The development hell that seemed to never end
Alita: Battle Angel, the sci-fi passion project from James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) and his friend Robert Rodriguez, has had a long production history to say the least. This adaption of the popular manga series also known as Gunnm was first announced as Cameron’s next directorial effort back in 2003, only for the project to repeatedly fall by the wayside as the director instead focused his efforts on the film that would become his megablockbuster hit Avatar, still the highest-grossing movie of all-time even nearly a decade after its release.
Only in 2016 was Cameron able to finally reboot the stalled Alita project, installing Robert Rodriguez as the director. Filming completed on Rodriguez’s Alita in February 2017, and the movie sat in postproduction for two years until its final release this month. It was originally meant to come out in July 2018, only to be then pushed back to December 2018, and finally to February of this year. The delays were blamed both on a longer-than-expected SFX workcycle and likely a studio afraid of opening such a risky film in a competition-heavy slot. (Just to get a sense of how long its been, I first saw the trailer for Alita in theaters with The Last Jedi. That was fourteen months ago.)
Beating expectations…but by enough?
Well, the good news is that Alita seems to be doing a lot better now than it likely would’ve coming out in December, when it would’ve been crushed by the pile of new releases, from billion-dollar superhero grosser Aquaman to more family-oriented titles like Bumblebee, Spider-Verse, and Poppins. We already saw what happens when you open up an unknown IP against a ton of competition with the Peter Jackson-produced Mortal Engines, another risky sci-fi project from a big-name figure. Engines completely flopped, with a worldwide gross of just $81M against a $100M production budget.
What had been predicted earlier to be a close race for #1 over the extended Presidents Day weekend between Alita and Happy Death Day 2U is now being reported with Alita having a clear lead at #1 with about $37.5M over the full five-day period from its Thursday opening day through the Monday holiday. Let’s take a look at what a $37.5M opening could tell us about where Alita could end up at the box office.
Calculating out a potential final domestic gross
To start with, we’re going to look at the legs of other Presidents Day openers, to figure out where Alita‘s final domestic gross could total at. Here are the top ten Presidents Day weekend four-day openers, and their legs:
(Legs are a measure of long-term box office performance, or how well a movie lasts in theaters after its opening weekend. Domestic legs, for example, are calculated by diving the domestic total by the domestic opening. The higher the legs, the better the movie is holding up over time.)
Since the goal here is to be as optimistic as possible, we’re going to go with the best legs on the table – the 3.1x of Kingsman: The Secret Service. While I think the first Kingsman movie and Alita are far from perfect comparisons, they are somewhat similar. Both movies are Fox titles adapting relatively obscure IP, that ended up being better received by audiences than expected thanks to their innovative action sequences.
So if we give the first Kingsman‘s four-day legs to our projected four-day for Alita, that would give the Rodriguez movie a final domestic total of $89.28M.
What about internationally?
From this domestic gross, an international gross can be estimated. Assuming that Alita is overseas-heavy with a 25% domestic/75% international split like Cameron and action-heavy movies can often be, that would lead to a final global gross of $357.12M. (That’s not too extreme of a prediction either, considering some are projecting it to have a $50M opening in China so far, even better than its domestic launch.)
Is $357M worldwide good enough?
That’s not a perfect result to be sure off of a reported $170M budget, but still that means Alita will likely at least double its budget, which means it has a chance (even if its a small one) of becoming profitable over the long-term. Plus considering the not-so-great track record of Western live-action adaptions of anime so far – look at the straight-up flops of Ghost in the Shell and Dragonball Evolution – these are some pretty good results in comparison.