Is Disney’s Tron: Legacy going to be a hit or a miss? That’s the question being posed by several box office tracking firms, who are projecting that the film may just be a miss, possibly pulling as low as a $35 million weekend box office take when it opens on December 17. Given that estimates of the film’s budget have gone north of the $200 million mark, TRON: Legacy would have to earn at least $50 million its opening weekend in order to break even.
Of course, this just based on some preliminary surveys, so the $35 million figure may not hold much water. Also, it should probably be pointed out that Disney’s take on the Rapunzel fairy tale, Tangled, was only projected to earn in the neighborhood of $40 million it’s opening weekend last week, but pulled closer to $69 million. Given that TRON: Legacy is set to open on IMAX and 3D screens as well in addition to traditional 2D screens, that $35 million figure feels exceptionally low when one factors in the ticket price bumps for those venues. I think it might be fair to say that box office tracking is not always an exact science.
Box office tracking figures are often arrived at through surveys taken which gage a “typical” potential moviegoer’s awareness of and desire to see certain films. I find it hard to believe that with the amount of promotion that Disney has done for the flick in the last several weeks that there aren’t too many people who aren’t at least marginally aware of the film’s upcoming release.
Now granted, as a film blogger, I am probably an atypical moviegoer. I’ve been following the progress of this film since it was just a faint whispered rumor on the breeze several years ago and have been looking forward to seeing what director Joseph Kosinski has up his sleeve with this film. I’m also of the age to have seen the original TRON in theaters as a boy and for it to great a lasting impression which is helping to fuel my enthusiasm. But then again, there were lots of twelve-year-olds like me who saw TRON in the theaters and on video in the past 28 years and I would imagine that there is a significant number of them are also looking forward to a return visit to the cyberspace world inside of computers that the first film introduced us to.
Walt Disney Pictures is banking more than just the estimated $200 million spent on the film’s production that it will be a hit. They already have a sequel in development as well as plans for an animated series and theme park attractions. If TRON: Legacy tanks, it loses not only all the money it spent of production and promotion for the film, but also all development costs for these already in the pipeline follow-up projects, a potentially huge write-off.
What this leaves us with, is an illustration of the dangers that have come from the corporate blockbuster mentality. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios constantly churned out product for a movie-hungry audience. If a couple of films underperformed, the studio had plenty of more product on the way that would make up those losses.
But these days, things are different. The collapse of the studio system and the rise of the talent agency system leaves us with studios financially unable to produce films in the quantity that they did in the 1930s through the 50s. And less product means greater risk. Studios are unable to offset the cost of a few bad films with the profits of a couple of successful films anymore, as the number of films they have to even out such profits and losses has dramatically shrunk. By placing all of their eggs in just a couple of baskets, studios are taking greater and greater gambles on their very own survival. This problem is only compounded within vertically integrated companies like Disney, who hope that a film like TRON: Legacy is a hit so they can launch numerous related projects across its various corporate components such as television and theme parks. How much of Disney’s projected future corporate earnings are based on their expectations of how successful TRON will be?
Now I’m sure that Disney is a big enough company to absorb any red ink TRON: Legacy may spill on the overall balance sheet. I certainly don’t think that things will get as bad for Disney as they did for United Artists back in 1980 when Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate bankrupted the studio. But the possibility is always there for some other studios. It only took a couple of bad films to place MGM into the financial straits it is currently trapped in.
And a poor TRON: Legacy box office performance also begs the question as to what will happen to some of the other big budget projects currently in development. Will the studio look at scaling back its financial commitment to Kosinski’s planned remake of The Black Hole or David Fincher’s new take on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea? I certainly hope not, as these projects look to be far more interesting family film fare than some of the other upcoming films from other studios like live-action/CGI hybrids The Smurfs and Yogi Bear.