How Younger Moviegoers Sank Ron Howard's 'Heart of the Sea'

In the Heart of the Sea  - H 2015
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The big-budget seafaring epic — starring Chris Hemsworth — marks the latest miss for Warner Bros.

On Sunday morning, Warner Bros. executives refused to admit defeat after Ron Howard's period seafaring epic, In the Heart of the Sea, bombed at the North American box office, opening to $11 million despite a name director and Thor star Chris Hemsworth.

The $100 million adventure film about the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820, the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick — is the latest in a devastating string of misses for the studio, including big-budget bombs Jupiter Ascending, Pan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The culprit in this case? Younger moviegoers spurned Heart of the Sea, put off by the subject matter. But when a Hollywood studio makes a $100 million film, it needs to play to all quadrants, and can't rely just on decidedly older adult moviegoers.

More than 45 percent of Heart of the Sea's audience was over the age of 50, according to exit polls conducted by CinemaScore. Surveys by Rentrak's Postrak service showed that those under the age of 18 made up 8 percent of ticket buyers, while those between the ages of 18 and 24 made up 9 percent. And only 15 percent were between the ages of 25 and 34.

It's doubtful that Warners and Village Roadshow Pictures OK'd the budget with these kind of demos in mind, say rival studio executives. Hemsworth was a huge draw in Thor, but otherwise, doesn't seem to be able to open a film on his own. Hemsworth's Rush, also directed by Howard, debuted to $10 million in fall 2013. And Hemsworth wasn't highlighted on marketing materials for Heart of the Sea; rather, the whale was the main attraction.

"It looks like a majority of moviegoers, and many younger consumers, chose to sit this one out as they prepare for a mass pilgrimage to the multiplex in about five days for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and all the films this weekend, including In the Heart of the Sea, clearly felt the neglect from audiences," said Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

Warner Bros. distribution executive Jeff Goldstein said adult dramas can do huge business over the year-end holidays, and that this year is no exception, even with Star Wars. "There's no question but that when you open up an adult movie in December, it's all about the multiple. Blood Diamond opened to $8.6 million in mid-December 2006 and did $57.4 million all in," Goldstein said, adding he expects Heart of the Sea to have strong sea legs.

However, Howard's latest film has been ravaged by critics, hurting word of mouth (older adults tend to pay attention to reviews). Audiences gave it a better grade, or a B+ CinemaScore.

Originally, Heart of the Sea was supposed to open in March, but Warner Bros. altered course and delayed the release until now, partly in order to convert the movie to 3D. The movie also got a berth in Imax theaters, the favorite destination of fanboys. But 3D didn't seem to give much of a boost.

Heart of the Sea is also encountering stormy waters overseas, grossing $12.6 million this weekend as it expanded into a total of 52 markets for a 12-day total of $39.4 million and worldwide cume of $50.4 million.

"We are disappointed and wish the numbers were higher, but Ron made a terrific movie," said Goldstein. "He's just an amazing filmmaker."

Heart of the Sea is based on Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction book of the same name.