In the annals of Hollywood flops, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” holds a unique space. Not only did it gross just $15 million this weekend off of $300 million in production and marketing costs, its failure also is not an orphan. There are reasons — so many reasons.
Yes, Charlie Hunnam can’t open a movie, the reviews were terrible, and the marketing was as muddled as the filmmaking. However, “King Arthur” made four other wide-reaching and entirely avoidable mistakes — which means, maybe the studios will be wiser next time.
Here are some fundamental miscalculations:
1. Women. There Weren’t Any.
The King Arthur legend has multiple elements, but among them is a love story involving the king, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. This version followed what most of director Guy Ritchie’s films focus on: men, and otherwise male interactions. Guin hardly exists.
So, we had a story that incorporated fantasy, swords, sorcery, and FX, but didn’t bother with romance or significant female characters. Sometimes you can get away with that in Marvel epics, Star Wars, or the J.R.R. Tolkien universe — but those are properties that are far better known and beloved. (And even they’re wising up.)
The domestic audience is increasingly driven by older females. But “King Arthur” relied on younger male viewers — and there weren’t nearly enough of them.
Women have repeatedly proven themselves to be strong among fans of similarly themed stories, particularly on cable. (There’s “Game of Thrones,” but the “Outlander” franchise is defined by its older-female fandom.) Nevertheless, Warners decided to invest about a third of a billion dollars in the hopes of jump starting a new franchise, figuring that worldwide male audiences and those they brought with them would be so massive that female storylines were not only unnecessary, they might even be a turnoff.
The franchises of Marvel, “Furious,” D.C. Comics, and Star Wars all have managed to elevate female characters. “King Arthur” had the little-known Astrid Berges-Frisbey as a snake-controlling female known as The Mage — that’s medieval-speak for magician, so she doesn’t even really get a name. Maybe she was meant to be revealed as Guinevere in some future installment, but here she’s not his great love; she’s remembered for the snakes.
2. They Released It On Mother’s Day Weekend
Want to guarantee a film with marginal female appeal gets even less attention? Release it on Mother’s Day weekend, a time period defined by female choice. Instead, women headed for “Snatched” with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as a mother and daughter on an R-rated vacation. Though no “Trainwreck,” the holiday boosted its appeal and a gave it a Sunday one-third better than initially projected ($8 million rather than $6 million). That gave it a decent $19.5 million total, almost a third better than “King Arthur.”
Last summer’s “The Legend of Tarzan” was less catastrophic for Warners because it had female appeal in a loinclothed Alexander Skarsgård and in its integral romantic plot. The domestic run approached four times its opening weekend, way above average.
It’s possible this was a misguided attempt at counterprogramming (“Let’s release a film with minimal female appeal on a weekend when everyone else is going after women!”), but whatever logic that might contain collapses when the bottom line is so high.
3. Warners Was a Victim of the Crowded Calendar
Warners knew this movie was problematic and didn’t want to put it into the fray of battle. It came a week after the latest Marvel entry and a week before Ridley Scott’s “Alien Covenant” — the last weekend in the next two months without direct franchise or blockbuster competition.
However, one reason this weekend was available is its post-Marvel status: Even in second weekends, Marvel movies are formidable. So, to the question of, “Was this film necessary, at this budget?” we can add, “and was there room for it?”
Warners did decently with both “The Great Gatsby” on the second weekend of May in 2013 ($50 million) and with “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2015 (post-Mother’s Day, but opposite the huge “Pitch Perfect 2”). Both were expensive, somewhat risky projects that were helped by the timing (which included heavily covered premieres at Cannes). But both of those had better reviews, clearer audience targeting, and female appeal.
Even an ideal rollout would have solved few of the film’s box-office issues, but this shows how a bad date can magnify the problems of a marginal project.
4. The Budget Required PG-13; The Movie Needed an R
Popular box-office wisdom holds that if you want a shot at a billion-dollar worldwide hit, you can’t be rated R. “Deadpool” belied that approach with an edgy appeal that boosted its domestic take, but it did far less well overseas, including no release at all in China.
However, while the “King Arthur” story is old, the medieval genre has been redefined by the hard-R thrills afforded by “Game of Thrones,” “Outlander,” and “The Borgias” as well as earlier period sword-and-sandal stories like “Rome” and “Spartacus.” No one stints on the blood or the bodice ripping. Now we have poor “King Arthur” trotting in with some action, no sex, and toned-down violence.
“Gladiator” and “Braveheart” (both Best Picture winners, the former particularly successful) were R rated. It’s an appeal of an entirely different magnitude, but “The Passion of the Christ” might have been NC-17 because of violence were it not for consideration of its religious appeal.