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On paper, it looked as though Pan, the film released this year based on the fictional hero of Neverland, was following all the rules on how to play it safe in Hollywood.
If you want to be sure to make money, many in the film industry say, then you have to create an “event film” — one whose release is in itself considered to be a major event. This means that in the age of ubiquitous smart phones and connected home entertainment, you have to provide compelling reasons — such as explosions and eye-popping CGI — to draw people to a big-screen experience.
You should use an existing set of recognisable characters with a ready-made audience. You should make it fun for the whole family, and try not to stray too far from a plot that everyone expects.
The film, directed by Joe Wright and distributed by Warner Brothers, did all of this and more.
But Pan has been an utter flop at the North American box office, which underlines how unpredictable the business of producing movies and selling tickets can be.
“Film is a relatively risky business. One day you’re a winner and the next day you’re a big loser. Pan, for example, will be a major writedown for Warner Brothers,” says Amir Malin, managing principal of Qualia Capital, a private equity firm that invests in the media sector. “It’s heavy on CGI work, and you would have called it an ‘event film’ but it will have a horrible time at the box office.”
With a $150m dollar budget, the movie produced by Berlanti Productions and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, was probably seen as a potential big-earner that would make enough money to support the studio for some time to come.
Mr Malin says that for a film with a $150m budget that appears at the beginning of autumn, a fair box office opening would be $50m, a good one would earn $70m and anything above that would be excellent.
According to Box Office Mojo, the film data provider, Pan earned just $15.3m in its opening weekend.
What went wrong? Many critics said the film was terrible. Yet scan the list of blockbusters which have done best so far this year and it is clear that audiences are happy to keep an open mind.
This unpredictability, however, is why filmmakers have been looking for ways to spread their risk to make sure they do not simply lose tens of millions of dollars.
Even in the case of a poor start, analysts say it is possible that Pan will break even for the studio in the long term — after it is sold to TV networks, streaming services and international consumers, who unexpectedly stepped in to lift the fortunes of films such as San Andreas and Terminator Genisys this year.
Perhaps later fans will discover something charming, profound, or “so-bad-it-is-good” in the feature and move it into cult film territory. Or a line of toys could take off with children who could not care less about box office success.
Analysts and experts are still scratching their heads for lessons from the likes of Pan. If there is one, it may be that no matter how many times a particular story or formula has worked before, there are no guarantees in Hollywood that they will take you to Neverland.
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