Star Trek Into Darkness is a hit movie — it's just not enough of a hit for Paramount. What does this mean for the future of Trek?
In its second weekend, Star Trek Into Darkness dropped 46.9 percent, slightly more than the first J.J. Abrams Trek movie in 2009. Most box office experts now expect the second rebooted Trek film to fall slightly short of the $255 million that Trek09 made domestically. And yes, STID is performing better overseas, thanks to a huge campaign, but not enough — and studios still care about domestic gross a lot, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here.
Like the first Star Trek, this was a fantastically expensive film, with a budget estimated around $200 million plus mammoth promotional expenses. Star Trek Into Darkness will definitely wind up making a profit, especially when you factor in DVD and VOD and so on, but it's not the megahit Paramount wanted.
Let's just restate the above before we go any further: we're talking about a successful movie, that will probably make a profit.
The thing is, 2009's Star Trek was moderately successful, given how expensive it was, and Paramount was probably hoping that Into Darkness would be the Dark Knight to Trek09's Batman Begins, as Forbes' Scott Mendelson explains here. In other words, the first movie did pretty well, but they were hoping it would set the stage for the second film to be a huge monster hit, not just another okay performer.
And worse news? Star Trek Into Darkness did worse among young movie-goers than the first movie, as The Wrap explains:
Only 25 percent of those who went to see "Into Darkness" were under 25 years of age. That's considerably less than the 35 percent that the previous film attracted, and it's far more older-skewing than the first-weekend audiences for Disney's "Iron Man 3," which was 45 percent under 25, 27 percent families and 21 percent teens.
That makes it a less valuable property to the studios, which really want to capture a young audience. And it also means the series has less of a future, as the people who really want a new Trek eventually die off.
Oh, and the Star Trek game was a pretty spectacular disaster around the same time, which probably also meant the younger crowd wasn't feeling the Trek.
The good news? This movie has scored well with audiences, and has generally gotten good reviews — although obviously people can disagree about that. There's no denying that Darkness has a lot of good will out there, and it's maintaining an enviable 87 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Not that it matters, but I stand by saying "it's not terrible, it has some fun parts, but it's really dumb.") So it could have longer legs in the coming weeks.
The other good news? Star Trek's 50th anniversary is in 2016, and you have to assume that Paramount (and CBS) see this as an opportunity to get extra publicity behind whatever they choose to do in that year.
What is Star Trek's brand?
Lots of people have different theories about why Into Darkness was only a regular hit instead of a massive hit. Like, maybe four years between movies was too long. Or the whole "is it Khan or not" dance confused and turned off regular moviegoers. Or maybe, it just looked too dark and depressing, based on the marketing and stuff.
But none of those explanations really ring true to me. The thing about keeping people guessing about Khan really only mattered to die-hard Trek fans — the sort of people who didn't go to Into Darkness probably barely know who Khan is, based on seeing Wrath of Khan on late-night cable TV. And a four-year gap was not too long for the Batman films.
The explanation is probably more like: There's still a Star Trek ceiling, and it's gotten a little lower since the first Abrams movie. And this movie didn't market itself in a way that explained to people why they should see a Star Trek film instead of Iron Man 3, if they want to see shit blow up. Both movies had almost identical trailers, with shit blowing up and a villain voiceover that explains we're not safe and heroes fail. So if you're only going to see one of those two movies, why Trek?
That, in turn, gets into the question of, What's Star Trek's brand? I know what Batman's brand is: It's "I am the night" and big black cape and punching evil and growling and batarangs and the Batsignal. I know what Iron Man's brand is, because it's Robert Downey Jr. in a metal suit.
Not too long ago, Star Trek's brand was "shields are down to 47 percent" and "transduce the tachyon inverters" and holodecks and bumpy foreheads. And nobody cared about Star Trek, beyond the loyal fans who went to see Star Trek: Nemesis. J.J. Abrams made a pretty decent stab at starting to rebuild the Trek brand with his first movie, based on the Kirk/Spock bromance and some fun space action.
But with Into Darkness, Paramount made an effort to broaden the film's appeal and reach more foreign audiences, by getting "away from the Trekkiness of it all." The trailers, as I just mentioned, emphasize that there's a terrorist blowing stuff up on Earth, and they look sort of like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in terms of cities getting trashed. The fact that a lot of the film takes place on Earth is emphasized, although you do glimpse sequences on Nibiru and Kronos. But for the most part, it looks like any other action movie about a terrorist blowing up cities. On Earth.
Maybe part of the problem is that Paramount did too good a job of downplaying the Trekkiness, instead of making a case as to why people should see Star Trek's "evil terrorist" movie, instead of some other "evil terrorist" movie. This was a brand that was still being rebuilt, and making it look generic maybe wasn't the way to go.
So what's next?
It seems likely that something will happen with Star Trek in 2016, but it might not be another $200 million movie unless Paramount really thinks there's a big payout coming from this slot machine.
The other possibilities are: 1) a lower budget movie, designed to win over people who liked Fast & Furious 6. 2) a new TV show, which could help people reconnect with Star Trek by showing how much storytelling potential it still has.
I'd way rather see a new Star Trek TV show, given that Trek has usually been at its best on television. And with the chance to explore big questions and tell entertaining done-in-one stories, Trek could really spread its wings on the smaller screen if it had the right set of writers. A new TV show could do for Trek what Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have done for Doctor Who.
But we don't always get what we want. And maybe a new movie is more likely, given how much has been invested in launching a movie series. And there are pretty easy things that Paramount can do differently next time, if it wants to pimp a Trek movie to a younger, broader domestic audience.
Like, spring for a movie star who has drawing power on his or her own. None of the Enterprise crewmembers in the Abrams Trek is a star who can open a movie, and Benedict Cumberbatch is the star of a beloved TV show who's never starred in a film before. So for a third Trek movie, they might need to get an actor whom audiences would go see if he or she starred in some random heist movie.
But also, with the 50th anniversary of Trek, it's probably a good time to be reintroducing the notion that Star Trek's brand is "exploration." The latest movie even set that up with the stuff about going on a "five-year mission" at last. This is a series that, at its core, is about exploring new places and discovering new stuff. I really believe that can be made exciting to mainstream audiences, even with the Space Age being arguably over.
So let's hope Trek's 50th year brings a celebration of what's best in Star Trek's legacy, along with something new that builds on those five decades of boldly going.
Update: Corrected the piece to say the 47 percent drop was respectable, although still worse than Trek09.