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‘Blade Runner: 2049’ Was Never Going to Be a Huge Success

Too bad the sequel isn’t a hit, but then again, how many legacy sequels and late-comer sequels are?
By  · Published on October 9th, 2017

Too bad the sequel isn’t a hit, but then again, how many legacy sequels and late-comer sequels are?

It’s not a surprise that Blade Runner 2049 opened poorly compared to expectations. Why were expectations so high in the first place? It’s a sequel to a 35-year-old cult classic that didn’t do that well when it was originally released and has had a confusing legacy for regular folks ever since, what with its multiple re-cut variations. I’d been talking to people in recent weeks about new movies I was excited about, and when BR2049 came up, most admitted they’d never seen the original or didn’t like the original and so weren’t psyched about this follow-up. Especially given that it’s three hours long with trailers.

Last week, industry experts pegged a $54-55M debut for the sequel, up from the long range forecast predicting an opening in the mid-40s. The reality was an estimated weekend domestic gross of $31.5M (with an extra $50.2M coming in from overseas). That’s not even terrible, given the movie. Its better than its predecessor, which also didn’t exactly bomb but did underwhelm, though Blade Runner opened in far fewer theaters in 1982, giving it an adjusted per-screen average of $14.4K compared to BR2049‘s $7.8K. The sequel’s opening is also both Denis Villeneuve and Ryan Gosling’s career best.

Tron: Legacy had a similar situation when it opened seven years ago. Disney gambled on the pop culture familiarity of the original Tron, which had also disappointed at the box office when it came out in 1982. Analysts made predictions in the 40s and 50s, with some stating that the higher end was needed for it to be a success. Right before the release, though, tracking of the anticipation for the sequel dropped to the 30s, but ultimately it debuted with $44M (or $49M adjusted for inflation). That’s much better than BR2049‘s opening, though the Tron sequel also cost a bit more to make.

Thanks to the obvious boffo debuts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ($124M adjusted for inflation) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($248M adjusted), Hollywood sees big money in “legacy sequels,” those that arrive many years after the original or previous installment and maybe involve a torch-passing premise. And Warner Bros. might have figured the key is resurrecting a property starring Harrison Ford. But most of these later sequels fail to prove themselves worthy of such reprisal. For every Star Trek ($90M), there’s a Vacation ($16M), as well as maybe a Creed ($30M), which wasn’t necessarily a hit or a flop upon its arrival.

Mad Max: Fury Road is another example of what Warner Bros. likely saw in BR2049. That’s not a “legacy sequel” and doesn’t connect to the old Mad Max movies in a direct way that requires familiarity with them, but it is a rare new installment of a series where it’s been decades since the last and it performed very well. About 30 years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Fury Road opened to $47M ($12.7K per screen) compared to that second sequel’s adjusted debut of $18M ($12.4K per screen). Warner Bros., which also put out Fury Road, has also surely been hoping for similar Oscar glory, including a Best Picture nomination for BR2049 just like the Mad Max sequel received.

There are many ways with which to measure if a late-coming sequel was worth the trouble. Besides box office success, there’s awards recognition and an overall general appreciation for the movie that was made. BR2049 has garnered such praise from critics and is liked by the people going to see it (moviegoers polled by CinemaScore gave it a grade of ‘A-‘). The movie might not have great legs in theaters, but it should have a longer lifespan than Tron: Legacy in terms of its cultural significance and continued critical respect (that sequel received far more negative reviews, though its CinemaScore grade was a ‘B+’). But not as much as Fury Road unless it can find some favor with the Academy, particularly for Roger Deakins.

Last year, Fox attempted a late-comer legacy sequel with Independence Day: Resurgence, and nobody saw any good reason for the effort. Arriving 20 years after the original Independence Day, the movie was a failure with critics and fans alike, opening to $42M and grossing $106M, which is just barely more than what the 1996 film made in its first weekend alone. A year earlier, Jurassic World brought back the Jurassic Park franchise and it broke the record for best opening of all time ($209M, later broken by fellow legacy sequel The Force Awakens) and made a phenomenal amount of money ($652M domestic). But it’s not really culturally beloved like the original continues to be.

ID:R will eventually be entirely forgotten, if it’s not already, similar to the numerous poor-performing late-comer sequels to iconic classics. How often does anyone talk about The Two Jakes (sequel to Chinatown), Texasville (sequel to The Last Picture Show), The Evening Star (sequel to Terms of Endearment), An American Werewolf in Paris (sequel to An American Werewolf in London), The Black Bird (sequel to The Maltese Falcon), Blues Brothers 2000 (sequel to The Blues Brothers)? And not all of them were failures just because they’re considered lesser efforts compared to the originals (The Two Jakes received decent reviews, while The Evening Star was well-liked by fans who went). There are tons more that didn’t even get a theatrical release.

There’s no way that BR2049 will slip away like tears in rain. For the fans, it’s actually in a fine position. Maybe there won’t be more sequels — like Tron: Legacy and Fury Road, we’ll probably hear about them now and then but always wonder if they’ll actually happen. And maybe even if there are, this one will go down as a loved and respected follow-up somewhere between the reputations of Fury Road and Psycho II, the latter not having been a big hit nor bomb and which many movie fans hold in fair regard, nowhere near as high as the Hitchcock original but still of substantial measure.

And BR2049‘s disappointing opening compared to what was desired isn’t low enough to signal alarms in Hollywood about future legacy and late-comer sequels. Disney has both The Incredibles 2, which could be as worthy an idea as Finding Dory was, and Mary Poppins Returns, which comes out next year with one of the largest gaps between original and sequel but will do very well because of the lasting popularity of Mary Poppins with mainstream rather than just cult audiences. Nobody trying to make big bucks, though, should look at BR2049 and think it a good idea to produce a $150M-plus sequel to, say, Big Trouble in Little China, or The Goonies, or even Beetlejuice. Not all fondly remembered movies need a part two after so many years.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.