Since Sucker Punch failed to conquer the box office, there's been lots of speculation about why it was a box office failure. Was it too stylized? Was it the reviews? Did it fail to appeal to women or older adults?
Actually, there's a very simple reason why Sucker Punch won't make back its money, and why its box office returns are disappointing. Are you ready? Here it is:
It's because Sucker Punch cost $82 million to make. If it had only cost $30 million to make, it would be considered a triumph.
(Actually, there are different estimates of the movie's budget out there — people have cited numbers anywhere from $75 million to $85 million, but Box Office Mojo says $82 million, so let's go with that.)
In the aftermath of its $19 million opening weekend, box office experts have been saying that relatively low gross is not that much lower than they were expecting. After all, this is a non-franchise movie without any huge stars in it (sorry Vanessa Hudgens), from a director who has a cult following but not a huge mainstream following. And it had an off-the-wall concept that was hard to convey in posters and trailers. You'd have to be a wild-eyed optimist to expect that film to make more than about $20 million in its opening weekend.
So the question isn't, "Why did Sucker Punch only make $19 million in its opening weekend?", it's "Why did it have such a huge budget?".
This is true of a lot of movies that people consider flops — it's not really that the movie bombed, it's that it cost too much in the first place.
I was mildly surprised, the other day, to realize that Batman Begins made almost exactly the same amount of money as Superman Returns — yet, the Batman film is regarded as a huge hit, while Superman Returns is regarded as a flop. The difference: Superman Returns cost between $270 million and $350 million to make, while Batman Begins cost only $150 million to make. (But actually, Superman Returns' budget included $65 million in write-offs for previous failed Superman films, including Tim Burton's. Thanks to Robert Meyer Burnett and Silas Lesnick for pointing this out.)
I get the sense, from reading the trades and talking to people, that we're moving away from the era of over-inflated movie budgets a little bit. We reached a kind of high-water mark with the Pirates of the Caribbean films — the second Pirates cost $225 million to make and the third cost $300 million to make. By contrast, the fourth Pirates movie is being made for a slightly more modest budget.
Here's a partial list of movie budgets, based on publicly released information — obviously, these numbers aren't entirely ironclad, and they disagree with other sources, like Box Office Mojo. But it does give the sense that a lot of movies were being made for $200 million-plus even a couple years ago, and a budget in the $100 million-$150 million range was considered normal. Now, with movie attendance falling, expectations may have been scaled back somewhat for films, unless they're a sure thing — and sometimes even then.
X-Men: The Last Stand cost around $150 million to make, but I've seen a budget of $80 million being bandied about for X-Men: First Class. Reportedly, a big reason why Sony decided to do a Spider-Man reboot, instead of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 4 was because the reboot with a new cast and director could be a lot cheaper. Captain America was made for around $140 million, way less than the Iron Man movies. And there were reports, a few months ago, that Marvel was forcing Joss Whedon to work with a much lower budget for The Avengers than he'd hoped for.
One reason the Bioshock movie hasn't happened, reportedly, is that director Gore Verbinski wanted a bigger budget than Universal was willing to cough up.
(Of course, Hollywood accounting is a thing of wonderment in its complexity, so all of these numbers are make believe to some extent.)
Sure, you don't want the studios to cut corners to the point where movies start looking cheap and silly — a big reason why superheroes and aliens have been making such a huge impact on movie screens in recent years is that we can finally make them look cool instead of tacky. Plus, Inception wouldn't have been nearly as cool a film if Christopher Nolan hadn't had so much money to play with.
But it's really hard to argue that so many movies need to cost $200 million — or that a personal project like Sucker Punch needed to cost $82 million, for that matter. The simplest way to keep a film from looking like a collossal failure is to be honest about what sort of film it is, and give it a budget that makes sense.
To be honest, even though I'm dying to see Guillermo Del Toro's At The Mountains of Madness, it's probably true that an R-rated, $150 million H.P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Tom Cruise would lose buckets of money. It would be a fantastic, epic film, but a box office failure.
Anyway, as you hear people talking about Sucker Punch having been a collossal failure, just bear in mind that they're only saying that because the budget was so huge. It actually did just fine for a small film from a cult director, that wasn't based on any well-known source material. So to the extent that we all enjoy playing Monday-morning quarterback about box office stuff, the real question is the film's inflated budget, not its box office.