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For a TV Pilot, ‘The Dark Tower’ Opening Box Office Figure is Fine

‘The Dark Tower’ box office gross doesn’t really matter if it’s basically just a pilot for a TV show.
By  · Published on August 7th, 2017

‘The Dark Tower’ box office gross doesn’t really matter if it’s basically just a pilot for a TV show.

The long-awaited Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower opened in first place over the weekend, but that’s not exactly a great achievement. This was the worst weekend at the box office all summer, and even for a troubled production, the movie performed much lower than expected with an estimated domestic total of only $19.5M — fitting, since the number 19 is so significant to the books.

Long-range prediction for The Dark Tower by Box Office Pro was more than double the reality, with $42M. More recent forecasts were safer, in the range of $15-20M (The Observer) to $20-25M (ScreenRant) with Box Office Pro even backing down to $17.3M. For a King adaptation, it doesn’t actually seem that bad. With all his movies’ figures adjusted for inflation, The Dark Tower had the eighth best opening out of a list of 40.

Of course, most Stephen King movies aren’t summer blockbusters. They don’t cost even the modest reported budget of $60M this one has. They’re not hyped up nor as anticipated by fans the way this one was. It’s best to compare the movie’s gross to adaptations released this century, for screen count and the author’s brand value, etc. And The Dark Tower opened lower than Secret Window1408, and Dreamcatcher, the last of which did cost more.

For King movies, though, box office numbers don’t mean that much. The Shawshank Redemption, which is the internet’s favorite movie of all time, only made $59M total domestic (and that’s adjusted for inflation). The Mist, which has a decent fanbase, debuted with less than $9M a decade ago (that’s now $11.5M adjusted). Then again, both those movies had positive reviews. The Dark Tower does not, but interestingly enough its Cinemacore grade from moviegoers is a ‘B’, compared to The Mist‘s ‘C’, Dreamcatcher and Secret Window‘s ‘C+’, and 1408‘s ‘B-‘. Of course, Shawshank had an ‘A.’

So let’s say that The Dark Tower is liked just fine by the people who go to see it. The movie will likely not have theatrical legs but it could do well on home video and perhaps even develop a stronger following there. If we look at the movie as nothing more than a big-screen TV pilot, a slight introduction to a world and characters that will be fleshed out and further expanded on the small screen in a planned series for cable or streaming service, there’s no reason for anyone to be concerned about a dismal box office tally.

Sure, Sony has been interested in a continued movie franchise, as well, but right now the producers of The Dark Tower are only committed to spinning off the story for television. Stars Idris Elba and Tom Taylor are set to appear in the series, which might go into production next year, though the idea is to primarily follow a younger, recast version of Elba’s Gunslinger character in a back story that’s more faithfully based on King’s books. And if that’s a hit, maybe other shows and possibly other movies could be in the cards later.

If we look at The Dark Tower as a TV pilot, then its initial numbers are fine, not great. Box Office Mojo estimates the number of tickets sold for the weekend is 2,178,800. Consider that akin to the number of people who would have tuned in for the movie had it been the first episode of a TV series. Compared to the 16 million viewers who watched the Game of Thrones Season 7 premiere, it’s small. Compared to the half a million watching the new critically panned series of The Mist each week, it’s good.

Another show to compare The Dark Tower to is American Gods, which I’ve seen people say should be the model for a small screen adaptation of King’s “Dark Tower” books. That show, based on a Neil Gaiman novel, started off with less than a million viewers tuning in from episode one (just over a million when you count non-live viewers). Other new shows with fanbases or a lot of buzz that have only had around a million viewers per episode include Riverdale, FargoLegionMr. Robot, and Big Little Lies. And Twin Peaks kicked off with half a million and has fallen to a quarter million each week.

Now, obviously the owners of the rights to such a rich and potentially epic franchise as The Dark Tower would rather be looking at viewership similar to Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead (10-17 million) or even American Horror Story (two to four million). And, hey, if it’s good enough and builds a strong enough mythology, maybe it could be up there with the likes of Lost, which was inspired by King’s “Dark Tower” books. That show did start out with almost 19 million viewers for its pilot, but its fanbase grew substantially after that.

Lately, there’s a trend for IPs that didn’t work on the big screen to try instead on TV. The Divergent Series is going to finish up what was started in theaters on the cable channel Starz, and then continue on from there. Its last movie installment, Allegiant, was considered a flop with an opening of only $29M (on a reported budget of $142M). Hardcore fans of that book series, as well as some of those who only know and like the movies, will follow it to TV.

As we recalled in relation to that news update last week, previously The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones bombed with a bow of only $9M, finishing with a total gross equivalent to almost four million viewers. Then the TV series Shadowhunters rebooted the YA adaptation on the small screen to about one million viewers each week, and that’s going strong with a third season renewal going into production for next year.

Moviegoers and TV viewers are difficult to compare in terms of numbers. And the former hardly ever represent the number of people who actually wind up seeing a movie like The Dark Tower given that many wait for home video. But it’s safe to assume viewership of a Dark Tower show will be less than the total theatrical attendee number for the movie. Probably not as drastic as the difference between the 77 million Avengers ticket buyers versus the 12 million Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot viewers (and current average of four million viewers). But we can foresee it being another steady million-per-episode show.

For Hollywood, even while movies reach considerably more people on home video, they still like theatrical releases for the status and awareness that such a release gives to those titles. Now, they could also see planned TV series as also benefitting from a theatrically released movie that’s only expected to spawn a television franchise rather than movie sequels. Even without seeming a box office hit, The Dark Tower could still be a big deal.

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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.