Really, how does a major studio spend $175M on a potential new franchise, and completely go bust at the box office?
After arguably eight years of starts and stops through various iterations, Warner Bros. has finally opened King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the feature adaptation of a classic IP they’ve been so desperate to make, and to disastrous box office results of $14.4M stateside at 3,702 theaters and embarrassing reviews (27% Rotten Tomatoes rating). King Arthur is expected to fall third behind Disney/Marvel’s second weekend of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at $60M (-59% with 10-day cume of $243.1M), and 20th Century Fox/Chernin Entertainment’s R-rated Amy Schumer-Goldie Hawn movie Snatched with $16M. Warner Bros. shares some brunt of King Arthur‘s cost here with Village Roadshow who has been having a terrible streak after its co-financing on Ghostbusters, In the Heart of the Sea and Passengers.
In the current marketplace of haves and have nots at the B.O. where other studios envy Disney’s treasure trove of brands, Warner Bros. was determined to revive the King Arthur legend on the big screen to the point of overthinking it.
Audiences showed little interest in King Arthur the last time he was brought to the screen 13 years ago in Jerry Bruckheimer’s Disney production ($120M negative cost, $51.9M domestic, $203.6M global), so why even try again?
It’s easy to blame King Arthur: Legend of the Sword‘s bombing on Warner Bros.’ overindulgence in classic IPs for the screen, and goodness knows, how they haven’t won over moviegoers, i.e. Red Riding Hood ($42m negative cost, $89M global), Pan ($150M cost, $128M global), Jack the Giant Slayer ($195M cost, $197.7M global), etc. But King Arthur‘s failure goes far beyond being adapted from an antiquated tale, not to mention in recent times, old properties when made intriguing and even sexy work: Disney’s Oz, the Great and Powerful‘s near half billion at the B.O.
Some would also like to point the finger at hiring fresh-face Sons of Anarchy movie star Charlie Hunnam in the title role of King Arthur, but still, in this day and age we know it’s the brands who are bigger than the stars, and great untested actors rise with the occasion of a great movie, i.e. Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, Russell Crowe in Gladiator, and arguably Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games.
But many sources tell Deadline that if there’s any blame to go around for Legend of the Sword’s disaster, it’s the post-Jeff Robinov era administration on the Burbank lot (preceding now president-chief content officer Toby Emmerich) who per one close source “didn’t care about storytelling and ham-fisted” this King Arthur together with Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker known more for his flash over substance. In fact, given the number of versions that King Arthur went through, there were plenty of opportunities for Warner Bros. to get this right. At one point, higher-profile stars were considered: Colin Farrell as King Arthur and Gary Oldman as Merlin. Many say that King Arthur‘s fate might be different in a Robinov-led studio given the former boss’ razor-sharp filmmaking sensibilities and finesse in steering directors.
While there are several credited on the Legend of the Sword script, many say it is Richie and Lionel Wigram’s version that made it to the screen. “He’s stylish and he needs to get a better producer,” remarked one insider on Richie’s second overspend here following his 2015 bomb The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ($75M negative cost, $110M global B.O.). “Who’s advising him?,” commented another, “Why would he go backwards with an old property like King Arthur? He’s very talented, they should hand him an established property like a DC movie.” (Richie’s next film is Disney’s live version of Aladdin). King Arthur‘s lofty costs began after an early cut of the film failed to test well. “It was a train wreck,” says one personal publicist with knowledge of the situation. This prompted reshoots with some post production departments working over the last two years on King Arthur.
Sure, it’s always easy to yell at the studio marketing division whenever a movie goes sideways, but in the case of King Arthur, it was an uphill battle for the WB pros who’ve opened multiple DC superhero movies and Harry Potter films. Richie’s King Arthur is filled with imagery we’ve soon too often before from Lord of the Rings, Braveheart and Clash of the Titans. At times it’s a quiet, dialogue-driven PBS period movie with understated performances, then a confused mess of flashbacks, including cameos by Voldemort’s snake, the Lord of the Rings elephants, and a knight who likes like Immortan Joe from Mad Max. There were few assets here to hook audiences.
And despite WB distribution jumping King Arthur around the calendar four times, the reality is that there isn’t any date that could be considered prime for this film. If anything you can say that the Warner Bros. development suite lingered too long on the movie to the point where it’s too late for its time. When the studio shelled out $2M after a bidding war for David Dobkin’s Arthur & Lancelot in June 2011, HBO’s Game of Thrones was nearing the end of its first season. Given how that series became the benchmark for solid medieval fantasy, why would fans of the genre leave their house and spend $15 at the multiplex?
Hindsight being 20/20, here’s how King Arthur‘s march to the big screen went down. In August 2009, WB and Legendary labored for months to get the film rights for John Boorman’s cult classic Excalibur so that Bryan Singer could remake it. That film never came to be. By June 2011, WB took to Dobkin’s take which he was poised to direct with Lionel Wigram, Richard Suckle and Charles Roven producing and Jeff Kleeman serving as EP. The pic was originally budgeted at $90M and was eyeing a March 15, 2013 release. Dobkin’s King Arthur was something that those under 25 could hang their hat on: About a younger generation sizing up an older generation. Arthur was a reluctant young hero in pulling the sword out of the stone in a oppressive kingdom akin to a 1942 Gestapo-run Warsaw. Arthur then becomes the most wanted man in the kingdom, with a group of rebels rallying around him to be king. The project was greenlit and fell apart twice, during the Robinov and Greg Silverman administrations. Kit Harrington was to play Arthur with Joel Kinnaman as Lancelot. By December 2011, WB balked at the project: the pairing were unproven screen commodities and the film’s production cost surged to $130M. Three months later, the project was alive with Colin Farrell as Arthur and Gary Oldman as Merlin, but those talks dried up. Also in the mix at the studio during the summer 2011 was a Richie version of King Arthur with Trainspotting‘s John Hodge writing. That also didn’t materialize.
Dobkin went off and made The Judge. By the time that film wrapped, Warners had changed their mind on his version, and fell in love with Joby Harold’s King Arthur pitch which was to span several sequels, each focusing on a different Camelot character in an Avengers-Star Wars universe-sense with all the characters ultimately coming together in one movie. One insider tells us that Warner Bros. executives were blown away by Harold’s vision; the project’s fantasy beast artwork was a cross between 300 and Clash of the Titans. Deadline was informed that Harold’s vision never materialized in Richie’s final cut. By January 2014, King Arthur was becoming a reality with Richie behind the camera and writing alongside Wigram. With all of these different versions of Arthur floating around, and producers hopping between projects, one source tells Deadline that the situation was “incestuous” resulting in the Writers Guild auditing both screenplays, only to realize that the studio was folding one into the other. In the end, Wigram, Ritchie and Harold are credited as the screenwriters, Harold also received a story by credit and Dobkin earned story and EP credits. By August 2014, Richie selected Hunnam to play Arthur.
“They wanted to corner the brand and own it,” says another insider about Warner Bros.’ hastiness to bring King Arthur to the screen. Given the entire headache that ensued from the various iterations of King Arthur, one can see why studios are now taking a writers’ room approach to franchises like Transformers, Godzilla vs. Kong and the WB Animation group. “The desire for studios to form these new brain trusts; they just want to get things done faster, everyone is so hungry to nail the brand,” says one lit agent.
In the end, another executive informed us that the final test scores for Legend of the Sword were quite high. If that’s the case, it explains the pic’s glowing B+ CinemaScore tonight (however Screen Engine/PostTrak shows a lackluster 78% total positive). On PostTrak, there was a strong turnout by men at 57%, with 78% over 25.
The next shoe to drop for Warner Bros. among its risky, dusty old IP feature adaptations is The Jungle Book: Origins which arrives on Oct. 19, 2018, more than two years after Disney’s near $1 billion B.O. success with its live action remake of its Rudyard Kipling-sourced animated toon. And though logic prevails that WB should end its streak of classic titles, one producer says don’t blame the property, blame the filmmaker. Great films come from emotionally captivating scripts and characters.
Says the producer, “I don’t buy that theory that old IP never works at the box office. Old IP is the most valuable sh*t in the world. Sure, God bless original stuff, but these classic brands are timeless. Just look what Jon Favreau did with The Jungle Book. It’s what you want from a Hollywood movie: The kid grows up before your eyes. Just when someone says you can’t make a great pirates movie, someone kicks down the door and does it, or Ridley Scott resurrects the sword and sandal movie with Gladiator. Of course, you can always go back.”