At a time when the box office is dominated by popcorn pics, the failure of “Child 44” is a perfect example of the challenges facing movies geared toward adult audiences.
The moody thriller about the search for a serial killer in Soviet Russia earned a paltry $600,000 domestically in its opening weekend and a meager $2.1 million internationally. That does not bode well for a film that cost nearly $50 million to produce.
A movie that offers up plenty of Russian accents, pre-Perestroika official corruption and a high preteen body count is a difficult sell in any circumstances, but in this case, nothing seemed to break “Child 44’s” way.
“When you’re spending $50 million on an adult drama, you have to be sure you have the right pieces in place to pull it off,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “In this day and age, if it’s not produced by Steven Spielberg or directed by Angelina Jolie, it’s not going to make it. It’s just going to look like the kind of thing you see in Redbox that never made it to theaters.”
Lionsgate, the studio behind the film, must have realized it had a turkey on its hands. It opted to release the picture about the hunt for a child murderer in just 510 U.S. theaters, a fraction of the number of screens typically reserved for a film of this size.
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“The marketing campaign wasn’t very aggressive,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
The film’s content was too dark to bring in big crowds and the blood-letting was too restrained to appeal to teens or horror fans, leaving the film in limbo. Critics didn’t help matters, handing the picture a lackluster 25% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Contrino notes it’s also a difficult time to launch a picture for ticket buyers of drinking age, given that indie flicks like “Ex Machina” and “While We’re Young” are taking off with that set.
“It’s a really crowded marketplace right now,” he said. “That makes it tough for things to break out.”
The financial pain of “Child 44″ will be ameliorated somewhat by Lionsgate’s financing structure, which uses foreign pre-sales to limit its downside. CEO Jon Feltheimer has told Wall Street analysts in recent years that using pre-sales as a hedge has limited the studio’s average exposure to about $13 million on each movie. That number will be significantly less for “Child 44,” given that Hunan and another production company are on board as co-financers, which limited Lionsgate’s financial loss to less than $10 million, according to insiders.
“Child 44” may not have had a Brad Pitt or Spielberg behind it, but it did enjoy a certain pedigree. Rights to the book, which received strong reviews and was a Man Booker Prize finalist, were picked up by Scott Free soon after its publication in 2008 with Ridley Scott on board to direct. By 2012, the project was in development at Lionsgate through its Summit division and “Safe House” director Daniel Espinosa was on board with Scott remaining as a producer.
At various points, it attracted interest from stars like Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio, before tapping Tom Hardy, an actor of great emotional power but limited commercial appeal, for the starring role. Perhaps it would have fared better had it opened after Hardy’s next movie, Warner’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which is expected to put up big numbers when it debuts in mid-May.
The failure of “Child 44” isn’t just attributable to a lack of star power and a wealth of competition. Stories that rely on emotion and not just special effects, and that challenge audiences to dig into material that is about more than men in tights, have migrated to the smallscreen. Shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men” and “House of Cards” are filling the niche that “Child 44” once would have comfortably filled, leaving lower-budgeted fare such as “While We’re Young” to compete for what remains of that ticket-buying audience.
“There’s so much good television, many adults just think what’s the point?” said Bock. “People just don’t need to leave their living rooms any more.”
“Child 44” has also been banned in Russia, which could have been a strong market for the film, for alleged historical inaccuracies. On April 16, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky said the movie, which was due to be released two days later, portrayed Soviet citizens as “physical and moral subhumans, a bloody mass of orcs and ghouls.” Medinsky said the film makes Russia out to be “not a country but Mordor.”