“I see a really huge franchise here — honestly, as big as ‘Star Wars.’” the director told BBC 4’s Francine Stock in an interview that aired in May, just before the film was released overseas. “I’m trying to open it up. This is not an innocent plan,” he said.
Which must have made this weekend’s numbers a bit of a gut explosion … er … punch. Off a $97 million production budget (not including marketing costs) “Alien: Covenant” opened in first place at the domestic box office with $36 million, just barely beating out the third frame of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s leading worldwide as well with $66.3 million this weekend, and $117.8 million total when counting last weekend’s international opening (one frame before it was released in the states).
This is not to say that there is no audience for “Alien: Covenant.” But in the age of billion-dollar-earning blockbusters, a high-budgeted film that performs just fine raises eyebrows.
Not for Fox’s distribution chief Chris Aronson, who was “feeling great” Sunday morning, and said the film’s lower opening than 2012’s “Prometheus” was the “normal course of business.” “Prometheus” was positioned as an “Alien” prequel, and the acclaimed director’s return to the franchise he created in 1979. It went on to make $403.4 million worldwide — the highest grossing by far of the eight-film franchise (including both ‘Alien vs. Predator’ movies). Aronson, praising the “efficient and proficient” Scott, pointed out that “Alien: Covenant” was made for 27 percent less than “Prometheus.” “He wanted to go back to the roots of ‘Alien,’ and I think he succeeded in doing that,” Aronson said of what has been described by some critics as a return to form for the director.
But why isn’t “Alien: Covenant” earning more? Critics generally applauded it — the movie currently has a generally positive 73 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Then there was the film’s marketing, which teased out the premise with a series of short films directed by Scott for fans to pounce on and dissect. Also, R-rated franchise blockbusters have become less taboo thanks to the recent success of “Deadpool” and “Logan.”
A crowded summer release can always take part of the blame. At least “Alien: Covenant” wasn’t overlooked like last weekend’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Perhaps audiences are waiting to spend their money on Memorial Day weekend’s releases “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” or “Baywatch.” (The industry would hope so with total ticket sales trailing last summer at this point by ten percent.) “Alien: Covenant” also arguably lacks star power. While Michael Fassbender is a well-known name, that’s about where the list ends, and none of the topliners have much of a social media presence. Then there’s the timeline of the Alien-verse. “Alien: Covenant” fits between “Prometheus” and the original “Alien,” and there is at least one more prequel on the way. But the series has not followed a pre-planned outline like Star Wars, or a book series like “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games,” which could have deterred potential viewers. And despite the aforementioned box office success of other R-rated films, the Alien franchise has a strong association with blood and guts that is both its selling point and an isolating factor. Chestburster is just never going to be for everyone.
Of course, the comparison between “Star Wars” and “Alien” is unfair (even if Scott himself is the one making it). For one, the original “Alien’s” roots were planted in the shadow of George Lucas’ 1977 epic — “A New Hope’s” record-breaking box office success gave studios confidence to create and release sci-fi films, not limited to, but including “Alien.” The “Star Wars” films (including special editions and re-issues) have earned $7.7 billion worldwide. 2015’s “The Force Awakens” alone earned more than all eight “Alien” movies combined ($2 billion versus $1.4 billion). And that’s just considering box office — there’s also the economy of fan culture. Not to mention one is family-friendly sci-fi fantasy, and the other, gruesome, R-rated sci-fi horror.
But in a film industry full of franchises, a benchmark exists for a reason. If “Star Wars” is really what Scott wants, he will have to try again.