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Johnny Depp's 'Rum Diary' Tanks at Box Office: What Went Wrong

Peter Mountain/Courtesy of FilmDistrict and GK Films
"The Rum Diary"

The actor's tribute to his friend, the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, opens to dismal $5 million.

Moviegoers, who love Johnny Depp when he sashays on screen as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, stayed away en masse from his newest film The Rum Diary, in which he plays a fictionalized version of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

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Thompson may be just as colorful as Sparrow – the late journalist, who died in 2005, was famous for his intake of booze and drugs – but Depp’s newest movie, inspired by one of Thompson’s books, might as well have ended up in the drunk tank.

Opening this weekend in 2,272 theaters, the R-rated movie grossed just $5 million, ranking fifth for the weekend and earning just $2,205 per location.

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A huge international star, Depp can claim three movies among the top-ten worldwide grossers of all time: 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which ranks sixth with $1.07 billion; this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is eighth with $1.04 billion; and Alice in Wonderland, which is ninth with $1.02 billion. Even Depp’s less successful movies have done far more business than Rum Diary. Last year’s The Tourist, in which he costarred with Angelina Jolie, opened to $16.5 million and went on to gross $67.7 million domestically and $278.3 million worldwide, while the animated movie Rango, in which he voiced the title character, opened to $38.1 million in North America and took in $242.6 million worldwide earlier this year.

Rum Diary is Depp’s worst stumble at the box office since the arty fantasy movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which grossed just $7.7 million in the U.S. in 2009, although unlike Rum Diary, it never played in more than 607 theaters.

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The movie has been a passion project for Depp, who struck up a deep friendship with the author, who he portrayed in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but like many other passion projects that Hollywood has witnessed, it bombed with audiences.

Based on a novel that Thompson wrote in the early ‘60s but didn’t published until 1998, the movie follows a journalist, played by Depp, who heads to Puerto Rico in the 1950s.

While there were several earlier and unsuccessful attempts to mount a film version, it wasn’t until Depp and his production company Infinitum Nihil joined forces with Graham King’s GK Films that the movie went into production, filming in Puerto Rico in 2009 with Bruce Robinson, whose 1997 film Withnail & I was a favorite of both Thompson and Depp’s, directing.

FilmDistrict, co-founded by King, took on distribution of Rum Diary, but held off its release until it could find a release date when Depp was free from commitments to his most recent Pirates movie as well as filming of the upcoming Dark Shadows, so he could go on the road to promote the movie.

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In addition to a Vanity Fair cover, Depp went out on the road on behalf of the film, doing a college tour that saw him visit UC Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University.

Depp's visit to Austin did hit one roadblock when a reporter for local ABC affiliate KVUE news claimed "no ABC affiliates were allowed to get an interview or video of Depp at the event because of a Disney contract revolving around his newest Pirates of the Caribbean film." Disney did not respond to THR's request for comment.

Despite his support, though, the movie attracted few buyers once it hit theaters.

Said FilmDistrict president of theatrical distribution president Bob Berney, "Probably at the end of the day the whole Hunter thing attracts more of a cult audience. While he and Johnny were best friends and the movie is a tribute to Hunter, Hunter is stilll a little too extreme for the mainstream." While the film played well in Manhattan and Los Angeles, the futher it went into the suburbs, the more it dropped off, Berney noted.

Moviegoers who did turn up turned thumbs down. Overall, CinemaScore polling gave Rum Diary a grade of C. Forty-four percent of the audience was over age 50 and they gave it a C-. Those under 18 were more enthusiastic, giving it a B, but the problem was they made up only two percent of the audience.

Reviews were mixed as well. Just 51 percent were rated positive on the Rotten Tomatoes web site. But the New York Times' A.O. Scott described that movie as "a mild lark disguised as a wild bender," called it "a touching tribute to Thompson."

Still, Berney predicted, Rum Diary could ultimately find an audience on home video, since that was the case with Fear and Loathing, which only grossed $10.7 million domestically in theaters but went on to attract fans on DVD.