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– by David Kozlowski

Serious science fiction — as a viable film sub-genre — took a major hit when the highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049 crashed and burned last month. This was a $150 million budgeted film that posed big, existential questions about life, society, and memory, while also illustrating (some of) the perils of artificial intelligence. Blade Runner 2049 was expected to be the next great sci-fi film; critics loved it, but fans simply haven’t turned up. Why?

Blade Runner 2049‘s cast is exceptional, the cinematography is spectacular, Denis Villenueve is a great young director, and the core story is brilliant, deep, and complex. And yet, despite a major marketing push, the film has barely earned enough at the box office to cover its production budget — a major financial failure, given that marketing spend these days is (generally) on par with production costs (essentially doubling the overall cost).

Related – Blade Runner 2049 Disappoints At The Box Office Despite Rave Reviews

So what happened and what does this mean for the future of serious sci-fi in theaters?

Recent history has shown that action-adventure sci-fi, particularly major franchises like Marvel, DC, and Star Wars are doing just fine — the expectations for Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi are through the roof. While Blade Runner 2049 definitely contained its share of action and adventure, it was a far more intellectual endeavor, challenging audiences to consider big-boy topics like global warming, racism, and the responsibilities of parenting — not exactly what one looks for in a Transformers movie… nor should it be, action-adventure sci-fi is primarily intended to entertain not inform.

Several real-world factors almost certainly contributed to Blade Runner 2049‘s struggles: hurricanes and wildfires ravaged several major urban centers this summer, the film has a runtime of 2 hours 43 minutes, and (not insignificantly) its R-rating excludes kids and most teens. Additionally, Forbes suggests that audiences typically only attend a single September/October release — Stephen King’s It clearly blew the doors off of the September box office, and there are a LOT more major, family-centric blockbusters hitting theaters in November and December.

When you consider that most Americans only attend two to three movies per year in theaters it’s no surprise that Blade Runner 2049 struggled. In a year with Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Beauty and the Beast, Logan, Dunkirk, The Fate of the Furious, Spider-Man: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice league, and The Last Jedi… realistically, how many people do you think had Blade Runner 2049 in their top three or must-see films? Not nearly enough, quite obviously.

Let’s also remember that the original Blade Runner, which was released in July of 1982, finished twenty-sixth at box office — it took years for this movie to reach cult status. Was 1982 just a down year for sci-fi? Quite the opposite, in fact. 1982 was a banner year for the genre: E.T., Star Trek II, Firefox, Tron, The Thing, The Road Warrior, (plus re-releases of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) — most of these films finished way ahead of Blade Runner that year. Notice a trend?

Sci-fi films interested in exploring thoughtful, controversial, or challenging themes haven’t been a consistent moneymaker at theaters (maybe ever). IMDb‘s top 50 all-time, best-grossing, sci-fi movies is dominated by splashy action-adventure films like Rogue One and Avatar; the first serious sci-fi film in this list is Christopher Nolan’s Inception at number 33, and let’s be honest, this film skews rather action-y; Gravity is number 38. That’s it, just two serious sci-fi films in the top 50.

Maybe Blade Runner 2049 was simply a victim of mainstream audience’s preference for spectacle over substance, at least in theaters. But the execs at Warner Bros. possessed all of the market data, they surely knew the track record for this kind of film, and yet they still funded it like the next chapter of Star Wars. While I admire WB for taking a big risk, it seems like a particularly stupid play — especially given the slate of major blockbusters in 2017 listed above.

Another dilemma for this film, which should serve as a flare for future sci-fi films, the plot of the film was unclear from the film’s marketing (teasers, trailers, featurettes). It was about an evil clown terrorizing kids; Thor: Ragnarok is about a superhero stripped of his power; Blade Runner 2049 is about… what exactly? Audiences don’t want or need 100% of the details regarding an upcoming film, but they do need to be convinced that its contents resonate with them at some level. Even Villeneuve acknowledges that the film’s marketing was a bit opaque:

“I liked the idea that you were supposed to learn it as the movie goes on. As a cinephile, one of my best experiences was when I was on a film festival jury. I had to watch 20 movies without knowing anything about them. You don’t know the genre, you don’t know the country, you don’t know the story. You don’t know if you’re about to look at a comedy or a horror movie!”

Unfortunately, mainstream audiences are not cinephiles. A $150 million film cannot succeed by appealing to the hardcore or purist alone; a blockbuster film like Blade Runner 2049 must connect with a large enough mainstream audience to recoup its costs. Villeneuve’s previous film, Arrival, was quite similar in tone and theme to Blade Runner 2049 (each film has grossed a little over $200 million to-date), but Arrival was created for about one-third of Blade Runner 2049‘s budget.

Ultimately, Blade Runner 2049 was a big-budget, R-rated, serious sci-fi film that will probably be recognized as a masterpiece one day (if not already); perhaps someday it might actually break even. (The secondary market is a money-maker for a lot of bad movies, via DVDs, VoD, airlines, etc.) In a year of major blockbuster flops and ever-declining theater attendance, it’s hard to imagine a major studio greenlighting another serious sci-fi film on a par with Blade Runner 2049. There’s still room for mid-budget films like Arrival, Gravity, and The Martian, however. Also, streaming services, like Netflix or Hulu, could pick up the baton for serious sci-fi too — and we’re about to see what that looks like when David Ayer’s Bright hits Netflix later this year.

What’s the last serious sci-fi movie you saw at a theater? Let us know in the comments down below!

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SOURCE: IndieWire , Forbes , IMDb

  • noahwayne0

    Unfortunately, I think this validates Disney because they are successful just copy/pasting previous work and just putting a fresh coat of paint on it. People will eat it up.

    Creativity is lost.

    • You make a good point, companies like Disney know that mainstream audiences (generally) visit theaters for fun, action-oriented, and straightforward movies. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it definitely squeezes out the more thoughtful and challenging films, like Blade Runner 2049. This is a movie for hardcore sci-fi fans, cinephiles, and those looking for a movie about ideas rather than action… and sadly, there aren’t enough of those folks to sustain a $150 million serious sci-fi film.

      If this film had been made for $50 million, we’d be having a different discussion. Blade Runner 2049 should not have been made as a big-budget blockbuster, it’s a mid-budget, character-based film.

      • SeanDon

        I think that’s the biggest take away. Be smarter when developing slower, character based movies. You can make original, clever movies for less than $150M. Granted, won’t have the same visuals, but at least you’ll break even or make money at that budget.

        Studios are betting more and more on blockbusters, which impacts more than just sci-fi too. Which is sad, every time a small budget crushes it I hope studios will go back to smaller budget, well made movies. Sadly, they’re still in on the all or nothing big budget movies.

  • SeanDon

    Or maybe it just wasn’t very good outside of visuals…
    I don’t consider myself a dumb movie goer, and I personally found the first one boring which left me with little desire to see the new one. Especially when people I trusted said it was better than the first but still kind of a weak story.

    • Thank you for your comments! I found Blade Runner 2049’s story to be very good, and while the pace was a bit slow at times, I wouldn’t call it boring. That said, the original had its own pacing problems too, but the new film is much improved and worth seeing.

      • SeanDon

        Ok. I had always planned to check out the new one once in Redbox, but nothing I heard was going to convince me to spend $15 on it in the theater…$2 on the other hand…

        • 5_deadly_venoms

          You will be bored just like you were with Blade Runner. But like you said for $2 its not a big loss except for the time you lost.

      • 5_deadly_venoms

        No sir, he is correct. Blade runner was boring & Blade runner 2049 was boring as well. Watching it on cable is fine i guess. Paying to see it in theaters? uhhhh no

  • Lane Meyer

    So “Inception” is ‘serious science-fiction’? Since when? I thought in order to be serious, you had to make sense at some point and not rely on the world’s most manipulative score to make things seem interesting. “Inception” is awful.

    Also, the reason “Blade Runner 2049” failed is because it wasn’t very good. The story was crap. It was boring as hell. They spent all of their time trying to recreate the visuals of the original and forgot everything else that makes you care about the film in the first place. I hate that this movie exists. It is the most unnessecary sequel ever made. “Blade Runner” is a perfect film. Ridley Scott is determined to ruin every film he ever made before he dies by sequelizing and prequelizing them to death. He’s killed the “Alien” franchise about as well as I’ve ever seen a filmmaker kill a franchise. “Blade Runner” did not need this stupid sequel. I’m happy it failed.

    • Great question re: Inception. When you look down the list of the 50 top-grossing sci-fi films, Inception and Gravity are really the only two films that qualify as “serious.” I noted in the article that Inception leans toward action, but it also poses big questions about life, death, and love — most action-adventure sci-fi films don’t bother to go beyond white hat/black hat conflicts.

      • Smerdyakov

        Cloud Atlas was a serious sci-fi flick that nobody got..

    • Momitchell

      Speak for yourself… I think Inception is absolutely brilliant! I completely agree with you about Scott and Alien, but I did enjoy BR49.

      • Lane Meyer

        I was speaking for myself.

        I’m fully aware there is a large contingent of people who (quite wrongly) think “Inception” is a great film and also think (also quite wrongly) that Nolan is a good director. We do not and never will agree.

    • Aline

      I totally agree with you about Inception. Manipulative as hell.

      • Lane Meyer

        All of his films are. He relies too much on the composer to gloss over the fact that he is completely incabable of filming an action scene. So instead of a competently structured scene that uses visuals to move the film along, you get BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! BWAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!! to let you know, hey this is cool and interesting! It’s not. It’s one of the reasons why his Batman series completely fails.

        • Momitchell

          So, you’re implying that the van going over the side of the bridge and the dream sequence side effects of all that was happening wasn’t completely amazing, but was only so because my mind was tricked by the music?! sheesh…
          I’d love to hear who your “good” directors are.

          • Lane Meyer

            No, they weren’t. Know why? Nolan was so obsessed with the idea behind the film that he forgot something really important: making you give a fuck about the people going off the bridge. I never cared about any of the characters because aside from the EXCEPTIONALLY unlikable protagonist, all of the other characters were so thinly drawn that he relied on casting to give them character. That doesn’t fly with me. You never cared and therefore when things started happening to them, there was no emotional investment. He relied on a completely manipulative score to tell you when to care and he failed completely with anyone who able to objectively evaluate the film as it unfolded.

            You want to know my opinion of a great director? Stanley Kubrick. He managed to marry every element of his films together to create absolute masterpieces that absorbed every fucking element of the viewer’s attention.

            I don’t expect that every time I go to the movies, but I’m not going to be blind to a director’s failures because he let Batman be dark again.

      • Smerdyakov

        Didn’t play by it’s own rules.

    • Moby85

      Blade Runner 2049 is one of my favorite movies of all time. I would argue the film proved itself to be “necessary” enough, elaborating and asking new themes. It stands alone as a triumph.

    • McCleod

      Actually, the original BR would hzave been crap except Rutger Hauer had a vision of what he wanted his character to be and he worked with the script writer to make it so. Ridley Scott did not come up with that weird Frankenstein’s monster becomes a replicant Jesus malarkey!

  • Kronx

    I loved the film. Whereas the first was film noir that questioned the definition of humanity, I thought 2049 was more of a western that questioned the nature of love. (Kind of a mixture of Unforgiven and Her)

    If I have to point out a problem, it’s that what little action there is in the film is somewhat underwhelming. I especially found the final confrontation a bit weak.

    But most of all, the real culprit was a crappy marketing campaign. Blade Runner 2049 is exactly the kind of film I want to see more of, and it sucks that it’s fallen flat.

    • Moby85

      I like most of your comment but thought the final battle was great. The battle ITSELF, was perhaps undewhelming. But the drama with Deckard chained to the chair, the blasting music, water, and colours made up for it.

      • David Kozlowski

        I agree, that final battle was tense. I enjoyed the movie, but can’t see how it cost 3x more than Arrival.

        • Shieldwolf

          Simple – Harrison Ford’s salary + about 100x more visual and practical effects. I love both movies, but Arrival is a drama that takes place in our reality with the only effects being the ship and the alien crew. Blade Runner 20149 every shot was either a visual effect, a complex practical set or both.

    • M@rvel

      couldn’t have said it better myself. I loved 2049. While watching the film, I felt like every single scene had me going “what the actual fuck??” but after it was over the film had me thinking for multiple days after. That’s when I know a film has really resonated with me. Really hope the film’s lackluster financial performance won’t deter studios from projects similar to it, because it really is what I want to see more of in the Sci-Fi genre.

    • McCleod

      I’m very interested in what makes me human! Except I think it’s things like my abitilty to appreciate a Beethoven piano sonata.

  • Momitchell

    Besides BR49, the last “serious” sci-fi film I saw in theaters was Her, which my wife and I both loved. BR49 was slow, long and I think was taking itself a little too seriously – that being said, I enjoyed it, but I can definitely see why it didn’t do better. I think another thing that probably happened, was that younger audiences, hearing the hype behind this, watched the original in anticipation and saw a slow, long movie and thought “nah… I’ll just watch it on my iphone”.

    • underdogchamp

      Every scene in BR49 dripped with beauty but the run time was a bit protracted for me too. There were a number scenes that I thought could’ve been trimmed yet retain their emotional impact. The one toward the end where a beaten down K pines for his deleted Joi basking in the glow of the giant billboard generic version of her stands out as one. I love thoughtful movies but pace is a key element that must be managed to full effect by director to make a movie truly great. This was the only sticking point for me.

  • Aline

    While watching various other films appeared in my mind: Her, GitS (the animation) and even Fifth Element. My theory is the original inspired so many films that this sequel sounds unoriginal.

    Also this one is not that impactful.

    • Brafdorf

      wrong

      • Aline

        What?

  • Brafdorf

    the reason it suffered is because the “franchise” was never very popular to begin with outside film students/teachers.
    The same thing happened to Tron Legacy.

    Also nearly all of the movies you mention aren’t sci fi, let alone hard sci fi.
    Marvel and DC aren’t franchises either, they’re PUBLISHERS…

  • Moby85

    Yeah I was harping on this after the poor initial reception. It does have the potential to damage the credibility of hard sci-fi. How will we know? If “Dune” gets postponed or cancelled.

    EDIT: This film will clean up on DVD/BluRay/Digital release.

    • McCleod

      Oh yes! We need another Dune! My only nit to pick with the David Lynch version is “Oh look! It’s Duncan Idaho! Who’s he? Nevermind, he’s dead.”

  • McCleod

    Check out Forbidden Planet (1956) which combined Shakespeare with robots, ray-guns, flying saucers, sexy daughter and a wicked monster. Oh yeah, and an electronic music score too. You’ve got popcorn and Walter Pidgeon with a mind amplifier!

    Compare to 2001 (1968) which is kind of boring and prentious at points. It’s one of those movies you need to hit the pause button on. And the ending is all WTF?

    Then there’s Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) which is totally WTF?

  • Victor Roa

    I still believe October is still horror/oscar bait month that means all those films are quick cash grabs for the gimmicks of the month. Under budget films with good ad campaigns still perform better than imagined. And like trying to just jam in a big film which budget is offset compared to everything else is a death wish. Everyone says they are tried of Summer and Winter as the big movie months but you can’t force every other month to be the next big thing, Boo 2 a Medea Halloween did money this month.
    I still feel the industry needs to study more why films are successful and not just ape them. Like Arrival and Dunkirk are fine example of films which had modest ad campaigns and still did a fuck ton.

  • Smerdyakov

    Denis Villenueve may be the critic’s darling but I think the gloominess and stupidity of “Arrival” turned off a lot of sci-fi fans.

    • Brafdorf

      Arrival was well received and most enjoyed it though?

      • Smerdyakov

        Well received by critics. Because it was slow and self-important.

  • WTFITBS

    The film needed a haircut or it could have been Pt. I of a two part film. Also, the whole Wallace character seemed a bit silly with his theory.

    I saw it in theaters last month and there were only six people total in the theater. I agree it was released at the worst possible time of the year and strategically could have been pushed back to early Spring 2018 for a better response from moviegoers that will only have two or three other films they’re interested in seeing that time of year.

  • HORSEFLESH

    It only means that serious sci-fi that costs $200 million is probably a bad idea.

  • Aside from classics becoming such not by being seasonal yearly blockbusters or easy to digest mass-market light fare, but only through time? That’s also the film having an inherent or even subconsciously motivating greatness of some sort to begin with. The basic quality is something that time only builds upon. Also perhaps a lot of the potential target audiences have soured of theaters and grown weary of marketing. More to the point, the problem of sequels or story continuations or origin stories made years or decades. Often if not generally this is just at the wrong time. Many continuations (of whatever sort) that should have hit soon after what came before. But for lack of desire, lack of imagination; lack of the muse; they don’t get made when they should and miss their windows of opportunity. Somebody decides they can go back to restart something that is too late to do. For this movie, 35 years sounds like that. Just like what might have worked for Episode VI would have been a VII in 1990, not a I in 1999.

    For movie goes or fans of a particular film, what is all that interesting about movies likely nowhere as good as their original ground-breaking risk-taking attempts that eventually achieve cult status? One might say that’s because often the follow on movie is actually not as good. That is sometimes true. But these sorts of movies have a long hard road uphill against the wind; they has to compete with themselves in their earlier incarnations. A sequel that’s far out of its window especially, about another character, but with a grudgingly appearing original character no less.

    The perceptions and expectations of the audience who made the first film or films huge and endearing are difficult if not impossible to match, much less exceed.

    And it’s not just that a BR2049 in 1987 or 1990 instead of 2017 might have worked. It’s also, why not just leave well enough alone? What is it that made BR special, how does that go into BR2049. Reaching out for sad tired sequels (even if this movie alone by itself is fantastic) by characters that don’t look like themselves any more, that tell stories many fans don’t want to know, answering questions that many don’t want answered. And there’s little way for this movie to ‘be alone by itself’ unless somebody who knows nothing about the original sees it. Then you have to contend with that issue of a lack of marketing or clarity, the missing headline and topic sentence a new viewer would need. Perhaps that’s why it was left off.

    Those who love the 1982 original (regardless if they gained that love when it came out, or they just finished watching it) probably simply only don’t want to be disappointed. In that sense, what Blade Runner 2049 is like doesn’t matter — it’s how is it, compared to Blade Runner. What information does the second one impart that will make somebody want to forget or reimagine the first one? How do you win when memories fight against you? Maybe the question is, who can you draw in that actually wants to see a sequel to Blade Runner. Many don’t, those happy remembering the original and leaving it alone. They don’t want Blade Runner 2049 replacing the memories. And in that sense, no matter how good this movie is, it is not good enough. It can never be good enough.

    Can this movie get to where the other one already is? That won’t be answered for a few years. Perhaps another 35 years. It’ll probably be “no” though.

  • M@rvel

    why does this shitty article keep getting reposted???

David Kozlowski is a writer, podcaster, and visual artist. A U.S. Army veteran, David worked 20 years in the videogame industry and is a graduate of Arizona State University’s Film and Media Studies.