Tonight, Transformers: Dark of the Moon will be unleashed in theaters nationwide. Starting at 9pm, the fan faithful can catch an early screening in 3D while everyone else will get their first chance at midnight should they choose to wait for a 2D show.
In recent weeks, director Michael Bay and Paramount Pictures have put forth an onslaught of promotion that pushes the 3D format as the “must-see” factor of the film. Earlier this year, Bay himself even admitted that the last film had its problems and he wanted to correct them. Whether he did or not will remain to be seen (though early critical response isn’t too positive, even the first film scored “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes) but the issue at hand isn’t “how good does this one look?”…its “how many people did the last film put off?” …
The second Transformers film achieved something only The Dark Knight had done before it: grossing $200 million in its first five days. It went on to gross just over $402 million domestically. Legs weren’t horrid, but they weren’t spectacular either. Word of mouth was incredibly mixed, often very negative, and the film’s respectable DVD sales (just over 9.6 million) were still down about 40% from the first film’s. (Those figures don’t include Blu-Ray which did account for a larger portion of the second film’s market share than the first film’s…but still not enough to excuse the drop.)
In the two years since, fans continue to denounce the second film and I suspect a number of families were put off by the escalation of potty humor and overly-suggestive jokes. Where the first film balanced on a fine line between an actioner for all ages and PG-13 humor/content, the second shifted more toward older teens and young adults — many of whom were disappointed in the film. Add on to that the fact that 3D’s popularity has been declining fast and yet its been the cornerstone of Paramount’s marketing for this film…a truly bold move when every 3D movie this summer has seen a lower 3D gross share than the movie before it, most recently setting a new low with Cars 2‘s 38% (by comparison, films in 2010 were averaging around 55-60% on opening weekend).
What it boils down to is my opinion that the strategy for Dark of the Moon could backfire. Michael Bay has even gone so far as to write a letter to projectionists imploring them not to dim the bulbs on their projectors (a move by some theaters to cut down on their costs) and allow audiences to see the “3D experience” as it was meant to be seen.
Sure, fanboys and Internet movie geeks are probably going to give the film a chance especially with James Cameron himself endorsing the quality of the 3D Bay implemented in the film. But beyond them, who will be interested? Mainstream audiences don’t read movie news online every day and certainly are not following the hype of this film or its 3D. From their perspective, all they likely see is another big Hollywood movie force-feeding them a movie experience that they’re getting tired of very, very fast (whether its for the prices, the distraction, or both). The fact that its predecessor already gives some people pause only steepens the huge mountain to climb for this third Transformers and, as hard as Bay and the studio are trying, their strategy here may be counter-productive. In some ways, this could in fact be the “anti-Avatar” if the film can’t pull a 3D share of at least 55-60%.
The closest comparison lies within the Pirates franchise. Through the first two films, the two series have mirrored each other pretty closely. The first entries in each were both $300 million hits with exceptional word of mouth, ultimately finishing off as each of their summer’s most well-liked (and surprising) box office smashes. Both went on to do huge business on DVD as well. The trend continued with the sequels: Dead Man’s Chest broke the 3-day opening weekend record after posting the second-highest midnight total (behind Revenge of the Sith) at the time back in 2006. Similarly, Revenge of the Fallen became only the second film in history to gross $200 million in five days while doing huge midnight business (just behind The Dark Knight‘s then-record of $18 million) Even the final grosses ended up similar: $423 million for DMC and $402 million for ROTF.
However, looking further past the numbers, not only were legs stronger for the Pirates sequel but it also went on to sell nearly 16.7 million DVDs. The home video market has evolved since then with the advent of Blu-Ray, but that’s still a huge number and represents about 74% more than the Transformers sequel sold (again, excluding Blu-Ray and HD-DVD in both films’ cases). Where Dead Man’s Chest offered a cliffhanger with dangling fates of its key characters, Revenge offered neither and was further hurt by much weaker word of mouth.
What happens next? The third Pirates (At World’s End) opened strongly a year after its predecessor thanks to huge interest carrying over from its predecessors. The extended holiday opening was just shy of DMC‘s overall, but word of mouth ultimately faltered and the film was only able to leg its way out to $309 million. Here the comparison could deviate slightly, but not by much. I suspect Dark of the Moon will do what all sequels do: pay for the sins of its predecessor. Even if word of mouth turns out more positive than the last film, it still won’t likely be enough to make up for the huge drop in admissions from the last film over the opening 6-day frame that I believe will occur. What’s more: no Megan Fox. Maybe its inconsequential, but her presence in the first two surely had at least some pull with teenage boys.
The hardest aspect to this is gauging audience interest in the 3D format. In a best case scenario, maybe it does carry through to strong legs and reminds audiences that maybe not all 3D is bad…but right now, that looks like more of a pipe dream than a reality when it comes to the upfront appeal. Where most franchises only have to face one kind of fatigue (that being “franchise fatigue”) after the first sequel, Transformers has been shouldered with the burden of two major burdens now.
And yet, Paramount is gambling that they overcome both. Overseas, maybe they can…but domestically? Not likely. Pre-sales are way behind Revenge of the Fallen which already had very modest pre-sales numbers the days before release as it proved to be more of a “walk-up” seller. Overall interest seems relatively low here though:
- Box Office Mojo polls: TF3 trails TF2 in “see it opening week” votes by nearly 10% (56% vs. 65% respectively); it even trails the first film’s 62.6% back in 2007 — indicating that even the fanboy audience is less interested.
- Flixster ratings: While it boasts a 94% “want to see” score, that’s from just over 60,000 people…while I don’t have data as far back as 2009, that’s still considerably less than the 74,000+ ratings Pirates: On Stranger Tides had one month ago, a film that similarly had a lot of stigma attached because of its predecessor.
- Fandango: The film only just broke in the top five sellers on Monday…less than two days before release. Even if its another “walk-up” ticket-seller, that’s still a discouraging sign.
- Audience polling: In last week’s tracking, across various age groups an average of 45% said they were aware of the film’s release but not interested in seeing it. The only outlier there was a 26% score among young men (of whom 65% planned on seeing the film, but all other age brackets ranged as low as 33-42%).
Look for the 9pm sneaks to pull in very modest numbers as Paramount has done little to advertise the advance screenings. Even if they had though, many will probably wait to catch it in 2D since the sneaks are exclusively in 3D and IMAX 3D.
The Matrix Reloaded did around $5 million back in 2003 with its pre-midnight sneaks. At World’s End was around $13 million with a similar pre-opening strategy. I expect Dark of the Moon to be closer to the former, though it all comes down to attendance because 3D price inflation will play a bigger role here than any other.
In conclusion, the stigma of 3D plus the lack of incoming goodwill from its predecessor will significantly diminish Dark of the Moon‘s opening in comparison to the 2009 sequel, but all in all it should still prove to be a sizable blockbuster and become the highest-grossing film of 2011 so far (a certain franchise finale may challenge for that crown with in a few weeks though…). In fact, I’m looking more toward a performance on par with 2005′s Fourth of July opener — War of the Worlds — and the first Transformers film itself. Adjusted for inflation, the former did about $138 million in its 6-day opening (where July 4th fell on Monday just like it will this year). The latter adjusts to $177.5 million in its first six days, though that also includes a “half-day” with sneaks (like TF3 will receive) and a Wednesday-falling July 4th holiday. With numbers like this and a big overseas take, it would be hard to qualify the film as any kind of failure, although the 3D share will have a lot to say about the pass/fail mark for 3D itself. There is no bigger litmus test for the format than Dark of the Moon.
At the beginning of the summer, I predicted a $325 million finish. Overall, my feelings are still the same though I fear it will open to even less than I was initially expecting at the time. Final predictions are below, sans the 3-day take which will be finalized by Thursday morning with the rest of the weekend’s predictions.
Midnights: $7.5 million
Opening Day: $40 million
5-Day Opening (Wed-Sun): $144 million
6-Day Opening (Wed-Mon): $159 million