Here we go again, another big budget swords and knights epic has arrived… and dropped with a thud at the world box office. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword only managed to scrape up a less than royal $14.7 million US opening (behind Goldie Hawn/Amy Schumer vehicle Snatched) against a reported $175 million production budget, and probably that again in marketing spend. With a running total of just under $100 million worldwide after two weeks, this is going to be an expensive misfire for Warner Bros, and it makes you wonder why Hollywood keeps making these kinds of costly ancient epics?
A Long Line Of Duds
King Arthur is not the first in the genre to bomb in recent years. Where Hollywood was once proudly releasing epics like Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, and The Ten Commandments, the audience has since moved onto other genres and usually prefers a faster paced future, rather than wallowing in the past. Recent efforts like Gods Of Egypt, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Kingdom Of Heaven, Robin Hood, Noah, the remake of Ben-Hur, and even the last go round at the Round Table, 2004’s King Arthur, all were released with the same collective shrug by audiences, and the same dismal Box Office returns.
Combined these movies cost a staggering $955 million dollars to produce, and many more hundreds of millions of dollars to market and release. Their combined worldwide grosses come in at about $1.6 billion, so factoring in the marketing spend on these, it’s highly unlikely that any turned a profit for their respective studios. Admittedly this is a simplistic way of looking at things, and the voodoo of movie accounting is its own special witchcraft, but the fact remains that the genre just isn’t a money spinner the way superheroes or Fast & Furious movies are. So, why does Hollywood continue to dip back into the well that is more than dry?
Franchises = $$$
Every studio wants a potential franchise starter, and in an age where they’re making fewer movies for more money, they want to try and get some guarantees before plonking down the big bags of cash. IP (intellectual property) is the new golden ticket it seems, and Disney has shown that a big reliance on IP can bring in the punters and the dollars if done correctly (see The Jungle Book and Beauty And The Beast).
Without the benefit of decades worth of animated classic to remake (or the world’s biggest movie brands in Star Wars and Marvel), other studios are looking everywhere to find the giant money pot at the end of the rainbow. Utilising these legends (Ancient Egyptian, Biblical, Medieval) makes sense; they’re well known, have all the right elements that make up a classic movie story (heroes, quests, love stories, magic), and best of all for the accountants, it’s not in copyright so it won’t cost them a cent for the rights. Cha-ching!
So, Where Does It All Go Wrong?
Besides the ballooning budgets, I think the biggest downfall of these pics is the tone; they’re overwhelmingly self-serious and dramatic. In the Ancient Egyptian-set films this comes across as over-the-top pageantry, and in the medieval and biblical movies, all that dirt and angst just depresses the hell out of you after a while! The audience has changed dramatically in the last 50-60 years and the slowly paced, grand sweeping shots don’t have the same effect on the ADD quick-cut generation.
Going back to the movie that started this rant, by all accounts Ritchie has tried to infuse some of his style and flair into the dreary Medieval setting of Arthur, and the audiences that did go responded well to it (although the critics weren’t so kind). Where Legend Of The Sword failed is that it didn’t subvert or change people’s expectations of the genre enough, so the audience who doesn’t like these movies just thought they were getting more of the same.
Try, Try Again
Unbelievably, the studios are still planning big budget epics in this genre, some for release as soon as next year. There’s a new version of Robin Hood (ya know, cause it’s been 7 whole years since the last one) starring British hunk of the moment Taron Egerton, a gender swap version of Robin Hood called Marion starring It-girl of the moment Margot Robbie, and at one point everyone’s favourite humanitarian Angelina Jolie was trying desperately to get a new version of Cleopatra made.
Now I’m not saying that all of these will fail; if the pieces come together they could even be brilliant films, I’m just saying that they have an uphill battle. However, if they tried to re-jig not just the story elements, but the tone of the films as well, they might just reinvigorate the whole genre again.
There’s no easy answers, but modernizing the storytelling techniques a bit or splicing in other genres (thriller/horror/romance) might help them feel less stale, it worked for Baz Luhrmann after all with Romeo And Juliet and The Great Gatsby. The biggest hurdle is selling the films in a new way to bring modern audiences back; if they get that right and actually get people in the cinema, then the punters might be pleasantly surprised. If they don’t, they’re doomed to repeat the mistakes (and terrible box office) of the past.
What do you think? Are you a swords and sandals kinda moviegoer, or do you stay far, far away? What would make you excited about these types of movies? Sound off on Facebook or in the comments below!