Box-Office Analysis: Can 'Deepwater Horizon' Be Rescued?

David Lee/Summit Entertainment
'Deepwater Horizon'

Pete Berg's big-budget disaster drama, starring Mark Wahlberg, is being positioned as an adult drama but cost far more than comparable films.

In January 2014, Pete Berg's war pic Lone Survivor became a sleeper box-office hit, opening nationwide to $37.4 million on its way to earning $154.8 million worldwide after costing a relatively modest $40 million to make. The Universal movie, based on the true story of a U.S. Navy SEAL team fighting in Afghanistan, boasted an ensemble cast led by Mark Wahlberg.

Berg's new project reunites him with Wahlberg and likewise focuses on real-world events, but is far more ambitious in scope: Deepwater Horizon recounts the 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that led to the worst environmental disaster in history.

The movie cost Lionsgate, Participant Media and a Chinese partner $110 million-$120 million to make after tax incentives and rebates brought the budget down from a hefty $156 million, but it debuted to a disappointing $20.6 million over the Sept. 30-Oct. 1 weekend. (As one example, the production costs included building a model that was almost as big as the oil rig itself surrounded by a custom-built water tank.)

So far, Deepwater Horizon is playing like an adult drama — 67 percent of ticket buyers on opening weekend were over the age of 35 — versus a large-scale epic. And most adult offerings cost far less to make in order to protect themselves financially. Generally speaking, when Hollywood spends north of $100 million, that release is intended for a much broader audience.

"Deepwater Horizon is a hard sell. This should have been a $60 million film. The budget was out of control," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "It was always going to be tough to get audiences interested in one of the largest ecological disasters in U.S. history."

From the outset, Lionsgate marketed Deepwater Horizon as a heroic tale versus an issues-oriented movie. Heroes can certainly captivate; Clint Eastwood's Sully, starring Tom Hanks as the real-life pilot who safely landed a disabled US Airways jet on the Hudson River, is currently a box-office sensation, in part because the real-life pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, is known around the world for saving his crew and passengers.

By contrast, though, while Wahlberg's character is based on real-life electronics technician Mike Williams, Williams' role in the oil rig explosion isn't as well known, and the name Deepwater Horizon itself is more associated with the aftermath of the spill than the heroics of the men who survived and helped their fellow workers.

Eastwood and Warners spent $60 million to make Sully, which has earned $105 million domestically after debuting to $35 million on Sept. 9. Globally, its total is $151.7 million. Among other adult offerings that popped at the box office in recent years, Bridge of Spies' budget was $40 million and Captain Phillips cost $55 million (both also starred Hanks).

While Sully and Captain Phillips worked, Deepwater Horizon isn't the first recent ripped-from-the-headlines disaster drama to falter. Last year, Warner Bros.' The 33, the story of the 2010 mining disaster in Chile, bombed at the box office with a global take of less than $25 million after costing $26 million to make.

Privately, some stakeholders in Deepwater Horizon argue Wahlberg's character should have been highlighted more in the marketing campaign. They also suggest not enough was spent on overall advertising. It's not uncommon for a Hollywood studio to pay as much to market a big-budget title as it did to make it.

Sources close to Lionsgate counter Wahlberg was front-and-center from the beginning, and that the independent studio spent more than it usually does on marketing — roughly more than $40 million. They also note that Deepwater Horizon led all other movies in terms of ad spending in the two weeks leading up to its release. Lionsgate inherited the project, co-starring Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez and Dylan O'Brien, when it acquired Summit Entertainment.

Deepwater Horizon is the second Lionsgate release in a row to find itself in trouble following Blair Witch.

The hope now is that Deepwater Horizon, buoyed by strong reviews and an A- CinemaScore, will emulate other adult dramas and have a strong multiple, meaning it could earn as much as four times its domestic opening of $20.6 million. Another positive sign: The film exceeded prerelease tracking. There are no guarantees, however, and Deepwater Horizon will face competition next weekend from new adult entry, The Girl on the Train.

There's also the question of overseas, where the jury's out. Deepwater Horizon needs to pull in strong numbers internationally after debuting to $12.4 million from 52 markets, including only a handful of major territories.

"The overall post-summer marketplace has been in a malaise for the past three weekends all down at least 20 percent versus the same weekend a year before," says Paul Dergarabedian of comScore. "Election coverage plus all the new fall TV offerings have created a massive distraction and a formidable draw for audiences to the small screen.

"That being said, Mark Wahlberg is a consistent draw and based on our PostTrak audience survey, 26 percent of the audience went to see the movie because of him and 62 percent gave the movie a definite recommend score, both with of which are huge percentages," Dergarabedian continues. "This could portend playability."

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