"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" was supposed to be one of the Fall's biggest movies, but it suffered from some of the same problems that's bedeviled other films this season: how to find enough of a fantastic audience.
Predictions for the "Harry Potter" spinoff's premiere ran anywhere from $80 to $100 million. After all, it's been five years since the last film set in the Potter universe, and anticipation for a return trip to the wizard-ing world was high, what with a screenplay by J.K. Rowling herself, the franchise's first ever American-set story, and the launch of a new five-installment series of movies.
And yet, after all the weekend wand-waving was done, "Fantastic Beasts" had conjured up only an estimated $75.0 million. Though good enough for first place, that's $10 million below the opening take of "Doctor Strange" two weeks ago, and $28 million behind the $103 million averaged by the eight "Harry Potter" movies during their opening weekends. An opening in the $90 million range would have indicated strong enthusiasm stateside to warrant the five-film franchise plan. Now, the movie will need all the help at the international box office not only to recoup its reported $180 million budget before P & A, but also to justify five future outings at almost $200 million a pop. Would you spend that much on five films when the first film opened to less than amazing results?
Why didn't "Fantastic Beasts" cast a similar spell over the box office? Here are seven reasons, starting with the glaringly obvious:
1. No Harry
Sorry, Newt Scamander, but you're just not the Boy Who Lived. You're the zoologist who traveled. You don't even get your name in the title, like Harry did, eight times. The near total absence of familiar characters in this prequel, set 70 years and a continent away from the actions of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker, but it doesn't seem to have helped, either.
2. No Real Bankable Stars
True, the Potter movies had no stars either when "Sorcerer's Stone" launched the franchise; rather, the franchise was big enough to make stars out of Daniel Radcliffe and his Hogwarts pals. Maybe it'll make one out of Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne, too. But going into the project, Redmayne was anything but a proven box office draw. Even if you loved him as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," that didn't mean you were eager to see him play a 1920s wizard with a briefcase full of magical animals.
3. No Source Material to Inspire Fandom
This was the first "Potter" movie not based on a previous novel, just a fake textbook that popped up on Harry's syllabus decades later. That the plot was a mystery to all Potter fans was supposed to be a selling point, but without a novel to whet fan appetites and introduce the characters and setting, "Beasts" may have proved too confusing -- or just plain too "who cares?" -- for even some hardcore Potterphiles.
4. Potter Fans Are Mostly All Grown Up
"Beasts" attracted an audience that was 55 percent above the age of 35, and just 18 percent were under the age of 18 -- or less than what one would expect considering the target audience. Remember, kids who were Potter fans when the movies began 15 years ago are now mortgage-paying adults, often with kids of their own. That and the fact that "Beasts" is a period drama about adults and not a contemporary-set film about school children seems to have contributed to the adult-skewing polls. It's good to see grown-ups finally returning to the multiplex, but something's wrong when a J.K. Rowling fantasy movie can't enchant a kid audience.
5. Beastly Rivals
Let's start with that other current movie sorcerer. Knocked out of the top spot in its third weekend, "Doctor Strange" is still holding on well, earning an estimated $17.7 million this weekend. Yep, all the grown-ups are back, and they're watching guys with capes perform spells. Or maybe they were seeing "Arrival," "Almost Christmas," or "Hacksaw Ridge," adult comedies and dramas that are also holding up well. The kids, meanwhile, were all seeing "Trolls" for the third straight weekend; it came in third, just a hair behind "Strange." That urgent, must-see-it-the-first-weekend feeling just wasn't there among potential "Beasts" audiences. And that may have been due to...
6. Low Stakes
Harry Potter had to save the world. It's less clear what drives Newt, but even with the Muggle-world catastrophe of World War II looming for the "Beasts" characters, we already kinda know how that one turned out.
Plus, we got to watch Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up on screen over the course of 10 years of movies. No such treat is in store for "Beasts" viewers. So it's harder for even full-on Potterheads to get emotionally invested this time around.
7. Multiplex Drain
Has the success of "Doctor Strange" ended the fall box office slump, or just provided a temporary break from it? It's starting to look like the latter, with total receipts at the multiplex declining for the second straight weekend.
Every new movie underperformed expectations. Teen dramedy "The Edge of Seventeen" was expected to net low-to-mid teens with its 95% "Fresh" RT score. Instead, it came in seventh place with less than $5 million. And no one wanted Miles Teller's boxing biopic "Bleed for This," which flopped in eighth place. Also bombing? Ang Lee's buzzed-about Oscar hopeful "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which expanded wide in its second weekend but wound up in 14th place with just an estimated $930,000, or a measly $791 per screen
Viewers seemed to enjoy "Beasts and "Seventeen," giving "Beasts" an A CinemaScore and the latter an A-. But for paying customers who enjoyed those movies to recommend them to others, they first had to be enticed into the theater.
And yet, clearly, people had better things to do this weekend and last than to go to the movies.