dark Phoenix is darker and more psychologically complex than other X-Men movies. It was always seen as an off-season release, and the original plan was to get out ahead of Captain Marvel (March 8) and be the first female-led Marvel movie.
We hear that Fox Studios CEO Stacey Snider was insistent on the change, and gave James Cameron the better pre-merger release date of Feb. 14 for Alita: Battle Angel after the pricey production was pulled out of the crowded Christmas corridor. Putting Dark Phoenix after Captain Marvel, and in particular after Avengers: Endgame, simply damaged the film’s image further. The best Marvel movies of the year are already set in critics and audience minds, and, natch, innate comparisons will be made. Fox, back in September, said they pushed Dark Phoenix to June after the second trailer popped in China, and opening over this weekend’s holiday was in the pic’s best interest (China beat the U.S. opening, $48.1M to $33M).
This leads us to the mishap of Fox marketing. With the Disney-Fox merger looming, we understand they’ve been a mess, distracted, with a revolving door of execs. We heard this around the time that Alita came out, that the filmmakers were dealing with different people in different marketing meetings. Some folks inform us that ever since Marc Weinstock left Fox as the head of domestic marketing in November 2016 (he’s now over at Paramount), the studio has been challenged to event-ize their slate (i.e. War of the Planet of the Apes, Alita, Dark Phoenix, and even Widows, which played well with audiences. However, give credit where credit is due — Bohemian Rhapsody was a magnificent swan song for the studio).
I understand in meetings, some marketing execs didn’t even realize the release date changes on Dark Phoenix, and weren’t cognizant of the fact that the film was opening up against another franchise this weekend (i.e. Secret Life of Pets 2). Says one source, “They never brought it up in meetings that we were on the same date.” Another bashed the marketing materials: “Sophie Turner is a beautiful actress, and they never showed that in any of the marketing materials. Instead, they made her look like a zombie.”
Once the merger happened, there was little for Disney to do. Materials were already up at CinemaCon at the beginning of April days after the merger. We hear Disney tried to push Dark Phoenix through its vertical integration, i.e. Disney Channel, but they didn’t have enough time and were inheriting a film that already had bad buzz with its reshoots and release date changes.
Dark Phoenix‘s calamity should be compared to the great success of Sony’s Venom. Here’s a movie that had bad reviews (29%) and constant buzz about fights between the pic’s director Ruben Fleischer and star Tom Hardy. Sony made Venom work with a great release date (Oct 5, with the pic posting the month’s best opening of $80.2M), sold the fun and gave audiences a great ride — all the way to $855M worldwide. Sony, led by studio boss Tom Rothman’s eye, willed Venom to its accomplishments. That didn’t happen here with Fox and Dark Phoenix.
Coming away from this weekend, Fox’s greatest loss is Disney’s greatest gain: Even before Dark Phoenix opened, there was talk about how Disney’s MCU is bound to resuscitate X-Men.