When Warner Bros. was crafting its 2019 slate, the studio took pains to offer more than just superhero movies. To be sure, there were lots of masked vigilantes too, but more than any of its big studio brethren, Warner Bros. was willing to take a risk on the kinds of thrillers, adult dramas, coming-of-age stories, and period pieces that Hollywood has largely relegated to streaming services.
But instead of helping propel ticket sales to new records, everything from Sundance darling “Blinded by the Light,” to the gritty action flicks “The Kitchen” and “Shaft” sputtered in spectacular fashion. Moviegoers all but ignored these films, even when the reviews, as in the case of “Blinded by the Light,” were sterling. It’s led to a wildly unpredictable year for Warner Bros.
There have been successes (“Joker,” “It: Chapter Two”), disappointments (“Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “The Lego Movie 2″) and painful flops (The Kitchen,” The Goldfinch,” “Motherless Brooklyn”), leaving a carnivorous gap between the studio’s winners and losers. “Joker” is an undisputed victory with $1 billion in global ticket sales, but even those profit margins might not be enough to mop up all the red ink.
“It has to be so frustrating as a studio,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If you look at these misfires, they’re all unique films. ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ would have been a big hit in the 1990s, but that genre is being phased out.”
“The Good Liar,” starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, only deepened wounds when it debuted this weekend to a muted $5.6 million, becoming the studio’s latest literary adaptation that failed to entice audiences.
And last weekend’s release “Doctor Sleep” wasn’t able to rebound in its second outing. The sequel to Stephen King’s seminal horror classic “The Shining” withstood a painful 57% decline from its launch, pulling in $6.1 million for a disappointing domestic tally of $25 million. “The Good Liar” wasn’t expected to be much of a triumph, given mediocre reviews and practically non-existent buzz, but “Doctor Sleep” was a shocking misstep considering it had seemingly all the elements to become a breakout. Blame it on the four-decade gap since “The Shining,” its lengthy runtime or an inopportune release date, but the $55 million movie looks to be another financial blemish.
“They threw a lot of stuff against a wall,” Eric Handler, a media analyst with MKM Partners, said of Warner Bros. 2019 slate. “Some are only distribution deals, some are co-financed, so it’s tough to get a sense of how much skin they have in the game.”
He adds, “‘Joker’ will make up for a lot of sins.”
A brush fire last week may have led to evacuations at the studio, but the scene on the lot isn’t one out of a disaster film. Despite falling short of the first installment, “It: Chapter Two” collected over $450 million globally and will become profitable from its $70 million budget. “Shazam!” and “Detective Pikachu” were each modest hits grossing $364 million and $430 million worldwide, respectively. And smaller-budgeted horror films like “Annabelle Comes Home” ($228 million) and “The Curse of La Llorona” ($122 million) became huge money-makers.
But when it comes to mid-level fare, it’s been nothing short of a bloodbath. Warner Bros. has now had seven movies this year debut with less than $10 million worldwide. Two of those — Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Goldfinch” starring Ansel Elgort — rank among the worst opening weekends of all time. Both failed to be embraced by critics (in fact, “The Goldfinch” was skewered), a potential death sentence among adult-skewed offerings which are heavily review-dependent.
“When we think about the best adult dramas these days, we think of streaming and TV shows,” Bock said. “There’s so much genre specific [material on TV] that it’s really hard for these dramas in theaters to compete with that in terms of poignancy.”
In an era where blockbusters reign supreme at the box office, studios greenlight mid-budget fare to turn an easy profit. Warner Bros. mitigates damages with co-financing deals and foreign distribution pacts, but it’s become increasingly difficult to justify $40 million price tags, especially when a film like “The Goldfinch” isn’t able to reach double digits at the box office.
“Some movies you wonder why they were made, some you wonder who they were made for,” Handler said. “There’s no place anymore in entertainment for mediocrity. People have so many other options these days. They don’t feel a big need to go to the movies just because a movie is playing.”
Warner Bros. is closing out the year with “Just Mercy,” a courtroom drama starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. The movie has been well received on the festival circuit and could benefit at the box office if it finds itself in the awards conversation. Earlier in December, the studio is debuting Clint Eastwood’s biographical drama “Richard Jewell.” The 89-year-old director’s recent movies have been hit or miss, though analysts suggest it has the potential to become a quiet success in the vein of “The Mule,” which collected $175 million worldwide last year. In terms of marketshare, the studio stands in a distant second place behind Disney, but ahead of Universal thanks to holdover from 2018’s blockbuster “Aquaman.”
Box office watchers predict Warner Bros. will rebound next year with a lineup that boasts “Wonder Woman: 1984,” Harley Quinn spinoff “Birds of Prey” with Margot Robbie, Christopher Nolan’s action thriller “Tenet” and “The Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark.”
“They’re set up for a huge 2020,” Handler predicts. “With two DC films, a Christopher Nolan film and ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ they have good [installments] from big franchises coming up.”