AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Scott Garfield
This weekend, 20th Century Fox went all in on "Runner Runner," a $30 million drama about online poker starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck, and even though just about everyone bet high on it, the film went bust. Pundits predicted it might debut as high as $15 million, but it earned only about half of that, an estimated $7.6 million, opening in third place at the box office.
Why did the film flop? There were a number of reasons, some of them expected (strong competition from fellow grown-up drama "Gravity"), some of them not (sneak attack by Somali pirates!). Here's the rundown:
Justin Timberlake: He may be the biggest pop star around, but he's still not a bankable movie star. According to Box Office Mojo, his wide-release movies open with an average of $14.5 million. His last lead role, in the 2011 sci-fi thriller "in Time," opened with just $12.1 million two Octobers ago.
Ben Affleck: Sure, the "Argo" director/star is an Oscar darling and commercial favorite -- when he's directing his own movies. In general, however, his wide-release movies open with an average of $15.3 million. (Even "Argo" opened last October with $19.5 million, not far above Affleck's average.) Plus, in "Runner Runner," he's playing against type as a villain, which may have cut further into the movie's prospects.
Poker movies: The card game may be popular, even as a late-night TV draw, but poker movies seldom draw a full house at the multiplex. Not "Lucky You," not "Rounders" (which was scripted by the "Runner Runner" duo of Brian Koppelman and David Levien). The only hit film about power we can think of offhand is "Casino Royale," and that was a James Bond movie.
Poor word-of-mouth: "Runner Runner" earned poor reviews from critics, which matter if you're trying to persuade an adult audience to see your film. Worse, the film generated poor word-of-mouth among those who did see it (as measured by a C grade at CinemaScore), meaning few viewers recommended the movie to others.
Lack of youth appeal: According to exit polling, 70 percent of the audience for "Runner Runner" was over 25. Which makes sense; after all, TImberlake is 32, and Affleck is 41. (Yes, that means there are audiences full of Justin Bieber fans out there who think of Timberlake as an elder statesman.) Nothing wrong with skewing older, except that this is the time of year (that is, fall awards-movie season) when competition for grown-up audiences is fiercest. Case in point...
"Gravity": Everyone knew the Sandra Bullock space opera was going to be big, but no one knew it would be record-breaking big. With its $55.5 million debut, it set a new benchmark for the biggest October opening ever. Pundits had predicted it would premiere somewhere between $35 and $42 million. In other words, not even the most optimistic "Gravity" supporters imagined it would be as aggressive a competitor for adult audiences as it turned out to be.
"Captain Phillips": In an ambush attack by Sony, next week's much-anticipated true-life thriller "Captain Phillips" enjoyed a sneak preview in 800 locations on Saturday night. According to the studio, it played to an average 75 percent capacity. That had to have taken a healthy bite out of the possible "Runner Runner" audience. True, the pirate saga was competing for the same adult audience as both "Gravity" and "Runner Runner." Still, given a choice among three films -- George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as stranded astronauts; Tom Hanks vs. Somali pirates, or Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck embroiled in an online poker scam -- which are you least likely to pick?
The overseas market: Don't weep too much for Fox. In foreign countries, where audiences are less picky, they've already anted up $23.4 million to see "Runner Runner," for a worldwide total so far of $31.0 million. The movie cost a reported $30 million to make, so after all the global ticket sales are counted and the theaters and marketers get their cuts, the movie ought to make a small profit. Is it possible, then, that Fox's marketers over here may not have tried that hard, knowing they could count on overseas viewers to cover the studio's bet?