The first signs of trouble occurred moments before the kick-off at the Champions League final in London on May 25th. Will and Jaden Smith had included the venue as part of their promotional push for After Earth, gathering around a crowd of people for some convenient pre-game promotion. The on-lookers flashed their cameras as Will Smith prepared to take a penalty/photo-op against legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Smith took a couple of steps back, ran to the ball in an awkward stride, and elicited laughter from the entire group as his kick weakly pattered sideways. At the time it seemed like the most embarrassing anecdote that would come from After Earth.
What a difference an opening weekend makes.
The post-apocalyptic father-son sci-fi adventure crash-landed at the North American box office last weekend, preceded by reviews that warned audiences about the film's eerie parallels with Scientology. It all quickly delved into a word-of-mouth nightmare, unmitigated by a lackluster B CinemaScore. The $27.5 million opening weekend placed After Earth in third, behind the second week of Fast & Furious 6 and the opening of Summit's badass magician caper, Now You See Me. Will Smith, who had opened every single of his summer movies at No. 1 for the last two decades, was beaten by a hold-over and an ensemble movie about magicians starring Jesse Eisenberg.
Sony was quick to deflect immediate criticism by singling out the film's global potential, referring to this weekend's worldwide expansion to over 60 territories. Smith's summer films have enjoyed great overseas numbers. His last three summer outings were hugely successful abroad, including a $445.8 million take for Men in Black 3, $396.4 million for Hancock, and $328.9 million for I am Legend. Smith knows how to play the global market, and the extensive international promotional tour for After Earth has had its share of bright moments away from the soccer field.
The star's global appeal is hard to ignore. I'll never forget his appearance in a late night talk show in Mexico, smiling through an interview conducted entirely in Spanish, his charisma making up for the fact he had no idea what was going on. I can't think of a single other African-American actor who has been so embraced and commercially successful in Mexico. Chalk it up to the syndicated re-runs of Fresh Prince of Bel Air that aired every weekday afternoon in syndication on network television for over a decade. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gave Will Smith exposure on a daily basis, keeping him on-screen while his new films would reach theaters year after year. The television show was a massive television hit around the world, serving as a de facto promotional vehicle set on cruise control . As the years pass, however, the syndicated advantage that made Will Smith such a recognizable star no longer applies to younger viewers. This might also explain why Will Smith's dramas like Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness, a conflicting tone to his television persona, have a harder time finding overseas success.
Will Smith's trademark charisma is also absent from the After Earth trailers, where the actor spends the entire time scowling and lecturing at his son. The rest of the footage features Jaden Smith jumping around a post-apocalyptic Earth that more closely resembles an unkempt present-day nature resort in Costa Rica.
Sony made a valiant effort to obscure M. Night Shyamalan's direction in the marketing for After Earth, doing everything up to out-right hiding or denying that the troubled director had anything to do with the production. It is therefore curious how M. Night Shyamalan has become a comfortable target for the film's shortcomings while little has been said about Sony's peculiar marketing campaign.
On the other hand, Sony is merely working with what Shyamalan gave them, which according to nearly unanimously dismal reviews, is not a particularly good movie. L.A. Times critic Betsy Sharkey openly questioned where Shyamalan's career went wrong in her review of the film, wondering if the director's streak of box office duds and poorly received flicks is due to "body snatchers, ones from a planet that has no clue how to make a movie."
M. Night Shyamalan's career has suffered a precipitious decline since Newsweek infamously heralded the director as "The Next Spielberg" in a cover-story during the promotional run up to 2002's Signs. The domestic box office debacle for After Earth is widely being considered as the last nail in a coffin made out of bad films with terrible box office numbers.
I'm personally hesitant to join that chorus. We have a classic soccer maxim in Latin America that could also apply to Hollywood: El futbol siempre da revancha, "There's always the chance for revenge in soccer." Shyamalan is only one hit away from bouncing back and reigniting his career, though that probably won't come from a studio picture. Indiewire's Eric Kohn suggests the troubled director should take a cue from Joss Whedon, who followed his massively successful The Avengers with a micro-budget adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. By scaling back the financial stakes, Kohn suggests, Shyamalan might be able to return to the type of films that made him relevant:
"Prior to "The Happening," none of the director's movies relied on huge, effects-driven set pieces (even the train wreck that set the plot of "Unbreakable" in motion took place off-screen). Instead, his disturbed and perpetually spooked protagonists learned of the threats surrounding them by way of whispered revelations and bizarre rationalizations that were more stabs in the dark than anything else. The most compelling ingredients in Shyamalan's first four movies involved the absence of logic (ghosts, superpowers, God and an antiquated town inexplicably shrouded from civilization) in favor of inexplicable dread. It's that very same element that made them so deeply unsettling and keyed into real life experiences, where the full details of jarring events tend to be obscured by the limitations of how we comprehend them. Shyamalan now has the money and, if "After Earth" has strengthened the bars of the movie jail in which he was already partly incarcerated, probably the time to go back to these low key stories in search of the substance that made him a significant American director." [Read the rest of Eric Kohn's piece here].
Putting Shyamalan in the background as a "hired-gun" director was always a lose-lose proposition for Sony and the filmmaker. If the film succeeded, the director got none of the credit. If it failed, as it has in North America, the director takes most of the heat while Sony is ridiculed for letting Smith appoint him as director. Perhaps it was too much to ask Shyamalan to make a big-budget father-son vanity project into a good movie. Perhaps it's too much to ask Shyamalan to make a good movie -any type of movie- period. As the internet spews more and more vitriol on After Earth ahead of its overseas premiere, it is obvious that Shyamalan's biggest contribution to the film has been as a scapegoat rather than a director.
The film's global numbers might say more about the viability of sci-fi fare in the overseas market rather than Will Smith's box office clout. Tom Cruise delivered with Oblivion earlier this year despite not posting blockbuster numbers, and the scaled roll-out of Star Trek Into Darkness has demonstrated a marked improvement above its predecessor's overseas performance -despite falling behind other titles. There is always the chance that the overseas audience is showing sci-fi fatigue this summer, even if it's only June. After Earth opened head-to-head against Star Trek Into Darkness in South Korea last week, placing third in the weekend box office. Star Trek Into Darkness took the top spot, grossing nearly twice as much as the father-son adventure film. Oblivion has currently grossed $186.9 million overseas, compared to the current $147.7 million cume from Star Trek Into Darkness. Those numbers paint an uncomfortable reference point for After Earth as Sony executives focus on its overseas run.
If After Earth fails to make up ground at the global box office, Sony will likely have to adjust its expectations for Elysium, its second post-apocalyptic sci-fi tentpole of the summer. Sony's summer slate otherwise includes comedies This is the End and Grown Ups 2, another summer tentpole centered around Roland Emmerich destroying the White House (White House Down, featuring a role played by Jamie Foxx that could have easily gone to Will Smith five years ago), and The Smurfs 2. A disappointing After Earth theatrical run won't break the studio's summer, but will place an added weight on how well these other films perform.
This doesn't necessarily signal the end of Will Smith's reign at the box office, as many have (loudly) speculated. After Earth won't live up to Sony's initial expectations, but Smith's position is no different than any other major Hollywood star's when opening a tentpole that isn't part of an established franchise. Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp are only two examples of stars who have recently struggled with films outside of familiar franchises. Will Smith can recover from After Earth, but that wouldn't be the case if something like Men in Black 4, Bad Boys III, Hancock Rises, Hitch Returns, or I am (Still) Legend flopped. Until then, After Earth can only be considered as a misstep for Will Smith, a mistake for M. Night Shyamalan, and depending on this weekend's global numbers, a potential fiasco for Sony.
Fandango tells BoxOffice that Man of Steel is outpacing all other Summer 2013 releases at the same point in the release cycle. That could be VERY good news for the Warner Bros. release.
The superhero flick is today's top selling film on Fandango, putting it ahead of Friday's new releases: The Purge and The Internship.
BoxOffice is currently forecasting a $112 million opening for Man of Steel, but that could change by next week. Even $112 million would be a huge success for a series reboot. Fans tend to approach new versions of familiar stories with some caution. For instance, it's very import to remember that Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins opened to a modest $48.7 million in 2005. Of course, glowing word of mouth quickly spread and it helped launch the property to new heights.
The Hangover Part III edged out Fast & Furious 6 to top the box office in Spain last weekend. The two films combined to outgross the cumulative earnings of all other films in the top ten. The race between the comedy and the action caper shows more distance, however, when taking into account the films' per-screen averages. The Hangover Part III premiered with a $2.6 million weekend and $6,379 average across 397 screens. Fast & Furious 6 posted a strong $2.1 million weekend in its sophomore frame, reaching an $8.7 million cume. The latest Fast sequel edged out the comedy with 531 screens, but was only able to earn an average of $4,042 despite its wider release. Fast & Furious 6 has an outside shot at outgrossing Iron Man 3 in Spain; the superhero sequel has grossed $12.4 million after six weeks. If Fast & Furious 6 can keep its momentum, it could potentially become the biggest hit of the year at the Spanish box office.
Box Office Results for Spain. May 31 - June 2, 2013.
Fast & Furious 6 continued to dominate the Mexican box office in its second weekend, grossing $7.5 million to reach an impressive $25.9 million cume. The action film trounced the competition, placing well above the debut of The Great Gatsby and animated films Epic and Zambezia.
A $1.8 million opening for The Great Gatsby in 746 screens saw the Baz Luhrman adaptation place second over the weekend. It's a solid performance in tune with Gatsby's steady overseas box office performance. Epic placed in third with a $1.3 million take, only a 28% slide from the previous week. Epic is not reaching the same blockbuster numbers that The Croods claimed in Mexico, with the new animated film currently claiming an $8.4 million cume. A limited release for Zambezia saw the film place fourth but post a $2,323 per-screen average -comparable to Gatsby's weekend share. Domestic comedy Nosotros Los Nobles broke another milestone over the weekend, reaching the $26 million mark after its tenth week in release.
Box Office Results for Mexico. May 31- June 2, 2013.
The Hangover Part III had a record-breaking weekend in Germany, where it grossed $14.9 million ($13.2M weekend) in its opening run. The comedy scored the biggest opening weekend of the year and holds the record for the highest-grossing debut of a U.S. comedy in the country. The final part of the Hangover trilogy posted an opening weekend 294% ahead of the numbers from the original, 28% above of the sequel, a 17% improvement over the Fast & Furious 6 premiere, and edged out the Iron Man 3 debut by 5%.
Fast & Furious 6 placed second with a $6.3 million weekend that set it above the $20 million mark in Germany, reaching a $22 million cume in two weeks. The Great Gatsby held remarkably in its third week, slipping only 7% for a $2.2 million weekend and $11.6 million cume. Epic saw a boost in admissions as compared to the previous week, increasing its gross by 17% for a $2.2 million weekend and an $8.5 million total. Star Trek Into Darkness also held up well in its fourth week, dropping 17% for a $1.5 million weekend and an $18.4 million cume.
Box Office Results for Germany. May 31- June 2, 2013.