When The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opened on December 17, 2014, Kevin Tsujihara, the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, had to realize it was, in some ways, the passing of an era. No longer would these Peter Jackson staples be surefire moneymakers on the backend of a calendar year; after six films and some $5.85 billion in global box office, it was back to the drawing board to find even a modest replacement. For the remainder of the year, Creed and Point Break are their only releases that could have even a modicum of hope for global box-office glory, but they’re modest (and tremulous) at best. For the time being, the studio will simply lie in wait until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice drops in March 2016.
Rather, they’ll wait after Pan opens this weekend, a prospect which should have the studio prepping for a catastrophe not seen since Taylor Kitsch unsuccessfully threw down with the Tharks on Mars. But who could blame them for trying? On paper, Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and Amanda Seyfried as Mary all look like solid choices for guaranteeing consumer interest. What looks less assuring, however, is the choice of Joe Wright to direct, as his entire oeuvre is composed of anti-fantasy entries. Even Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina, films modeled from existing novels or properties, unfold as attempted revisionist takes on their source materials that are conceptual and sensorial, rather than deeply textual. And perhaps that’s what Warner Bros. wanted: a fresh take inclined toward emphasizing the property’s spectacle. But, in doing so, they’ve conflated fresh and oppositional. Wright’s sensibilities are simply too geared toward stylistic flourish to inject sustainable economic life into a franchise that necessitates a hardened storyteller in order to prosper.
While this is an undergirding problem, it’s Warner Bros.’s uninspired and matter-of-fact ad campaign and trailers that are the primary issue. The ads posit the film as a new, fantasy tent pole without displaying any form of singularity or innovation regarding this steadily dwindling subgenre. In a recent interview with Comingsoon.net, Wright explains his attraction to the material: “What was surprising about the screenplay is that it felt like the most original screenplay I’d ever read, and yet, it was based on material that was everywhere. So that was kind of an interesting contradiction, and it felt like a complete kind of reimagining or reframing of that story.” However, that’s the inherent problem with Warner Bros.’s property resurrection: They haven’t figured out how to market the contradictions. And audiences, historically, don’t like these kinds of innovations, where popular stories are rebooted into unrecognizable or stylistically reformed iterations, whether the efforts result in a good film or not.
Bad reviews will hurt Pan, but they won’t sink it; Warner Bros.’s uninspired $150 million investment and ho-hum marketing will. If the studio is going to get back on the increasingly vacant fantasy-franchise map, they’re going to have to look to original properties that hold an adaptable and readily discernible appeal. For now, they’ll shudder and watch Pan crash and burn with a paltry $25 million opening.