Audience’s failure to embrace Warner Brothers’ Blade Runner could signal the death of thoughtful and cerebral science fiction in cinema. Blade Runner was expected to be the next great sci-fi film; critics loved it, but fans simply haven’t turned up. Why? The cast is exceptional, the cinematography is spectacular, and Denis Villenueve is a great young director. And yet, despite a major marketing push, the film has barely earned enough at the box office to cover its $150 million development costs — a major financial failure, given that marketing spend these days is (generally) double the production budget.
So what happened and what does this mean for the future of serious sci-fi in theaters? Recent history has shown that action-adventure sci-fi — Star Wars, Marvel, DC — is doing A-OK, and while Blade Runner definitely contained action and adventure, it was a far more intellectual endeavor, challenging audiences to consider existential questions about life, existence, and the value of memory in artificial intelligence.
Several factors almost certainly contributed to Blade Runner‘s struggles: hurricanes and wildfires ravaged several major urban centers this summer, the film has a runtime of 2 hours 43 minutes, and (not insignificantly) its R-rating excludes kids and most teens. Forbes suggests that audiences typically only turn out for one big September/October release, given the glut of blockbusters in summer and fall/holiday seasons. Stephen King’s It clearly blew the doors off of the September box office, and there are lots of upcoming, family-centric blockbusters in November and December. Given that most Americans only attend two to three movies in theaters per year, it’s unlikely that Blade Runner was in enough people’s top three, must-see films this year.
Let’s also remember that the original Blade Runner was released in July of 1982 and finished the year as the number twenty-six in box office returns. 1982 was quite a banner year for sci-fi: E.T., Star Trek II, Firefox, Tron, The Thing, The Road Warrior, (plus re-releases of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) — most of these films finished way ahead of Blade Runner that year. Thoughtful, complex sci-fi simply hasn’t been a consistent moneymaker at theaters in recent decades. IMDb’s top 50 best-grossing sci-fi movies is dominated by splashy action-adventure films like Rogue One and Guardians of the Galaxy; Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thinker, Inception, is number thirty-three, and it skews rather action-y.
Villeneuve acknowledged that the film’s marketing was a bit opaque, wherein the plot was intentionally suppressed in teasers and trailers:
I liked the idea that you were supposed to learn it as the movie goes on. As a cinephile, one of my best experiences was when I was on a film festival jury. I had to watch 20 movies without knowing anything about them. You don’t know the genre, you don’t know the country, you don’t know the story. You don’t know if you’re about to look at a comedy or a horror movie!”
Villeneuve doesn’t fault the marketing for the film’s lack of box office success; however, the emphasis on mystery may have confused or deterred mainstream audiences, who were also being bombarded with marketing for simpler and more thematically evident releases like It or Thor: Ragnarok. Villeneuve’s previous film, Arrival, was quite similar in tone and theme to Blade Runner (and made about the same money), but it was created for about one-third of the latter’s budget.
Ultimately, Blade Runner was a big-budget, R-rated, serious sci-fi film that will probably be recognized as a masterpiece… and perhaps someday might actually break even. (The secondary market is a money-maker for a lot of bad movies, via DVDs, VOD, airlines, etc.) In a year of major, major blockbuster flops and ever-declining theater attendance, it’s hard to imagine any studio green-lighting another Blade Runner scale film anytime soon. Perhaps streaming services, like Netflix, will pick up the baton for this type of film — albeit, the budgets will probably be more inline with Arrival than Blade Runner.