In what may go down as the biggest box-office upset of the year, the man who has arguably been Hollywood’s No. 1 star couldn’t even manage a second-place finish.
“After Earth,” the $135-million sci-fi flick costarring Will Smith and his son Jaden, had an apocalyptic debut of $27 million, according to an estimate from distributor Sony Pictures. (That figure includes grosses from Thursday evening, when the picture hit theaters at 9 p.m.)
That result left the film behind “Fast & Furious 6,” which was No. 1 again with $34.5 million in ticket sales during its second weekend in theaters. The picture has now grossed a huge $170.4 million domestically.
But the Smiths also lost out to “Now You See Me,” a crime caper set in the world of magic with an ensemble cast including Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman. Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys indicated the picture would collect just $17 million in its opening weekend. Instead, the movie launched with a far more respectable $28.1 million. (It too opened on Thursday night, but at 7 p.m.)
“After Earth,” however, underperformed. Sony expected its film would open with between $35 million and $40 million, even though industry tracking suggested a lighter debut of around $33 million. Unfortunately for the studio, both predictions ended up being too high.
The movie marks the worst debut in a decade for the elder Smith, with the exception of “Seven Pounds,” his much more modestly budgeted 2008 drama that started off with $14.9 million. Smith, 44, has long been one of the movie business’ most reliable box-office draws, his name helping to turn summer releases such as “MIB 3" and “Hancock” into blockbusters.
But even though “After Earth” was billed as a film starring Will Smith, it featured more of Jaden, who at 14 has yet to establish clout with moviegoers. Not helping matters were the film’s terrible reviews: The movie scored a measly 12% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Those who saw the picture this weekend didn’t hate it as much as critics did, assigning “After Earth” an average grade of B, according to market research firm CinemaScore. The film attracted a substantially older crowd, as 60% of opening weekend moviegoers were over the age of 25.
So what went wrong?
“I don’t have the answer to that, because Will Smith is incredibly loved,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution president. “The thing is, that love comes from throughout the world. He’s certainly one of the biggest movie stars in the world, if not the biggest one.”
Indeed, Smith has long appealed to international audiences. Of the nine films he’s appeared in over the last decade, just two turned in stronger sales domestically than abroad. However, the movie only launched in South Korea this weekend, so a true indication of how well the film will perform overseas won’t come until later in the month.
“We’re going to have a chance to show ourselves very quickly, because 60 foreign markets launch next week and we feel good about our international prospects,” Bruer said. “It has to do well overseas, certainly. But I do think we’ll reach our goals.”
“Now You See Me,” about a group of magicians who rob banks and distribute their bounty to audiences, would likely have been in trouble if its opening was in line with industry projections. The film was not inexpensive to make, costing Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment about $75 million to produce.
Fortunately, the film appealed to a broader crowd than tracking anticipated. The movie appealed in nearly equal measure to both females and males and drew a wide age range of moviegoers, 52% of whom were under 30. The opening weekend crowd gave the movie a CinemaScore of A-.
Richie Fay, Lionsgate’s president of domestic distribution, pointed to the film’s marketing campaign — which included word-of-mouth screenings at Regal Cinemas and AMC Theatres — as a driver of its success this weekend.
“We generated that word-of-mouth early that we have a good movie,” said Fay. “It’s going to be a fun multiple to watch.”
And what of the fact that “After Earth” was roundly disliked by both critics and audiences?
“I don’t like to dance on anybody’s grave,” he said, “but that certainly didn’t hurt us.”