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‘Blade Runner 2049’ Won at the Box Office, but Still Flopped

Heading into a weekend with zero competition and two stars in Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, the ‘Blade Runner’ sequel was primed for a solid showing. A paltry $36 million later, Warner Bros. is trying to assess what went wrong.

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Heading into this past weekend, Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s pioneering 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, was expected to be the box office’s big winner. With a ton of critical praise and hardly any competition, experts prognosticated that the movie would pull in close to $55 million. By the time Sunday rolled around, however, Blade Runner 2049 was performing well below those expectations. In all, the movie—which had a whopping budget of $150 million—made only $36 million domestically in its first weekend.

For a movie that seemingly had so much buzz, and that has two very famous leads in Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, to pull up so short of predictions, which really weren’t all that high to begin with—for context, a $55 million domestic opening would have been the 12th-biggest opening of 2017—is both surprising and unsurprising.

On the surprising side, Ford and Gosling’s star power has perhaps been overstated. With the exceptions of returning roles in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises (can we all forget The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull even happened though?), Ford hasn’t been a bankable box office winner since the days of Air Force One. Two of his biggest blockbusters of this century, Ender’s Game and Cowboys & Aliens, barely made back their budget. You probably didn’t see Morning Glory—and that’s a good thing. Gosling, meanwhile, has found his best success when he shares the spotlight—think Emma Stone in La La Land, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, and Steve Carell in The Big Short, or Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Maybe “make movies with Emma Stone” should be his strategy.)

But even with stars, 2049 was always going to be a tough sell to a broader audience, even as some trailers marketed it as a blockbuster action movie. In fact, those who made the movie actually went out of their way to keep details about the movie limited. Critics were given strict guidelines for spoilers in their reviews, meaning even the many pieces of effusive praise for the sequel were vague. That extended to many of the film’s trailers too, which ditched all semblances of a plot for gorgeous frames of Roger Deakins’s cinematography. For example, that Ryan Gosling’s blade runner, K, is a replicant is revealed within minutes of the film’s start, so it’s not exactly a huge spoiler. But even that’s unclear from the trailers.

Perhaps most indicting, though, there was the a misunderstanding of how popular Blade Runner was as a property to begin with. Since 1982, the movie has maintained a niche fandom, beloved more by cinephiles than a mainstream audience—nowhere near as popular as Star Wars, or even Star Trek. However, a $200 million budget placed 2049 in the realm of the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One and Star Trek: Beyond, and with that came higher expectations at the box office. The money put behind Blade Runner 2049 saddled it with the perception that it was a blockbuster, when the finished product stays true to the original. It’s an artsy, meditative slow burn that once again holds a niche appeal.

The list of less important, but still influencing factors continues: It has the longest run time of any major studio film this year, a fact that became an internet punch line. Additionally, Warner Bros. reported that 71 percent of opening-weekend ticket buyers were male, a fact the studio points to as being most responsible for the flop. “The real trick now is to expand the audience past older men,” Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein told The New York Times.

The lesson to be learned from 2049’s box office failure is a familiar one for Hollywood: It’s probably best to avoid spending an absurd amount of money on properties that have proved to not have a mainstream appeal, especially when the movie’s information gap is nearly impossible to bridge. Unfortunately, that means more of the same and less original ideas. Did you know Harrison Ford is making a fifth Indiana Jones film?