Why 'Baywatch' Drowned at the Box Office

The R-rated comedy with the combined star power of Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron could barely stay afloat at the Memorial Day box office after being savaged by reviewers.

Not even Dwayne Johnson could save Baywatch from sinking like a rock in its big-screen debut.

Crippled by critics, the R-rated adaptation of the classic TV action drama debuted to a dismal $23 million over the long Memorial Day weekend, well behind expectations. The film placed No. 3 after Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and holdover Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, now in its fourth weekend, despite the celebrity status enjoyed by Johnson, who stars opposite Zac Efron.

While the TV show was an action-drama, Paramount and Skydance decided to go in a different direction with the Baywatch movie adaptation, making it a comedy infused with as many F-bombs and penis jokes as brawn and bikinis.

In doing so, they hoped to emulate Sony's wildly successful R-rated comedic adaptation of 21 Jump Street, which earned $201.6 million in spring 2012, followed by $331.3 million for 22 Jump Street in summer 2014.

But the plot failed. The most striking difference between 21 Jump Street and Baywatch was the critical reaction. The former, starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, garnered an 85 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 19 percent rotten rating for Baywatch.

"The reviews really hurt the film, which scored great in test screenings. We were all surprised," says Paramount's Megan Colligan, president of worldwide marketing and distribution. "It is a brand that maybe relied on a positive critical reaction more than we recognized. The cast could not have done more work in aggressively promoting Baywatch. Dwayne gave this 150 percent."

Roughly 45 percent of Baywatch ticket buyers were under the age of 25. Conventional wisdom might hold that younger consumers don't care as much about reviews as older moviegoers, but a recent internal study at Paramount concluded that younger ticket buyers pay close attention to aggregated scores on Rotten Tomatoes.

"There's no good way to battle it," says Colligan.

Early last week, tracking services put Baywatch's opening at $42 million or more. After reviews came out, those estimates fell to $37 million.

Baywatch's demise comes just months after CHiPs, another R-rated TV-to-film adaptation, failed at the box office. CHiPs, from Warner Bros., fared even worse than Baywatch, opening to $7.7 million and topping out at $34.2 million domestically and $6.9 million internationally.

Box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian says big-screen reboots of TV series are tough. "Messing with the formula and trying to update these beloved TV shows for today's marketplace is like trying to update a classic recipe by adding a modern twist, and in most cases it just doesn't work," he says.

Baywatch is a rare miss for Johnson. Last summer, PG-13 action comedy Central Intelligence, in which he starred alongside Kevin Hart, opened to $35 million over the June 17-19 weekend on its way to grossing $217 million globally. And in late May 2015, Johnson's San Andreas posted a three-day debut of $54.6 million before shaking its way to $474 million worldwide.

There is certainly precedence for programming Memorial Day weekend with R-rated comedies; The Hangover Part II debuted to $103.4 million over the holiday in 2011, followed by $50.3 million for The Hangover Part III in 2013 and $36 million for Sex and the City 2 in 2010.

Baywatch, which cost Paramount and Skydance under $70 million to produce before marketing, also stars Priyanka Chopra, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass, Kelly Rohrbach and Ilfenesh Hadera.

Baywatch opens in earnest overseas next week.

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