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).
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!