Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” opened to $7.6 million this weekend, well short of its tracking and good for only #3 on the worst summer weekend in two years. This, despite a cast full of draws like Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum, strong reviews, a distribution team of A players, and (overhyped) coverage of its would-be groundbreaking marketing and release plan.
As it turned out, those elements contributed to a complex set of factors that resulted in this meh of a weekend.
Here’s some key ones:
“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” Got in the Way
Studios largely abandoned August, a month that in recent years saw “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Suicide Squad” thrive. Enter Lionsgate, which knows how to find opportunistic dates for its genre films. In this case, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” overlapped some of what “Logan Lucky” had to offer, and offered greater appeal.
This also came at the end of a summer of declining moviegoing and a handful of longer-running films that still held interest; drops for several top films were below average, with the demand for new films less than might have seemed likely.
The “Hitman’s” Cast Worked Better for American Audiences
Both films reportedly cost $29 million, and with pre-sales important for covering a budget, foreign appeal is critical. However, the cast for “Hitman’s” aimed more for the domestic crowd.
Ryan Reynolds worked for both sides of the formula: “Deadpool” was #6 for 2016 in the U.S, with a domestic share that was 46 percent of the gross. Add Samuel L. Jackson, who’s more established as a lead player in the U.S. rather than abroad. And the presence of the two — both of whom are established as having a comedy edge, even in action films – gave a Lionsgate a great tone to market.
Daniel Craig leads the “Logan Lucky” cast. As the current James Bond, his persona is renowned as the most humorless of the 007s. His non-Bond roles have been uneven (the most successful is the U.S. remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” which had the benefit of a bestselling novel and David Fincher as director, but cost too much to be profitable). Channing Tatum has done well with comedic films (the “21 Jump Street” franchise, “Magic Mike,” “Hail, Caesar!”), but Seth MacFarlane is known for his voice, and while he has another “star Wars” installment coming up, Adam Driver is coming off acclaimed films with low audience impact like “Silence” and “Paterson.”
The cast, and Craig in particular, guaranteed foreign sales that reportedly paid for production. But compared to the diverse ensemble for “Hitman’s,” it had less appeal to women (drawn by Reynolds) and the minority audiences who have been typically underserved this summer.
Advantage, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”
Strong Reviews in August Weren’t the Usual Asset
Conventional wisdom is, by August, adult audiences are hungry for quality films. This year, that wasn’t the case. “Dunkirk,” “Baby Driver,” and “Girls’ Trip,” along with a greater presence of more limited releases (led by “The Big Sick”) sated the appetite of those moviegoers who look to critics for guidance.
Diminishing returns have been evident since the shortfall of “The War for the Planet of the Apes” and in a slew of specialized films including “The Little Hours,” “A Ghost Story,” “Lady Macbeth,” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit.”
So, the novelty of an August wide release with strong reviews unexpectedly fell by the wayside. And the “Logan Lucky” release paralleled the expansion of Weinstein’s “Wind River,” where it stood out as an alternative first choice. For “Logan Lucky,” its acclaim fell on dead ears.
All That Attention on Its Business Model Didn’t Help (and Might Have Hurt)
The element of “Logan Lucky” that got the most media attention was the director’s and his co-producers’ decision to retain distribution rights and control. They hired Bleecker Street, the two-year-old company composed of ex-Focus Feature principals to set the film in theaters and consult on all plans. Marketing also included longtime Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman, who worked with Soderbergh on the “Oceans” trilogy as well as sleeper success “Magic Mike.”
Despite the confusion spread by numerous articles calling attention to it, this is called a service deal and they are common. Sometimes they’re used on riskier films that don’t get acquired on favorable terms; sometimes they’re favored by producers who are in position to afford marketing costs and/or want to be more in charge. Mel Gibson’s hugely successful “The Passion of the Christ” is a prototype (Newmarket was its distributor, with then-head Bob Berney taking a strong role).
“Passion” proved to be a hit, and while the distribution model may have cast Gibson as an outsider bucking a system supposedly at odds with a faith-based community, that’s not what sold tickets. “Logan Lucky” played up the possibility that it could pose a threat to the studios, which drew attention in the mainstream media favored by older audiences.
But why would that make any difference to someone deciding to see a movie? As an angle, it might have detracted from the film’s fun-loving appeal as an edgier caper in the “Ocean’s” mold.
Soderbergh has had great success in his career. His films in 2017 values have a domestic total of over $1 billion, and he made six films crossing the adjusted $100 million mark. But he’s not a movie star like Gibson (or “Billy Jack” director/actor Tom Laughlin, who did the same thing decades ago). And as a director, he’s not a brand like Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee who not only have an identifiable style but also a public persona. His films might be familiar, but he is not to most moviegoers.
According to Soderbergh, foreign sales covered the budget; Amazon streaming rights covered the P&A spend ($20 million — less than normal). The range of its potential gross is still significant; a reasonable wide guess is $16 million if it goes into free fall, $25 million if it holds well. That would leave them with somewhere between $8 million-$12 million returned, all of which is reportedly shared in profit participation.
All told, it’s far from a revolution, but nothing that should discourage other producers from exploring less traditional options for theatrical release. But as ever, no amount of planning, comps, and expertise can predict the fate of a theatrical release.