What the box office failure of Blade Runner 2049 tells us about the state of cinema

Despite being visually stunning with an all-star cast and cult following, Blade Runner 2049 is a loss-making epic in a cinema landscape dominated by endless franchises and tired reboots.

Blade Runner v Thor
Blade Runner 2049 vs Thor – Imagery: @bladerunner @thorofficial

Blade Runner 2049 is going to make a loss. A sentence I never thought I’d write.

A critically acclaimed visual feast starring Hollywood’s hottest property (Ryan Gosling in case you were wondering) and originating from a stone-cold cult classic. They even managed to sign up the hero of the 35-year-old prequel to reprise his role. And not to mention the gravitas brought by high profile director Denis Villeneuve of Arrival and Sicario fame. What could go wrong?

Apparently quite a lot. Reports suggest that Blade Runner 2049 producer Alcon Entertainment could lose up to $80m after the film fell short of the $400m global box office needed to break even, grossing just $240.6m to date.

A variety of reasons have been proffered as to why Blade Runner 2049 failed to spark the interest of cinemagoers. It has been suggested, for example, that awareness of the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner was low amongst the under 25s, who having not seen the original did not feel inclined to try out the sequel.

Others have suggested that the lack of ethnic diversity in the film could have had a part to play. Wired senior associate editor Angela Watercutter expressed feeling put off by the film’s emphasis on the “woes of white guys”. Another explanation is the portrayal of women, which some viewers found to be sexist, being limited to either objects of desire or ruthlessly efficient killers.

Then there is the 2 hours 44 minutes running time. Suggestions have been made that while we can happily binge watch five hours of Stranger Things on Netflix, three hours at the cinema is a stage too far.

The theory goes that our attention spans are now so short that we have become incapable of absorbing an interesting and complex storyline that lasts for more than 60 minutes. We are the Netflix generation, long accustomed to pressing pause whenever we feel like it and staying in with an order from Deliveroo. Three hours at the cinema, who has the time?

Couple with that the fact that Blade Runner 2049 is not part of a traditional franchise of the kind that have dominated the big screen for the past decade. While the film might fall into the sci-fi genre it is at times quiet, minimal, tender and opaque, not like the full-on superhero glamour of fellow 2017 releases Wonder Woman or Thor: Ragnarok.

The Thor effect

According to Fortune, Thor: Ragnarok made $56.6m at the North American box office in its second weekend, the 29th highest second weekend of all time and the fifth best of 2017. In less than three weeks the film grossed $650m worldwide. A great return on investment right?

The Thor franchise began in 2011 with the eponymous first film, followed in 2012 by the character’s appearance in the first Avengers film. In 2013 came Thor: The Dark World, followed two years later by Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cameo in Doctor Strange in 2016 and the lastest, Thor: Ragnarok released on 10 October. Avengers: Infinity War is slated for release next year.

The number and sheer variety of franchise films released in 2017 is staggering. These include the latest Pirates of the Caribbean reboot, Guardian’s of the Galaxy Vol 2, Transformers: The Last Knight, War for the Planet of the Apes, Justice League and Spiderman Homecoming – to name just a few.

Even arguably the most hotly anticipated film of the year – Star Wars: The Last Jedi – is part of one of film’s longest running franchises.

Of course it could be argued that Blade Runner 2049 is part of a franchise (albeit with a 35-year interlude), drawing as it does on the characters, locations and lexicon of its predecessor. 

And yet the focus of the story has shifted to a new character and his internal meditations on loneliness, conflict and what it means to have a soul. Visually stunning and high concept, the narrative is nuanced and refuses to offer the kind of instant gratification or neat resolutions cinemagoers have become accustomed to.

Blade Runner 2049 feels familiar if you have seen the 1985 original, but not familiar in the world of Thor where you cannot go two years without seeing Chris Hemsworth stalking about in a cape.

The worry is that the perceived failure of Blade Runner 2049 will put the kibosh on the financing of new creative projects that might not be guaranteed box office bankers. The release this year of films like Moonlight and Get Out, however, shows that there is a taste for complex, offbeat and lesser told stories. Not every film has to be a cash cow, stringing out the same franchise until near collapse.

If Hollywood is to survive it should take a serious look at Netflix’s billion dollar content strategy, which will see the streaming giant spend more on programming in 2018 than Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures put together. Netflix applies the “tech” mentality of test and learn to its content, investing in a mixture of smaller, niche projects like foreign language dramas in Danish or Swedish, alongside high profile global hits such as Orange is the New Black or House of Cards.

It is important that unusual and intelligent films like Blade Runner 2049 keep being made. Franchises can only hold our interest for so long and despite what Hollywood believes – original ideas still matter.

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