Over the past decade we've seen some huge successes in the realm of fantasy movies. "Alice in Wonderland," "Harry Potter," and the "Lord of the Rings" franchises took live action fantasy to a place Hollywood accountants dream of, with billions and billion of dollars showered upon them by adoring fans for the fully realized magical worlds they delivered. Other than that? The situation has been bleak. Such films have lost money during their theatrical runs, and most were also critically reviled, which hurt their prospects in the home video market.
So, what gives? Why are studios having such a tough time delivering crowd-pleasing fantasy films? The reasons are plentiful.
There's No Audience
Technically speaking, everyone in the world read the "Harry Potter" series. "The Lord of the Rings" is the second best-selling book in history, with over 150 million copies sold. "Alice in Wonderland" has had around 150 years to seep into the public's consciousness. Juxtapose this with "The Last Airbender," a television series that started in 2005. The first book in "The Spiderwick Chronicles" was released in 2003, while it took a full 15 years to bring "The Golden Compass" to screen. But all three of these projects faced the same dilemma, a niche audience. All three films attempted to bring in a broader audience, often to the detriment of the quality of the film. "The Last Airbender" came through at six percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a number that you, me and a flip-cam could top this weekend. "The Spiderwick Chronicles" fared much better with critics, earning an 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but it also suffered the most at the box office, making only $163 million on a $90 million dollar production budget. The general rule is that a film needs to generate 2.5 to 3x in ticket sales against their production budget to see a profit, and none of the above films got there, largely based on not having a built-in audience.
Eventually, somewhere down the road, if you release a terrible film it will come back to haunt you. The reboot of "Conan the Barbarian" was derided by four out of five critics, but that wasn't the real problem; the film made a paltry $49 million on a $90 million production budget. It's often difficult to unwind how the critics hating something versus the general public hating something affects overall box office, as both groups are comprised of people. Regardless, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Wrath of the Titans" also qualified as awful, and it caught up to them after the opening weekend.
It's Too Expensive
I'm one of the rare "John Carter" fans, but once they went out and spent $250 million just making it, they were locked into a future where they needed $700 million in theatrical sales to merely break even. Only 17 films over the past three years have pulled off that Herculean feat, out of the 1500 or so that were in theaters, meaning the ambition level was off the charts. What chance did Andrew Stanton have? As his previous films were "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo," it would be hard to argue he didn't know how to make a popular and profitable film. The other candidate for the "bloated" tag is "Snow White and the Huntsman," which was made for $170 million dollars. Because sure, everyone was clamoring for a warrior "Snow White" movie, right?
It Missed the Intended Audience
Speaking of movies no one was clamoring for, we should also take a look at "Mirror Mirror." The original "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" has been re-released three times since 1937, and has made $1.2 billion in theaters (adjusted for inflation). "Snow White" is a franchise everyone gets, and although "Mirror Mirror" was rated PG, it was a far more adult tale than the cartoon version. Thus, they missed their "family dollar" chance, and all because they clearly didn't know what audience they were going for. "Where the Wild Things Are" actually knew what audience it was going for, but it came off as far too creepy and ponderous to grab anyone but the now-adult fans of the children's book. Spike Jonze wanted to make a film that fully realized the tone of the book, but in doing so he alienated huge amounts of potential ticket buyers.
Which brings us to last weekend's "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters." This looks to be a movie that hits two of the four issues presented above, though on the positive side of the ledger, the source material should be known, and a $60 million production budget isn't outrageous for a live-action fantasy. Still, who wants to see this? And, given it is opening in January, what are the chances it is actually good? It's got a dismal rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and although it's set to take this past weekend's box office, that's not really saying much given the competition was "Parker" and "Movie 43," which, well, you can read my review of that debacle here. The long-term outlook for "Hansel" certainly isn't positive, meaning the streak of fantasy misses is likely to claim another victim.