There’s no surefire formula for success.
That lesson was brought painfully home to Lionsgate this weekend after “Gods of Egypt,” its $140 million fantasy epic, collapsed at the domestic box office, opening to a meagre $14 million. Its failure comes at a difficult time for the studio, which said goodbye to “The Hunger Games” last year and will end its “Divergent” series next year with the release of the final installment, “Ascendant.” They leave a gap that Lionsgate is still scrambling to fill.
“Lionsgate is in crisis mode,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If you look at what they’ve released so far this year, nothing has worked. They’ve had the opposite of the Midas touch right now.”
It’s not that the company hasn’t tried to find someone or something to fill Katniss Everdeen’s shoes. Just as they once talked of “Gods of Egypt” as a potential new film franchise, so too did Lionsgate brass once talk up the Johnny Depp comedy “Mortdecai” and the Vin Diesel action flick “The Last Witch Hunter” as films likely to inspire future sequels. Instead they flopped.
And while recent films such as “John Wick” and “Now You See Me” have performed well enough to lead to follow-ups, they’re not merchandising juggernauts on the level of “Hunger Games” or “Twilight,” an earlier hit that gave investors the false hope that Lionsgate had figured out a way to bottle “tween spirit.”
“It’s much easier to ride the wave of success of an ongoing franchise,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “It’s obviously much more difficult to start one. It requires a huge commitment of time, resources and money.”
Reaction on Wall Street has been brutal, particularly after “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” the franchise finale, became the lowest-grossing film of the series. Lionsgate’s stock, which was trading at more than $40 in November, has lost nearly half its value.
The failure of “Gods of Egypt” won’t be ruinous to Lionsgate. Using a stew of tax breaks and foreign pre-sales, the company limited its financial exposure to $10 million on the picture’s budget. That’s one of the reasons that Lionsgate shares didn’t plunge in the lead-up to the film’s disastrous opening, closing Friday up 1.83% at $20.64.
In a statement to Variety, Lionsgate distribution co-president David Spitz said, “We built a strong financial model so we could take a big swing in hopes of creating a new franchise with very little financial risk. The film didn’t work as well as we hoped but fortunately our downside is very limited.”
The financial prudence is admirable, but in the case of “Gods of Egypt,” it was wedded to a creative caution that proved ruinous. First, the film badly misjudged the current desire to see diverse faces on screen. Despite having “Egypt” in its title, the picture’s cast was made up entirely of white actors. It’s diversity was of the pan-European variety, with Scottish star Gerard Butler and Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau bringing a geographically questionable flavor to the Nile setting. The casting prompted a backlash, eventually leading to an apology from director Alex Proyas.
Then there was the film itself. Its CGI creatures, mythical backdrop, and sword and sandals milieu felt ripped off from “Clash of the Titans,” “The Immortals,” and “300.” Moreover, its digital wizardry is out of step with a move in films such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” towards more practical, in-camera effects. What felt fresh and revolutionary five years ago, came off as stale and overly familiar today.
In retrospect, “The Hunger Games” seems like a no-brainer. But it’s easy to forget that Lionsgate was bucking conventional wisdom when it greenlit the dystopian adventure. Jennifer Lawrence was hardly a household name and, at the time, studios were wary of backing action films with female leads, falsely believing that female moviegoers steered clear of violence and male ticket buyers would feel alienated.
Moreover, the subject matter — a story of kids killing kids in gladiatorial combat — would have given many studios pause. Instead, the novel aspects of the film, a sense that it was unlike the comic book movies and toyline spinoffs flooding theaters, was what allowed “The Hunger Games” to draw crowds.
Going forward, Lionsgate is bullish on projects such as a new “Power Rangers” film and an adaptation of “The Odyssey.” Part of their confidence stems from the fact that both are based on known quantities. In an age where it’s getting increasingly difficult to break through the cultural clutter and capture consumers’ attention, that may be an advantage, but the studio would do well to find a new and innovative angle for each of these familiar properties.
There’s a dictum the studio should keep in mind. The writer Gustave Flaubert once advised artists to “be orderly in your life … in order to be violent and original in your works.” In the case of “Gods of Egypt,” Lionsgate’s financial model enabled the studio to keep its fiscal house in order, but its creative team could have afforded to get more savage and innovative in their artistic choices.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the “Divergent” series ends in 2016.