Legend of Tarzan now stands at $347.2M global box office gross. How much more is there? Following is a realistic assessment and explanation of where the film is, and where it will likely end up when the dust is settled from the theatrical run.
First, Some Perspective
It would be good to remember that coming into the opening weekend, the average box office prediction for domestic was a $24-30M opening weekend and $64-80M final domestic gross, with global gross in the $150-180M range. Thus the film out has far outperformed the expectation of the experts, and in doing so has clearly established “proof of concept” that a Tarzan film can, in 2016, earn a very respectable box office gross — even when saddled with the burden of largely negative reviews. If the film had been made for a budget of $125M and achieved these results, it would be a clear success. The only thing keeping it from already being deemed successful is the fact that the budget (or more properly the “production investment”) was, apparently, $180M, which moves the bar for success higher.
What is the “Success” Point?
Determining actual profitability for a Hollywood studio release is an elusive, almost impossible task because of the many income streams that have to be considered; the length of time (10 years, usually) over which meaningful income is received; and the fact that studios virtually never release individual film income statements–and even if they did, Hollywood accounting practices would only further obscure any question of “profitability”. In that environment, analysts have reverted to certain “shorthand” techniques by which they evaluate a film as either successful or not, and the most common of these is the 2x multiplier (also 2.5x, or 3x, depending on what “expert” is using it) — a shorthand in which a film is deemed “successful” (not, not “profitable”) if it achieves “2x production budget” in global box office; or 2.5x, or 3x. It is important to understand that this is shorthand; it’s not saying that at the moment a film achieves 2x production budget it is profitable. It is saying that if a film achieves 2x production budget at the global box office; then it is reasonable to assume that when all income streams are considered and realized, it will become profitable, or at least close enough to profitable for the studio to regard it as a success and possibly consider things like sequels.
Why is it 2x, 2.5x, or even 3x?
The reason that “2x” is sometimes used, and other times it goes higher, is because first of all the central truth of Hollywood is “nobody knows nuthin”” and all of this is speculation that is less than fully informed. Hence the variation. The multiplier does not consider the marketing investment, and depending on the level of the production budget and the approach taken to marketing, the marketing investment can be anywhere from “.3 x production budget” to “5x production budget”. For example, Legend of Tarzan with a production investment of 180M and a marketing investment of, let’s say, $90M, would have a situation where marketing was .5x, whereas a comedy made for $50M with a marketing budget of $75M would have a situation where marketing is 1.5x production budget. In the latter case, the “sucess multiplier” would be loser to 3x production budget. For Legend of Tarzan, in this scenario, it would be closer to 2x. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Why? Because first of all, LOT had a very large production budget, and second of all, it had a very modest promotional push for a film of that budget. Those two factors, I will argue as long as anyone will listen to me, mean that the 2x multiplier is a more realistic “success point” for LOT than 2.5x. Are there counterarguments that would drive it back up toward 2.5x? Well, yeah. But the bottom line is that proponents of a franchise for Legend of Tarzan can credibly make the case that Legend of Tarzan, with a performance “in the range of 2x production budget”, should be regarded as a success with certain caveats. We’ll get to the caveats in a minute.
The Box Office Gross Bottom Line?
I have looked at the numbers from every angle, looking for pockets of additional earning that may be out there. For example, perhaps WB has something up its sleeve for second run theaters that could cause a surprising surge that would get another million or two from US box office. Or maybe there’s a surprise waiting out there in foreign. But I have to be realistic and tell you that if the same patterns that apply to almost all other movies end up applying to Legend of Tarzan, we are looking at a final Box Office Gross that falls just short of reaching $360M. Domestic will top out not too far north of $127M, thanks in part to a surprisingly precipitous drop in theaters as Suicide Squad came out. (LOT is at 330 theaters with about $2M left to go; whereas without the “big drop” caused by Suicide Squad it would currently be at around 650 theaters with $5M left to go.) Meanwhile foreign is at $222M with $4M on the most recent weekend. That would translate to about $6M in the most recent foreign week, with no country earlier than week 3, so figure best case, 3m, 1.5m, .75m, etc — another $6M foreign? Maybe a surprise and it’s $8M. So crunch all of that an you get from $347M to $357M, and maybe you get to $360M if things fall right, which would be great, because that would be 2x budget. But $400M? No.
At What Point s a Sequel Likely? Possible?
Coming in to all this, I said that $400M would be the point at which a sequel would be likely. I’m not changing that. But that was “likely”. Now let’s talk about “possible”. Looking at it purely from a financial performance point of view, there is more to it than just “was it profitable” or not. A sequel has a number of effects, all favorable, on the first movie. One effect is simply an accounting matter. Development costs and other one-time costs that have to be absorbed by the first movie by itself if there is no sequel, are removed from the budget of the first movie and amortized over the series if a series happens. So all the money spent developing Legend of Tarzan from about 2000 to 2010 plus other one-time costs (setting of design for the mangani, other “setting the design” costs) would get gathered up and the result would be that the $180M budget would be revised down to, say, $165M. So there’s that. Secondly, the ongoing value of the first film would be enhanced by sequels. So there’s that. Then there is the issue of — what would be the budget of the sequel and would it have to be $180M or more, or could it be less? That would factor into a decision. Finally there would be the matter of — how did it perform in specific territories and in particular how did it perform in the high growth territories, especially China? So, purely from a financial point of view, I would argue that coming in very close to 2x budget is enough for the studio to at least consider going forward with a sequel.
The 600 Pound Mangani in the Room
Yes, there is a 600 pound mangani in the room and we can’t ignore it. Legend of Tarzan was met with very, very substantial critical headwinds that included criticism that was simply film-centric–meaning it was about the film not satisfying the critics on purely filmic grounds–and included criticism that was a larger social criticism that attacked the very idea of the film as inappropriate in 2016 because the concept of Tarzan, a white man doing great things in Africa during colonial times, is intrinsically “grotesque” and hence unappealing. Tarzan, the social critics would argue, has passed his expiration date and no amount of story contortions can change that.
Will this social criticism matter to WB executives?
If the film had done $1B at the box office, the answer would be a resounding “no”. Money talks, and that kind of money would talk in a way that overwhelms any concerns over this issue. But the film didnt’ do $1B — it is at best “on the bubble” of sequel/no sequel, and in that zone, you can be sure that the social criticism is like the bags of lead that a horse carries in a handicap race. It will matter.
Does that mean that it’s game over?
This gets into the realm of pure opinion, and I go back to my original point, that in Hollywood “nobody knows nuthin'” and nobody knows more nuthin’ than I do. So one opinion is as good or bad as another. But my opinion is that aside from all the financial arguments, there will be a special burden on any Tarzan sequel to creatively address the social criticism problem in a way that satisfies executives that the uproar will be less than it was this time. Is that even possible?
Believe me, I’ve been thinking about it. Some have suggested that simply going to a “lost civilization” story (Pal-ul-don, or Pellucidar, for example) will solve it. I’m not so sure. The first film was placed into a real world historical setting and while a reboot ten years from now might go the pure fantasy root, I don’t see how a sequel to this particular film with this case and this director could go that route.
On the other hand, from what I’ve heard about their tentative plans for a sequel, it doesn’t sound to me like it addresses the problem enough to overcome the social criticism. Just my opinion.
I do have an idea, though. Meaning — I do have a concept which I think could beat the rap of “racisim/colonialism/white saviorism” ….. but that’s a subject for another day. I just want to mention it because I don’t want to end this on a down not. I do think there is a potential storyline out there that could neutralize the social criticism. So there.
And, to borrow the words of John Carter . . . . for those who will advocate for a sequel — “We still live!”