‘Alita: Battle Angel’ on track for a weak box office opening

“Alita: Battle Angel,” a big-budget science-fiction spectacle produced by James Cameron, represents the famed “Avatar” filmmaker’s latest against-the-odds gamble for 20th Century Fox.

But all signs suggest that the new film, directed by Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) and based on a manga series about a female cyborg warrior, is headed for a rough reception at the box office. “Alita” is expected to open with a weak $20 million to $30 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys.

Given its hefty production costs, that would make it the biggest Hollywood flop so far this year. “Alita” cost $170 million to produce, not counting the studio’s spending on a formidable global marketing campaign. By comparison, Universal Pictures’ low-risk horror sequel “Happy Death Day 2U” could open with more than $20 million this weekend, on an estimated production budget of $9 million.

Risky business

In a risk-averse studio business that increasingly depends on well-known intellectual property and safe-bet sequels and reboots, “Alita” is about as big a swing as they come.

The film employs an unusual visual style, exemplified by its hero’s large CGI eyes, and mainstream audiences are largely unfamiliar with the Japanese source material by Yukito Kishiro. Reviews have been mixed, though The Times’ Kenneth Turan, in a mostly positive notice, called it “an action-heavy saga of self-discovery.”

Fox no doubt is hoping “Alita: Battle Angel” does better internationally, including in China, where it debuts Feb. 22.

Yet, the American audience for such high-concept science-fiction action fare appears to be limited, judging by the last several years of returns. The most recent example, the steampunk odyssey “Mortal Engines,” was a major disappointment for Universal late last year. “Jupiter Ascending” was a high-profile bomb for Warner Bros. in 2015, and Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” fizzled spectacularly in 2017.

“Alita” will probably be the latest miss for Fox, which has struggled lately with films such as “The Kid Who Would Be King” and “Widows.” However, the studio, which is poised to be absorbed by Walt Disney Co., had a major recent hit with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which became an $845-million global box-office phenomenon and earned a best picture Oscar nomination.

Deja vu, all over again

Meanwhile, the “Groundhog Day” of horror franchises is looking to repeat its previous box-office victory. “Happy Death Day 2U,” the sequel to 2017’s “Happy Death Day,” will probably notch another win for Blumhouse Productions, the company behind “Get Out” and “The Purge.” The follow-up to the comic slasher flick about a young woman who keeps reliving her own murder is expected to open with about $20 million in its first six days.

A sequel became inevitable after the first movie launched with $26 million and ended up with a highly profitable $126 million worldwide.

Also opening this weekend is New Line Cinema’s “Isn’t It Romantic,” a cheeky sendup of PG-13 rom-coms. The movie stars Rebel Wilson as a woman who wakes up from a mugging in a cheesy romantic comedy, complete with parodies of the requisite tropes and stock characters such as the gay best friend and the hunky love interest (Liam Hemsworth).

“Isn’t It Romantic,” directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson of the horror satire “The Final Girls,” is expected to open with about $20 million in the U.S. and Canada. Traditional romantic comedies have faltered at the box office as of late, but the Warner Bros. division is betting a new twist on the genre will pull in audiences.

Spaced out in China

The Lunar New Year is one of the biggest weekends annually at the box office in China, the second-largest film market in the world, and this year was no exception.

The film business there hit stratospheric heights during the holiday week thanks to local productions. including smash sci-fi spectacle “The Wandering Earth,” which grossed $300 million in its first six days of release, according to Artisan Gateway. That’s a massive sum and makes “The Wandering Earth,” which relies heavily on computer-generated special effects, China’s first space blockbuster, according to analysts.

The Lunar New Year is a so-called blackout period for Hollywood imports in the market, because the government in China favors local productions during the holiday stretch.

That left Chinese movies to reap the rewards. “Crazy Alien,” a Chinese comedy about a magician in which an alien crash-lands on Earth, grossed an impressive $216 million in its first week, according to Artisan Gateway. Another Chinese film, “Pegasus,” generated $155 million in receipts.

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