Why Did 'In the Heart of the Sea' Sink at the Box Office?
On paper, "In the Heart of the Sea" may have looked like a no-brainer: an IMAX-scale adventure epic, made by an A-list director and starring the guy who plays Thor. Plus, it had the weekend all to itself, with no new wide-release competition.
So why did "Sea" sink like a stone at the multiplex? Ron Howard's $100 million film opened in second place, behind the four-week-old "Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2," earning just $11.0 million, according to Sunday estimates. That's at the low end of what was predicted, though few expected it to do better than $15 million anyway.
Looking back, it should have been obvious why the whaling-ship saga would flounder, though there were also some late-breaking problems that the film's producers and distributors might not have anticipated. For instance:
1. The Director
Howard's had an enviable career, filled with critical and commercial smashes. But aside from the two movies he adapted from Dan Brown's best-sellers ("The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels & Demons"), he hasn't directed a film that's grossed more than $62 million domestically in 14 years, since "A Beautiful Mind."
His last feature, car-racing drama, "Rush," grossed just $27 million here, though it cost just $38 million to make and ultimately earned a profit via overseas grosses. But with "Sea" costing a reported $100 million, Howard's recent track record doesn't seem to justify risking that big a budget on his movies.
2. The Star
Chris Hemsworth, of course, was the star of Howard's "Rush." That reteaming alone should have been enough to give the studio pause. In fact, there's no indication that Hemsworth is any kind of box office draw outside his Marvel movies and "Snow White and the Huntsman." When he has to carry a movie on his own, he's never made one that's grossed more than $45 million in North America. Again, that's not the kind of track record on which you risk a nine-figure budget.
3. The Studio
"Sea" is one of many ill-conceived projects Warner Bros. released this year, arguably one of the studio's worst in its history. There were several expensive, high-profile flops, including "Jupiter Ascending," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," and "Pan." (Not to mention cheaper bombs like "Hot Pursuit," "Entourage," and "Our Brand Is Crisis.") Warners only released two movies in 2015 ("Mad Max: Fury Road" and "San Andreas") that grossed more than $100 million in North America.
4. The Reviews
Critics tend to like Howard's movies; "Rush" actually earned rave reviews for both its human drama and its action sequences. But "Sea" has garnered only a 43 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. No doubt Warners was counting on better reviews than that for a Howard movie released at the height of awards season.
And good reviews are still important when it comes to persuading the older ticketbuyers who were the apparent target audience for "Sea." After all, exit polling found that 68 percent of those who saw the film this weekend were over 35 years old. And those viewers gave the movie a B+ at CinemaScore, which indicates only so-so word-of-mouth.
5. The Marketing
Howard is good with tales of adventure and people struggling in dire circumstances, from "Apollo 13" to "Rush." But it's hard to get anyone, even older viewers, interested in 19th-century all-male sailing adventures. (Even 2003's excellent "Master and Commander," an adaptation of a popular novel starring then-hot Russell Crowe, earned just $94 million in North America.) Warners' marketers touted "Sea" as being based on the true-life disaster that inspired Herman Melville to write "Moby-Dick," as if being the source of a book you were forced to read in high school but couldn't finish is a selling point. They also emphasized the whale over Hemsworth, missing the mark with his audience as well.
6. The Competition
"Sea" didn't have to compete against any other new wide releases this weekend, but it still had to face three holdovers that were apparently stronger than Warners anticipated. Besides "Mockingjay," there was Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur" (in third place with an estimated $10.5 million) and Warners' own "Creed," a rare 2015 hit for the studio that's doing better than anyone predicted. It was down just 32 percent this weekend to an estimated $10.1 million. (To date it's earned $79.3 million; by the end of the year, it could be Warners' third 2015 release to cross the $100 million mark.) The distance between first-place "Mockingjay" and fourth-place "Creed" was just $1.2 million, so the competition was very tight.
7. The Force
While "Sea" didn't have any new wide-release rivals this weekend, it does have one that hasn't even opened yet: next Friday's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
Given the frenzied pre-sales for the film, it's possible that both advance ticket buyers and those who are waiting until December 18 simply weren't going to spend much money at all on this weekend's offerings. Indeed, the total sales at the multiplex for Friday through Sunday were just $75.1 million, down 23 percent from last weekend's already dismal numbers, making this 2015's second-worst weekend to date.
At least the prospect of all that "Star Wars" money means that sales for the final two weekends of the year should show an astronomical improvement over this "Sea"-sick session.