June 02, 2019

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Box Office: What's Behind 'Godzilla''s Less-Than-'King'-Sized Opening?

Maybe Godzilla needs a breath mint.

Something about the atomic-breath Lizard King was keeping audiences from flocking to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters at the multiplex this weekend. Not that pundits were predicting a monster-sized opening anyway; maybe $50 to $65 million. Admittedly, those would be great first-weekend numbers for most movies, but not for one that cost at least $170 million to make (some reports suggested $200 million), or a movie that's a pivotal part of Warner Bros.' ongoing "Monsterverse" mega-franchise.

In the end, though, King of the Monsters didn't even crack those modest expectations. Studio estimates have the giant reptile raking in just $49.0 million on North American screens. Not even the spectacle of Godzilla confronting three of his most famous rival monsters (Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah) could scare up a full $50 million.

Was it something he said? What could have put potential viewers off? Here are six reasons why King of the Monsters failed to earn a royal welcome.

Reviews. They were awful. Just 39 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. You'd think a monster epic would be review-proof, but older audiences still read criticism, and they're the ones, with their nostalgia for the Godzilla movies of their youth, who could have been a cornerstone of the film's audience. A movie this expensive needs older and younger audiences to show up (and that's using Hollywood's expansive definition of "older" as anyone over 25), but the older ones didn't.

Word-of-mouth. It's not like the critics were being snooty. Paying audiences weren't that ecstatic either, judging by the movie's CinemaScore grade of B+. That's a weak grade for a big, crowd-pleasing franchise movie. Back when anticipation for the movie was high, Godzilla enjoyed strong pre-sales at Fandango. But then, ticket buyers actually saw the film, and it went from an estimated take of about $20 million on Friday to $16 million on Saturday and $13 million on Sunday. That decline suggests that the fans who made a point of coming out to see the movie on opening night didn't recommend it strongly to their friends, or even warned them away from it.

The kids. With grown-ups sitting this one out, Godzilla seemed dependent on younger viewers. Indeed, the main human star of the movie was Millie Bobby Brown, the tween girl from Netflix's Stranger Things. The star of the otherworldly sci-fi/horror series provided a twofer: youth appeal and geek credibility. But there are problems depending on teens for a monster sequel like this. First, it's been five years since the Godzilla reboot that launched Warners' Monsterverse movie universe. Today's teens may have been too young to see or remember that installment. Second, they're definitely too young to remember the decades-old movies that introduced Godzilla's monster opponents. And third...

The competition. A lot of family viewers were still going to see Aladdin this weekend. In its second weekend, Aladdin earned another estimated $42.3 million, making it a close second to Godzilla. Older teens, meanwhile, were likely to check out new horror film Ma, which earned a solid $18.3 million, good for fourth place. Add such youth-friendly top 10 holdovers as Avengers: Endgame, Pokemon Detective Pikachu, and Booksmart, and that's about $18 million more that teens and younger kids didn't spend on Godzilla.

Meanwhile, adults had the choice of seeing the poorly-reviewed Godzilla, or the well-reviewed Elton John biopic Rocketman. (90 percent fresh at RT, A- at CinemaScore.) The latter debuted with a healthy $25.0 million, according to estimates, finishing in third place. When it comes to movies about a garish, over-the-top creature fighting for his survival and achieving earth-shaking notoriety, adults seemed to prefer the Pinball Wizard to the big, tall lizard.

Kaiju fatigue. Analyzing this weekend's box office, Deadline suggested that Godzilla as a character is old news. After all, he's been doing the same thing for 65 years. Plus, we've had so many other giant monster movies in recent years -- the first two Monsterverse movies (Godzilla and 2017's Kong: Skull Island), two Pacific Rim movies, and the Transformer franchise, where the invading alien kaiju happen to be giant robots instead of flesh-and-blood. Add in the Jurassic World dinosaurs and various non-monster disaster movies where cities are destroyed and thousands or even millions die, and you can see why someone -- at least at Deadline -- has had enough.

Nonetheless, the 2014 Godzilla opened nearly twice as big, with $93.2 million, toward a $200.7 million domestic total. Skull Island opened with $61.0 million, toward a $168.1 million North American total. King Kong has been doing his thing even longer than Godzilla has, and no one ever gets tired of watching him go ape. When the King Kong vs. Godzilla confrontation teased by King of the Monsters finally hits theaters, everyone will show up. So the problem is not with the Monsterverse franchise or even with monster epics in general. Last year, even off-brand giant-monster movie The Meg mustered a $45.4 million opening, toward a $145.4 million domestic gross.

If King of the Monsters couldn't generate a higher degree of enthusiasm than that, then maybe Deadline is right, sort of. Maybe Warners didn't do a good enough job of making King of the Monsters look like something we hadn't already seen many times before. Putting a fresh face like Brown's into the mix wasn't enough.

It's not for you. None of the meh response here correlated with the new Godzilla's reception abroad. Overseas, the movie has earned an estimated $130.0 million, nearly three times as much. Like so many other giant franchise movies, that's where 75 to 80 percent of the money is. It's not a big deal if Americans don't care for such a film, as our ticket sales are a small fraction of worldwide gross anyway. So the movies aren't really made with our tastes in mind.

Don't forget, Godzilla and his King of the Monsters opponents all got their start in Japan. They're still huge there, even if, over here, we treat them like illegal immigrants.