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Box Office: What Went Wrong with Critic Faves Drive and Warrior

Box Office: What Went Wrong with Critic Faves Drive and Warrior

Thompson on Hollywood

Aren’t rave reviews supposed to push indie films into crossover success? Anthony D’Alessandro investigates what went wrong with Drive and Warrior at the fall box office.

While critics did boost ticket sales for such wide appeal films as The Help (74% fresh Tomatometer and $155 million domestic B.O.) and Contagion (84% fresh, $56 million), they weren’t able to turn things around for Lionsgate’s Warrior ($12.3 million, 84% fresh) or FilmDistrict’s Drive ($21.9 million, 93%). Why? It’s complicated, but one thing’s for sure: the films fell short because both distribs took their films out too fast to fine-tune their roll-out for their real audience. And while both films played well for women once they saw them, neither distrib was able to lure them in significant numbers.

Thompson on Hollywood

The films faced several common challenges: violent content, lack of marquee headliners, and selling to an uber-competitive male-dominated market (Contagion (50%), Moneyball (51%) and Killer Elite). Both were chasing the fickle young male 12-24 target demo–the ones who are often too lazy to get up from the couch. Where they differ is that the R-rated Drive is outpacing the cumulative grosses of the more accessible PG-13 Warrior by 78%.

Both films were ‘tweeners that played better for adults than kids. But the art house crowd was turned off by their violent content, says marketing consultant and former Disney marketing president Jim Gallagher:

“Though both are fantastic movies, based on their subject matter, neither Drive nor Warrior inherently feel like they’re for adults 30+, but rather young males. They both possess violent subject matters that are apt to turn off older moviegoers. When the reviews come in and exclaim that the films are ‘fantastic,’ the distributors are already trying to overcome a negative with older filmgoers who’ve determined that the films aren’t for them, even though they really are. It’s a Catch-22.”

This yields conflicting stats and water-downed receipts: The over-25 bunch who did show up for Warrior (51%) and Drive (75%) opening weekend didn’t spread strong enough praise to resonate with their own set. Any decent WOM that Drive incurred, resulting in its initial 11% Friday-Saturday B.O. uptick, failed to spill over into its second frame, where it fell 49%. Also perplexing both distributors, who were encouraged by upbeat reactions at sneak previews and festival screenings, were Drive’s woeful C- Cinemascore and Warrior’s failure to mint off its marvelous A rating.

In hindsight, given the fierce competion for young males this fall, platforming would have been the better move, a choice that Relativity wisely made this weekend with its New York-Los Angeles bow of the Gerard Butler political actioner Machine Gun Preacher ($45K). But it was always part of Lionsgate and FilmDistrict’s plan to go wide. One Lionsgate executive cited the lack of slamdunk 5-star reviews in New York and Los Angeles as one factor working against a Warrior platform bow; thus they chose to score the bulk of their money from a national release.

FilmDistrict sidestepped a limited opening due to the label’s stated mission for 1500-screen wide genre releases. Also, with seniors repping a portion of the arthouse crowd, there was a concern by both distribs that the blood would scare them off. FilmDistrict distribution president Bob Berney remains confident that Drive is going to stick around for the long haul, especially as the macho competition dwindles, ultimately becoming a mainstay for weeks to come at smart houses. “It’s a reverse strategy,” he says. “It’s better to make it look like a straight ahead genre film. Then it can filter down to the cult, more urban center core audience.”

It’s easy to knock FilmDistrict for positioning Drive as a stylized, genre-bending thriller with its haiku TV spots and Todd Hido-looking photographic one-sheets and billboards. But to its credit, FilmDistrict didn’t oversell Drive as a film that it wasn’t; a smart move considering such marketing maneuvers can backfire whenever a distributor promises false goods to a worthy fanbase. Last fall Rogue Pictures blundered by pushing quirky documentary Catfish $3.2 million) toward the Paranormal Activity ($107.9 million) set.

Given Drive’s polarizing, quiet tone, FilmDistrict wasn’t out to dupe the Fast & Furious demo. Even though FilmDistrict trotted out the car thriller’s Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and director Nicolas Winding Refn at Comic-Con, the industry didn’t harbor lofty, over-hyped Kick-Ass ($48.1 million) expectations about Drive heading into the fall.

A big blow to Warrior was that Ultimate Fighing Championship fans – a group known to shell out as much as $11 million for a single live event and together over $250 million in pay-per-view events in a given year – never queued up. The UFC wouldn’t participate with Lionsgate in cross-promoting the film, nor did they permit the label to purchase ads during their events. The organization typically refuses to lend its name to Hollywood mixed martial arts projects. As such it was anomaly when they recently permitted the use of its brand in the upcoming Kevin James comedy Here Comes the Boom. One studio sources says, “A sports organization such as UFC typically wants to get paid; they’re not in the business of having Hollywood stand on their back and make money.”

Lionsgate worked earnestly to generate hype in the MMA blogosphere with contests and interviews. Also working in their favor were a number of UFC fighters who appeared in the film, spoke out favorably about it and surfaced in photo-tie-in-book The Men of Warrior. But finally these efforts were fruitless.

“The young men who like mixed martial arts and who sit home and play videogames, like real violence. That’s why they’re attracted to the sport’s authenticity,” says one media analyst. “Movie violence means bullshit to them. The violence of MMA is what’s missing from Warrior.”

Further hampering both films’ sales: the co-billings of Ryan Gosling/Carey Mulligan in Drive (our TOH interview here) and Tom Hardy/Joel Edgerton in Warrior (our TOH interviews here) mean nothing to middle America. Gosling’s profile is climbing thanks to the summer sleeper ensemble Crazy Stupid Love ($82 million) and George Clooney’s upcoming Ides of March, but he’s far from a true marquee star who puts butts in seats. The most mainstream billings for Mulligan (Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby), Edgerton (The Thing, Great Gatsby) and Hardy (McG’s This Means War and Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises) are yet to come.

Though Warrior’s B.O. bruises are partly responsible for Lionsgate’s negative $40-$50 million cash flow, the distributor covered a majority of its $25 million production budget in foreign sales. Drive, co-financed by Odd Lot and Bold Films for $15 million, looks to recoup its budget globally and then some. Various industry sources estimate that FilmDistrict is on the hook for a $22 million marketing bill.

While tarnished by their genre status, low B.O. won’t necessarily blunt the films’ chances heading into award season. Both of their handlers have a history with collecting trophies off niche-grossers; i.e. Lionsgate with Crash ($54.6 million), Precious ($47.6 million), Affliction ($6.3 million) and Berney with Newmarket’s Monster ($34.5 million) and Picturehouse’s La Vie en Rose ($10.3 million). Hardy and Drive supporting player Albert Brooks have the best prospects–should their distribs prove willing to spend the bucks to campaign for them.

Nor are Warrior and Drive indicators that there’s a shift in the adult B.O. landscape. They remind that not every well-reviewed title is worth its weight in box office gold. Despite the number of successes last autumn, many forget that there were a number of praiseworthy fare without b.o. legs, from 127 Hours ($18.3 million, 93% fresh) and Let Me In ($12.1 million, 90% fresh) to Gosling topliner Blue Valentine ($9.7 million, 88% fresh).

Adds Gallagher: “Reviews can have a dramatic impact on an adult drama’s box office, but it’s not a given. With a movie like The Help, geared toward moviegoers over 30, reviews work because the film has a number of appealing elements — big broad concept, great cast and source material — that when aligned with critical response, is incredibly validating for that audience.”

The Help was also a rare film targeted at women, while young men have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. Maybe Hollywood and Indiewood both need to broaden their target demo.

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"since a smaller percentage of b.o. flows back" in my previous comment should obviously read "since a smaller percentage of international b.o. flows back".


It is now mid-November, the Drive has b.o. $35mm domestic, $25mm international. With production costs of $13.3mm, as stated by Refn in an interview, and assuming a marketing budget of $22mm, as stated above, this film would not seem to make a profit, even with ancillary revenues and pre-sales. The film has legs and may, in best case, make another $5mm domestically and, since it has not been released in several markets yet, internationally another $10mm – $15mm. If the marketing budget is correct (it sounds high) it means this movie will, at best, break-even since a smaller percentage of b.o. flows back. Still, there seems to be serious talks about a sequel.


To answer my own question, I went to see KILLER ELITE last night and now I know why it did so poorly. It’s a horrible movie! There was no one to root for, no one to care about. I didn’t care about the characters’ mission or what happened to any of them. The dialogue was silly and the plotting preposterous. True story, my ass. I’m a Statham fan, but I feel I wasted my time with this.

Dingy! Dingy Good!

Smokey, know the business; do the Math: Film District did a direct distrib deal for Drive. Film District spent –what the article– says $22 million to market the film. Drive has made $23 million at the domestic box office Half of that goes back to Film District’s bank account ($11.5 million)— so Drive to break even at the domestic box office needs to make another $11 million.


I was curious about Drive based on the critics but was ultimately turned off by its violence. Gosling said it was like Pretty in Pink with a head smashing. As much as I wanted Andie to choose Ducky in the end or better yet just dump Blane and accept not having a date to the prom, I don’t believe a head smashing would have made it a better movie. Additionally, the way Gosling talked about the disembowelment in Valhalla Rising made it seem like he recruited Refn to direct Drive because he wanted to show audiences some gratuitous violence, in the hopes that they will be shocked and stunned into feeling some kind of communal, spiritual euphoria. That doesn’t sound like a bonding experience I want to have. I just didn’t see any purpose to it. I know there’s a story there and I’m sure fans could offer justifications for the graphic violence that it’s supposed to display, but it wasn’t enough to coax us to the theatre.


Correction (sorry): “Soul Surfer” was released by TriStar, not Screen Gems.



“Drive” don’t need to gross $44 million at the domestic B.O. to break even. Sony’s ancillary deals will lead FimDistrict to make profit.
If “Drive” is a domestic box office flop, then so as Screen Gems’ “Soul Surfer” ($18 million budget + $26 million P&A), “Easy A” ($8 million budget + $35 million markerting cost), “The Hurt Locker” ($1.5 million acquisition cost + $9 million P&A).

Like what I said, in the era when marketing costs become too expensive, most of the films have to make profit on ancillary markets. For example, I doubt “Star Trek” can be profitable solely on theatrical release, because “Star Trek” had $150 million budget and $150 million worldwide P&A; still, Paramount is making a sequel of “Star Trek”.


Drive has made 22M so far on a 15M budget. That’s a good number for a movie so defiantly anti-commercial. It was never going to be a $100M hit. These are completely respectable (and profitable) numbers for this kind of film. You and Nikki Finke need to quit with your “autopsy reports” already. The movie has done fine.


Guys — just for the record: I think Drive is amazing. I keep my opinions of the film and my analysis of the box office completely separate like an artist and his work. Albert Brooks deserves the Oscar win in my personal opinion, he’s long overdue.



Where’d you get the $22 million figure for marketing? (Or even the $15 million for the budget?)

Also, I was not aware that the only way distributors made money was off of B.O. sales. Thank God no one has invented DVD’s or streaming services yet.

J. Sperling Reich

I too enjoyed “Drive” very much. It’s a solid film. I’m not sure I’d count it out just yet and err on the side of FimDistrict’s Bob Berney who believes the film will stick around for a while.

It’s a bit of a shame the film was sold as a more mainstream film. It may have been more effective to pitch it as a high-end thinking man’s action film. After premiering in Cannes and generating a ton of awards buzz for Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks, “Drive” certainly could have pulled that off.

As Mr. D’Alessandro points out in his post, this may have been harder to achieve after bowing in a wide release. Success tends to be measured in box office dollars in such instances, rather than in growing audience numbers over time.


I loved Drive but I understand the reason for the low Cinemascore and generally disappointing B.O. — for an action movie there are too many slow-paced scenes. It’s the same problem that Ang Lee’s Hulk faced. And I loved that movie too.

Lisa Nesselson

RE “Film District is on the hook for its $22 million marketing budget…”

I enjoyed this film enormously but can’t help thinking how many bus fares for Los Angeles residents who don’t own cars can be purchased for $22 million.


Guys, a majority of Drive’s $13-15 million budget has already been covered in pre-sales. Film District is on the hook for its $22 million marketing budget, hence, to break even, Drive needs to gross approximately $44 million at the domestic B.O.


Elsewhere I’ve read that the “seen that” comparison that’s pushing young men away from “Drive” is with the “Transporter” films. Good news, I guess, that they can remember back even that far.


Jonathan Dana:

I also guess FilmDistrict would be fine if “Frive” can eventually gross $30 million at US box office. I just worry that it wouldn’t.

Anne Thompson

Guys, no question that Drive is a bigger b.o. performer than Warrior, which marks a much more dramatic disappointment. But given the expectations on Drive, it too is underperforming.

Also, Brian, remember that exhibitors return less than half of the gross to distributors, who also foot considerable P & A costs on a wide release. Ticket sales do not tell the whole story.


Your article is REALLY excellent! Thank you! I don’t agree that “Blue Valentine” didn’t have box office leg, though; $9.7 million gross is good for a platform release.

BTW, I also think that “The Help” is not only a really good film , but also a femmle-driven film that is accessible to mainstream audience, upscale audience and family audience; this kind of film is rare in today’s market. I would be surprised if “The Help” can’t win Best Pictures Oscar award in next year.

Anthony’s sources estimate that FilmDistrict pay $22 million marketing cost. FilmDistrict may still be able to make some profit on this film, but it may not be a huge success (for its 2,904 theaters opening).

Jonathan Dana

While I understand the basic premise of this story, i.e. that reviews do not translate to boxoffice on commercial-type films (not a new hypothesis), I believe it is premature and somewhat of a stretch to pair “Drive” with “Warrior” in the analysis. What business would “Drive” need to do to make it a success? It looks now that the number should exceed $30 million, making it double or perhaps triple that of “Warrior”, and I would expect a profitable exercise for everyone concerned. It is a tough case to make in the abstract that “Drive” would have achieved superior numbers by platforming first. We’ll never know, of course, but there are a lot worse scenarios than the one that has played out. I think this is kind of a bum rap for “Drive”, except, again, to reiterate the oft-previously demonstrated fact that ‘commercial’ genre movies are driven by another metric than pure reviews, stunning though that the discrepency may appear, especially to the media gang that does pay attention to such. It does hurt everyone in the indie sector that “Warrior”, a fine film, has had such a difficult result, and for that we should all mourn.


Sergio, I totally agree with you. This has been defined by many critics in Rotten Tomatoes as a ‘European film’. I live in Europe and the reviews are far for being unanimously celebrative. The fact that the film won a prize at Cannes does not guarantee that a film is a masterpiece. Prizes at film festivals are awarded after endless negotiations, and the final choice is normally governed by the President of the Jury (in this particular case, De Niro, who fought for American films). Shall we talk about the Gold Lion awarded to ‘Somewhere’ in 2010 at Venice by Tarantino? Better not, as European reviews on this film are scathing. ‘Drive’ is a similar case. Some critics defined it as soporific, mortally slow, sad, lifeless, lacking a plot, excellent as a substitute for sleeping pills, with a lead actor that should receive an Academy Award for being able to maintain one blank expression for nearly two hours. I agree, some European films are slow-moving, but it’s a different kind of slow. A film on the life of monks in a monastery or the toils of a family of African immigrants can be much more engrossing and vital than some so-called ‘action’ films.

Derek Anderson

The photo-tie-in-book for warrior was amazing. They should have released the film in all the Tom-Cat venues across the country.


Let’s collectively understand something.Drive cost 13mil. It has made 22. By what standard is that failure? Oh yeah. A Blogger.


Warrior tanked because everyone has seen that film before dozens of times starting with The Champ back in 1931. On top of that the premise of the film about a fighter from a dysfunctional family with a troubled relationship with his brother who rises to the top to become champion…hey wait…wasn’t that The Fighter??? Like I said, seen it already.

Drive I think was too violent for it’s content. WAY too violent for its content and premise. If it was horror film there wouldn’t have been a problem, but for this type of film it was a turn off. Also the jury is still out about Gosling. Can he carry a film? Does he have the weight to be a movie star? He’s a good actor, but I remain doubtful. Still come off to me like a smirky teenager. (Besides I think he’s much better in The Ides of March) The film was WAY overrated. It’s not all THAT. And as predicted it before I saw Drive, and now say it even more convinced after I’ve seen it, that Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver with Ryan O’ Neal, which is basically the same film, is 100 times better than Drive. That’s a film I can and do watch over and over again. A genuine classic. P.S. Is it ever coming out on blu-ray?


So why did KILLER ELITE do so poorly?

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