“Mortal Engines,” a steampunk fantasy adventure, is also an epic flop.
With a budget of just over $100 million and tens of millions in global marketing costs, executives at rival studios estimate that the movie will lose upwards of $100 million. Some even project that number could float to more than $125 million. “Mortal Engines” has so far made a paltry $42 million globally. The sci-fi epic came into a crowded marketplace at a competitive time of year, opening against the well-reviewed “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “The Mule,” a Clint Eastwood thriller that had a better start than expected. “Mortal Engines,” on the other hand, launched below estimates, generating just $7.5 million when it debuted in North America.
“This is a true Christmas disaster and a lump of coal for Universal,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They took a big swing, and they struck out.”
The film still has a few international markets left to open, including China, where it is waiting for a release date. However, it is playing in most major territories, including Russia, the U.K., Australia, and Korea, and has failed to find much traction in any of those locations, a fact that does not bode well for its expansion.
“Mortal Engines” has been a marketing challenge for Universal, its distributor. Although the CGI spectacle was produced and co-written by “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson, it’s based on Philip Reeve’s book series that’s not that widely known in the U.S. It also lacks any major movie stars and has a plot that’s difficult to convey in a television spot or a poster. “Mortal Engines” focuses on “predator cities,” mobile urban centers on wheels. These roam around the planet preying on smaller cities, robbing them of resources in order to sustain themselves. It’s a mystifying bit of world building that was frostily received by critics.
“Everybody is having a tough go trying to appeal to that YA marketplace,” Bock said. “It’s a generation gap between studios and what they think young audiences like. TV is getting it right, and movies aren’t.”
The hard-to-comprehend plot was one reason several studios, including Warner Bros. and Fox, passed on the project. “Mortal Engines” was co-financed by Media Rights Capital, which put up half of the money for the film. Universal contributed roughly 30% of the costs, according to insiders, with other studio slate partners such as Legendary and Perfect World, contributing the remaining cash. Its failure ends 2018 on a sour note for Universal, which has had a respectable year, fielding hits such as “Halloween,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” and “The Grinch.”
At one point, Jackson had hoped to turn “Mortal Engines” into a new fantasy franchise. Given the anemic box office results, those dreams aren’t likely to become a reality. Instead, “Mortal Engines” joins the likes of “Robin Hood,” “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” and “Sisters Brothers” in the ignoble ranks of the year’s biggest misses.
Spokespeople for Universal and Media Rights Capital declined to comment.