Box Office: Can Ron Howard's 'Inferno' Crack the Code?

Inferno 5 - Tom Hanks Felicity Jones - Still - H - 2016
Sony Pictures

The third installment in the series — with Tom Hanks returning in the role of ace symbologist Robert Langdon — opens a decade after the film adaptation of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' transformed into a global box-office sensation.

In summer 2014, top executives at Sony vigorously debated whether to make Ron Howard's Inferno, the third installment in the Da Vinci Code franchise.

Studio brass said yes in late August of that year after capping the production budget at $90 million — it was later brought down to a reported $75 million — compared with $150 million each for the first two movies. The internal debate, later revealed in the hacked Sony emails, revolved around the fact that a number of execs felt the property had lost some of its mystique and they wanted to hedge their bets. Whether they hedged enough is now being put to the test.

Inferno — with Tom Hanks returning in the role of Robert Langdon, the professor of symbology immortalized in Dan Brown's mystery-thriller book series — opens this weekend at the North American box office, where moviegoers have been growing weary of Hollywood's obsession with reviving long-dormant franchises.

It's been a full decade since Howard's The Da Vinci Code, based on Brown's blockbuster novel, played on the big screen in 2006. The movie was a box-office sensation, grossing $758.2 million worldwide, including a massive $540.7 million overseas. Angels & Demons, released in 2009, did notably less business, or $486 million globally. Like Da Vinci Code, the sequel displayed the most firepower abroad, where it earned $352.6 million. (All three globe-hopping films are set in Europe.)

Sony has already declared Inferno a success overseas, where the movie has crossed $100 million since it began rolling out Oct. 12. “This kind of international performance gives us strong momentum as we open domestically and continue to roll out in some of the most highly anticipated international markets," Sony president of worldwide marketing and distribution Josh Greenstein said in a statement.

"With Sony curbing their costs by roughly 50 percent for Inferno, the studio knew going in it wasn't going to match the lofty box-office standards of the original and its sequel. That said, I think it will still have solid playability overseas, even with the competition," says box-office pundit Jeff Bock. "It should be enough to make this slightly profitable for the studio, although I bet it's the end of the line for the franchise."

The goal is to get to $200 million overseas and $300 million worldwide, but that could be tough unless Inferno does notable business in China, where it opens this weekend opposite Warner Bros.' Storks, according to box-office observers. Also, Marvel and Disney's Doctor Strange begins its foreign assault in a number of territories, taking attention away from Inferno in offshore markets where they are going up against each other. (Doctor Strange doesn't launch in China until Nov. 4, the same time it opens in North America.)

Prospects for North America are by far the bigger question mark. Prerelease tracking suggests Inferno will open anywhere between $20 million and $30 million, compared with $46.1 million for Angels & Demons and a dazzling $77.1 million for Da Vinci Code. The last two movies both opened in the summer and were given the full tentpole treatment.

In terms of storyline, Inferno focuses on the symbology of Dante's classic about the levels of hell. This time out, Langdon and his newfound partner, played by Felicity Jones, try to stop a sinister billionaire from destroying the world population by unleashing a killer virus. (Some of the movie's major plot points also diverge substantially from Brown's best-selling book of the same name, which was published in 2013.)

"It's amazing how much money the first two films made considering how badly they were reviewed. The books just aren't translating into good movies. And for Inferno to get broad appeal, you need an actor who is younger," Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM partners says. (Inferno currently sports a 27 percent "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, just ahead of Da Vinci Code's 25 percent.)

Initially, the film was set to open Dec. 18, 2015, but was pushed back to avoid a showdown with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. By opening the movie in October, Sony can position it as an adult thriller, versus a big summer tentpole, and Hanks' recent successful turn in Sully is certainly a boost, says Bock.

But Sony is still trying to get younger eyeballs, as evidenced by the casting of Jones and a full run in Imax and premium large-format theaters.

Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment produced all three Da Vinci Code movies.