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Can Tron Save the Win?

December 16th, 2010

Early in the year, after the fantastic success of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, it looked like 2010 would see more tickets sold than 2009, and it could crush the total box office record. That seems like a long, long time ago. Memorial Day was a disaster and, despite a few bright spots here and there, the box office has never regained its early shine. Now the question is not whether 2010 will see more tickets sold; it won't. The question is whether or not 2010's total box office can remain above 2009's pace. If Tron: Legacy is a monster hit, it could go along way to helping save a win for 2010. It's going to need to be a monster hit to keep pace with last year and the only shred of good news I can think of for 2010 is that Avatar was a relatively slow starter, when compared to its eventual run.

I think the sweet spot for a sequel is two to three years. This was the original is still very fresh in the minds of the moviegoing public, but there's enough time to create a worthy successor that doesn't feel rushed. There are some exceptions, but that's a general rule. Tron: Legacy is coming out 28 years after the original, which is not a record; it's not even a record for sequels that have the same cast. (I believe that record goes to The Odd Couple and 30 years. By a strange coincidence, this is not Jeff Bridges' first extended gap, as there were 19 years in-between The Last Picture Show installments.) However, while the sweet spot is two to three years, sometimes a longer delay, or a much longer delay, can help build anticipation. The studio certainly hopes this is the case with Tron: Legacy.

The original Tron wasn't a monster hit, earning just shy of $27 million. Nor was it a classic with more than a few critics complaining that the visuals were more important than the story. What it was, was groundbreaking and to this day it has a sort of Nerd Cool about it. Tron: Legacy will have a massive upgrade in visuals thanks to nearly three decades in special effects evolution, but it seems to have the same problems with the story taking a back seat to the visuals. Then again, earning more than 50% positive is not a terrible score, especially for escapist entertainment. Obviously I would have loved to have seen the reviews a lot stronger, but I don't think this will hurt its opening weekend box office.

On the low end, Tron: Legacy should earn more during its opening weekend than Tron earned in total and thanks to the holidays sail past $100 million with ease. This is lower than the low end expectations from the beginning of the month, but the overall box office took a major hit last weekend, which could be a sign of a systemic problem. On the high end, it could easily make more during its opening day than Tron made in total, while challenging Avatar's weekend opening and cruising to $300 million. Most analysts seem to think it will open in the mid to low $40 million range, but I'm going with just under $50 million, while Sunday estimates might even have it over that mark.

There is such a large gap of interest between the first film and the second that it is almost like Tron: Legacy has no competition. Yogi Bear 3D is the latest live action cartoon, which is a sub-genre that as produced some massive hits, like Alvin and the Chipmunks, but also massive bombs, like Dragonball: Evolution. The studio is certainly hoping this film will earn as much as Alvin did, but what does the evidence suggest? The reviews are awful, even worse than the two Alvin films'. Additionally, the ad campaign hasn't been as strong. On the other hand, its main competition, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, failed to make much of an impact at the box office last weekend, so there's an opening for a family-friendly film to take advantage of. There's almost no chance it will match Alvin and the Chipmunks' $44 million opening, but it should pull in about half that. An opening of $22 million plus the holidays could still be enough to reach $100 million in total. On the other hand, some are predicting it will earn closer to $15 million, which would be devastating. That is possible, but I really hope that isn't the case.

The Fighter isn't opening wide, but it is expanding wide this weekend by adding more than 2,500 theaters on Friday. With very strong reviews and Awards Season Buzz, it should score a solid third place with $13 million. However, it has a lot of competition for third place.

It's make it or break it time for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. If it sees the same collapse as Price Caspian during its second weekend of release, then the film will lose a lot of theaters over Christmas, which will prevent it from earning the same legs as most holiday releases have. A 60% drop-off is the worst case scenario, but it is possible. On the other hand, it could fall 40%, which would give it a shot at third place over the weekend and keep $100 million within reach. A 50% decline is the most likely outcome, which would leave the film with just $12 million over the weekend and a fourth place finish. If this is the result, I don't think the franchise will continue.

The final wide release of the week is How Do You Know?, which may or may not earn fifth place during its opening weekend. There is a chance it will fail to reach $10 million, which would give Black Swan an opening to grab fifth place. This is a huge step down from original expectations, but I wasn't expecting its reviews to be this bad. Granted, it is a romantic comedy, so one expects predictability, which usually results in a lower score, but 27% positive will still hurt, a lot. Maybe it will be a surprise hit and earn third place with $15 million over the weekend, but it could also miss the top five with $8 million or so. I'm going with fifth place and $11 million.

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Filed under: Weekend Preview, The Fighter, Tron: Legacy, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Yogi Bear, How Do You Know?, Black Swan