Its difficult to see the performance of Sony’s latest Charlie’s Angels film as anything but a disaster. With an estimated $50M budget and $50M in marketing costs, the film still has quite a way to go to recoup its expenses, especially considering the movie has made a mere $10M domestically and $21M internationally so far.
In some circles, the blame for this box office flop has been put on Elizabeth Banks’ comments alleging that male audiences are unwilling to see some types of women-led films. While those comments likely didn’t help, saying they were the main or even a major cause for the underperformance of the film disregards the long history of studios creating poorly conceived projects based on long-dead IPs. In particular, Sony, lacking the abundance of rich franchises a studio like Disney has, has quite a history this decade of mostly poorly performing resurrections of long-dead brands.
The Green Hornet (2011)
Sony had a strong working relationship with Seth Rogen thanks to their partnerships together on Superbad and Pineapple Express (Rogen co-wrote both films and starred in the latter). At least to the studio brass in Culver City, it seemed like a good plan to create an action comedy that combined together what was then one of comedy’s most popular up-and-coming stars with the acclaimed if somewhat offbeat comedy director Michel Gondry.
However the film ended up being as mediocre as its mid-January release date suggested. That wasn’t before the film had already been delayed over half a year to make a 3D conversion in the wake of Avatar‘s massive success in the format, only for the 3D version to be widely panned as a cash grab by reviewers, and for it to be blamed by the film’s producer for helping raise the budget too high.) A bit over two years later, Rogen would call the film’s production a “fucking nightmare” full of executive meddling as studio brass tried to make sure the nine figure budgeted film stayed within the realm of PG-13. He would go on to star in four more films for Sony (This is the End, The Interview, The Night Before, and Sausage Party), but never again anything other than a small-budgeted, R-rated title.
The fact that the Green Hornet character was little known by most in the West didn’t help either. There was a successful Hong Kong action movie series starring the spy, but in most markets he was last seen on the screen in television back in the 1960s. (Shades of the disaster that was Disney’s The Lone Ranger here too.)
Total Recall (2012)
The first Total Recall film was a classic ’90s Arnold Schwarzenegger title directed by the iconic sci-fi director Paul Verhoeven. The 2011 film was directed by the man best known for the Underworld films and a widely disliked Die Hard sequel. The remake took that first movie, improved its special effects a bit and reduced the quality of everything else. Worst of all, it replaced Schwarzenegger as the lead with Colin Farrell. No offense to the Irish actor, but Farrell had nowhere near the star power, charisma or box office pull of The Terminator himself in the middle of his prime. Not unexpectedly, the movie bombed.
For this next film, Sony partnered with another company desperate to find valuable IP to exploit. Like how Spider-Man and the associated Marvel characters were one of Sony’s few consistent strong points, James Bond was MGM’s one moneymaking franchise. With the Bond producer already in a partnership with Sony at the time to distribute the spy films, along with a wider film cofinancing agreement and Sony having helped rescue MGM from bankruptcy, it made sense to collaborate on this film too. Like with Total Recall, this remake took much of the value of the original film out in exchange for blandly modernizing it and was a flop as well.
Men in Black: International
Its difficult in retrospect to highlight just how much of a hit the first Men in Black film was. The movie made 250M domestically and 588M globally, enough worldwide to make it then one of the ten highest grossing movies ever. Adjusted for modern-day ticket prices, it would have hit 492M domestically, bigger than blockbusters from this year like Toy Story 4, Captain Marvel, or Spider-Man: Far From Home.
The 2002 sequel was also a success, along with the 2012 third entry. However despite the fact that Men in Black 3 made decent money, the studio decided to move the franchise in a new direction. Will Smith’s massive paydays, and a rush to start filming the movie before the second or third act was written in order to secure an expiring filming tax break, had meant that the title ended up costing a budget-busting 225M. That was more than the cost of the first Avengers film which had broken records just a few weeks before MIB 3 came out, and more than Sony’s hit Skyfall from later that year. The difference is The Avengers and Skyfall both grossed over a billion – and Men in Black didn’t even get close. MIB 3 had been able to be mildly profitable nonetheless, but who knew how a MIB 4 might fare.
Instead, Sony decided to cast Thor: Ragnarok costars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. Neither could compare with the box office power of ’90s Will Smith, with the former bombing in non-Marvel movies left and right, and the latter having few films on her belt other than the latest Thor title. This was, once again, yet another flop.
“The Bad Reboot” formula
Over and over again, these Sony-led reboots or sideboots or whatever you want to call them have the same problems.
First, the films are just widely considered bad, or at their best very medicore. Each redo has a worse Rotten Tomatoes score than its source film. Even their Cinemascores are worse, and generally Cinemascore non-horror movie ratings are quite lenient since the folks watching a film on opening day are those most inclined to be interested in the title in the first place.
Second, these films replace the high wattage stars and/or directors with new talent that just cannot compare in box office pull and in the case of directors, film quality:
|Total Recall||Director: Paul Verhoeven|
Star: Arnold Schwarzenegger
|Director: Len Wiseman|
Star: Colin Farrell
|Men in Black||Star: Will Smith||Star: Chris Hemsworth|
|RoboCop||Director: Paul Verhoeven||Director: José Padilha|
|Charlie’s Angels||Stars: Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu||Stars: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska|
Plus, the films all use IP that is dated. If you have a real powerhouse of an IP backing your film – think something like the DC trinity in Batman v. Superman and Justice League – you can get semi-decent numbers even if your film isn’t particularly well-received. For IP few care about to begin with, that doesn’t work. In fact, you often have to work even harder to convince audiences this particular iteration of the franchise was necessary.
Also, if the IP is dated and was only actually popular decades ago, the benefit of using a preknown brand in the first place isn’t even much of a thing for younger audiences. For those folks who see these titles as more of an original film with a vaguely familiar brand name than anything else, none of the films on there own are good enough to warrant a watch.
When the reboot cycle actually works
Among the wreckage of failed films, one Sony reboot actually become a success. 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was an unexpected smash hit, ending up with a worldwide gross of nearly billion dollars and succeeding despite opening face-to-face against the blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi. What went right? The film did just the opposite of the failed reboots:
- The film was well-liked, and had an appropriately strong box office run even after its soft opening weekend. It received even better reviews than the original (54% on Rotten Tomatoes versus 76%). Both films also received an A- Cinemascore.
- It had star power that matched or potentially even surpassed that of the original film. While few comedy actors can compare to Robin Williams in his prime during the original Jumanji, the reboot attempted to put up its own high star wattage. Dwayne Johnson is really the only star that can open his own action blockbuster other than Tom Cruise. Kevin Hart regularly headlines comedy hits. While Jack Black doesn’t really anymore, he still has a long history of successfully headlining comedy films as well. Karen Gillan, despite being the least-known of the main cast, still brings a small bit of recognition as a notable player in the MCU.
Despite all the digital ink spilled over what caused or didn’t cause the latest Charlie’s Angels film to fail, it is sometimes best to follow Occam’s razor and realize that the simplest reasons for a flop are the most likely ones. Sony has a long history of creating reboots that are poor quality films headlined by talent that is less well-known than those in the original titles. The latest Charlie’s Angels was just another example of that. Both its Rotten Tomatoes score and Cinemascore were lower than that of the 2000 film. The only person even slightly well-known by the general audience in the core trio of Angels was Kristen Stewart, an actress that hasn’t starred in a film that even crossed 20M domestically in seven years.
If Sony wants to make another reboot that works, they shouldn’t worry about off-hand comments the cast and crew say. Just focus on making an actually good film with the director and star wattage to match, and they’ll be much more likely positioned for success.
A note – Men in Black: International and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle were technically not reboots since they follow on the continuity of their predecessor films. However, considering that both titles contain nearly entirely new casts compared to their previous films, were made years later, knowledge of the previous films is not required to understand the new ones, and the main plot lines do not directly follow up on the earlier films, its fair to categorize them as effectively almost-reboots.