The box office failure of “Inferno,” the latest Robert Langdon adventure, is a reminder that even the hottest literary properties have a limited shelf life.
The film debuted to $15 million this weekend, a far cry from the $77.1 million debut of “The Da Vinci Code” back in 2006 — a time when author Dan Brown’s books dominated best-seller lists and made Opus Dei shenanigans the plane read of choice for a generation of travelers. Three years later, “Angels & Demons,” a follow-up to “The Da Vinci Code,” opened to substantially less than its predecessor, but still kicked off to a sizable $46 million.
Perhaps “Inferno” and its protagonist, Harvard cryptologist Langdon, are a casualty of our binge-watching culture. Since Brown’s novels first hit stores, Netflix has created a new distribution method, releasing whole seasons of shows in one easily digestible batch. In the process, viewers have grown accustomed to plowing through hours of content in a matter of days.
“Even a week seems too long to wait for a new episode of ‘Westworld,'” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “We live in a binge-watching world. We’ve been conditioned to get serialized content immediately and these long-lead sequels don’t satisfy viewers who want everything immediately. By the time the next installment comes out, people have moved on to the next thing.”
In the ten years since “The Da Vinci Code” first made its way to screens, the zeitgeist has cycled through several different literary sensations, a number of them “girl” related. There’s been “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” novels, “Gone Girl,” and “The Girl on the Train.” That’s to say nothing of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” and Bill O’Reilly’s on-going meditations on the brutal deaths of assorted historical figures.
Many of these have made their way to theaters. Some have been successes. All serve as reminders of the limited window Hollywood has to convert wide readerships into ticket sales, and the struggles that multi-part literary adaptations face in sustaining interest.
Even films that hit it big, such as “The Hunger Games,” have seen their audiences shrink by the time the credits roll on their finale. Last winter’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” racked up $653.4 million globally, an impressive figure, but $200 million shy of what “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” generated. As more time passed, the audience started to fall away.
Katniss Everdeen ended with more gas in the tank than poor Tris Prior, the protagonist of the truncated “Divergent” film series. That dystopian adventure franchise started strong, with the first chapter earning $288.9 million globally. By the time part three, “The Divergent Series: Allegiant,” hit theaters, fans had moved on, and the penultimate episode racked up a measly $179.2 million worldwide. Instead of ending the series as planned with one final film, Lionsgate, the studio behind “Divergent,” hopes to wrap things up as a television movie that will segue into a separate small screen series. The cast of the film seems none-too-enthused about the change in venue.
Though Harry Potter ended strong in 2011, with the final film in the wizarding series earning a franchise-best $1.3 billion, its upcoming spinoff film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” has had to reintroduce audiences to the world of Hogwarts. It is on track to debut to $75 million next month — a strong result, but a far cry from the last Potter sequel’s $169.2 million debut.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” easily translated its literary success into boffo box office, racking up $571 million globally. However, Universal, the studio behind the film, may have made a mistake by waiting to greenlight a sequel until the first installment hit theaters. “Fifty Shades Darker” opens on Feb. 10, 2017, a full year after “Fifty Shades of Grey” debuted, by which point BDSM may not seem as forbidden or as hot. This time, cognizant of the dangers of longer waits, a third chapter, “Fifty Shades Freed,” was shot concurrently.
Speed is essential when it comes to spinning best-selling novels into box office phenomenons. A film version of “Gone Girl” was underway two years after the novel became a favorite of book clubs the world over. That alacrity paid off in ticket sales. In contrast, six years separated “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s” publication and its transfer to the big screen, and the result was middling grosses and a stalled would-be film franchise. It didn’t help that a Swedish version of the books had already made it to theaters, earning strong reviews and a loyal audience of fans.
Sony knew that the Langdon movies were running out of steam. That’s why the studio halved the budget for “Inferno” and moved its release date to the fall instead of the summer when the previous Brown adaptations hit theaters. However, the studio decided to greenlight the film because the previous movies did impressive business overseas. In this case, “Inferno” is no different. Even as it flames out domestically, “Inferno” has earned $150 million at the foreign box office. Will that be enough to justify more Langdon adventures?
“If they think there’s money to be made, they’ll keep digging,” said Jeff Bock, box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Leave it to Hollywood to beat a dead horse’s skeleton.”
Maybe the solution for the next best-selling series of novels is to take a page from Netflix and release all the sequels at the same time. That would scratch the urge to binge before audiences’ attention gets captured by something brighter and shinier.