LOS ANGELES • 20th Century Fox's big-budget Fantastic Four went down in flames at the weekend box office, adding to fears about superhero fatigue and calling into question Hollywood's willingness to hire novice directors for major films.
With an estimated production and marketing budget of US$200 million (S$277 million) and directed by Josh Trank, a 31-year-old film-maker with only one previous feature under his belt, the film sold about US$26.2 million in tickets in North America.
That is well below the US$40 million-plus debut analysts expected for the disastrously reviewed movie. It is the worst opening for a movie featuring Marvel Comics' characters since Ghost Rider: The Spirit Of Vengeance debuted to US$22.1 million in 2012.
Fox, facing a ticking clock to make a new Fantastic Four movie or watch the rights revert to Disney-owned Marvel, was trying to reintroduce the superhero quartet to audiences after two Fantastic Four films underwhelmed in 2005 and 2007.
The latest attempt, which took in an extra US$34.1 million overseas, will instead go into the failed superhero movie hall of fame, joining efforts such as Catwoman (2004) and The Green Lantern (2011).
Mr Chris Aronson, Fox's president of domestic distribution, said on Sunday his studio had no plans to let go of the Fantastic Four characters. It bought the rights more than a decade ago, before Marvel made its own movies. "We love these characters and we will find ways to make use of them," he said.
On the box-office results, he said: "I have never seen a confluence of events impact the opening of a movie so swiftly."
He was referring to negative reviews and a renegade post by the director on Twitter last Thursday night that blamed the studio for poor reviews. The comment was quickly deleted, but it had already spread like wildfire online.
Even though Trank had directed only one feature before - Chronicle, which cost US$12 million to make and took in US$127 million in 2012 - Fox was confident in his ability to move up to the major leagues. His inventive Chronicle was so successful that Lucasfilm also hired him to direct a Star Wars spin-off movie.
But the Fantastic Four shoot in Louisiana was marred by his erratic on-set behaviour. Concerned about his professionalism, the Disney-owned Lucasfilm last May forced his departure from the Star Wars project.
The lack of audience support for Trank's movie will no doubt fuel emerging concerns about superhero burnout. Mr Doug Cruetz, an analyst for financial services firm Cowen and Co, last month pointed to possible but "inconclusive" signs of fatigue in a report, calling it "a trend worth monitoring" because of "aggressive investor expectations".
Notably, Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), while still collecting US$1.4 billion worldwide, had domestic ticket sales that fell 27 per cent below the total for the first Avengers (2012). There are at least 20 superhero movies planned for release over the next five years by Disney, Fox, Sony and Warner Bros, in particular relying on lesser-known characters such as Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel and Gambit.
Studio executives strongly dismiss the notion of fatigue, noting enormous advance interest in coming entries such as Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War, Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad. But studios do privately acknowledge that audiences have grown more sensitive to quality.
Fantastic Four moviegoers seemed to hate it, giving it a C-minus grade in CinemaScore exit polls.
For the weekend, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (Paramount) was the No. 1 draw in North America, taking in US$29.4 million, for a two-week total of US$108.7 million. Fantastic Four was second.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS