Tony Black on the box office failure of The Huntsman: Winter’s War…
So it seems we have the first confirmed box office dud of 2016: The Huntsman’s Winter War, positioned as a potential new fantasy franchise under the Universal banner. It was confirmed in the Guardian yesterday that Universal, who broke box office records last year thanks to Jurassic World & Fast and Furious 7, now stand to lose at least $70 million on a film which has only made around the $200 million mark in global till receipts, and needed well over that seventy million roughly just to break even, let alone turn a profit on a $115 million budget – which isn’t even a lot in the grand scheme of budgets these days. Perhaps the biggest surprise of this revelation isn’t that Huntsman lost money, it’s that nobody seemed to see this coming. Nobody seemed to stop at the outset and question all of those fans of Snow White and the Huntsman, the film this confusingly turns out to be a prequel and sequel to. The reason probably is because all two of them couldn’t be reached that day. It’s possibly the most expensive follow up to a movie almost nobody liked in the first place, and even fewer people remember without prompting.
Why, then, would Universal throw money at this thing? There are undoubtedly a few reasons, all based on ‘shrewd’ studio executive calculations about what the people want thanks to current trends, which prove again the maxim that nobody knows anything in Hollywood. Firstly – fantasy. After the superhero genre, it’s arguably the most en vogue movie and TV type around these days, what with the historical popularity of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, plus of course the immensely successful Game of Thrones. You can see their logic in wanting to get aboard that kind of train. Secondly – star power. When Snow White and the Huntsman were released, top lining were Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, with Chris Hemsworth fresh to mega stardom thanks to his role as Thor in the Marvel machine. Essentially third billed, when the movie didn’t do the critical buzz or business they hoped, all eyes turned to Hemsworth. Made famous essentially by the fantasy genre (Thor is fantasy meets men in tights, let’s be honest), Hemsworth top lining a sequel surely meant they had a perfect equation on their hands. A huge Hollywood star + fantasy world + links to well known characters and existing franchises must surely = a mega box office and brand new cinematic franchise. Only the sums didn’t add up, don’t add up, and if anyone had stopped to think this through before writing the checks, they may have saved themselves a lot of money and prevented a colossal waste of time.
Now let me be honest – I haven’t seen The Huntsman’s Winter War. I’m not going to comment on the quality. Plenty of other reviews out there are highlighting, nonetheless, that it’s not much of a muchness. When it was released over the Easter break in the UK, I toyed with paying money but a combination of negative buzz and a lack of interest stopped me, and may well have stopped a great many others. My suspicions were first raised when I realised Huntsman was being released on a Monday. This happened, memorably, for Seth Rogen/Zac Efron comedy Neighbors two years ago and signifies a lack of studio confidence; they release on a Monday instead of Friday but only count the extra five days box office takings in the first weekend’s gross, giving them an immediate bump in till receipts they wouldn’t have got over a solo weekend. It worked for Neighbors, which became a hit and secured an incoming sequel, but still nobody went to see Huntsman, and it wasn’t even up against a major rival on its opening weekend. Going back to the lack of interest, the trailer did it no favours either; muddled and largely confusing, it attempted to emphasise the sexiness of not just Hemsworth but the other major stars involved – a returning Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt playing her sister, and Jessica Chastain as a warrior woman, at the expense of putting forward a cogent plot and anything resembling a piece of exciting fantasy or high drama. It looked dull, rote and standard even in the trailer. That’s a stellar A-list cast of talented, in some cases Oscar-winning players by the way. Rather than be excited at seeing them come together, my first question was – what the hell are they doing in *this*? Theron, Blunt nor Chastain need this for their careers and it can only be a hefty pay cheque that enticed them. Hemsworth? That’s a little different.
The simple fact is, a fact Universal either seem to be wilfully ignoring or are blind to because he’s such a nice dude, that Chris Hemsworth is not a successful leading man. Even when he’s choosing projects with respected directors who’ve made mega hit pictures, people like Ron Howard or Michael Mann, films like In the Heart of the Sea or Blackhat bomb at the box office. It could be that people only want to see Hemsworth as Thor, and he may well have made a rod for his own back with Marvel. Without them, either part of the Avengers ensemble or leading his own movie, he’s oddly rudderless and doesn’t seem to fit in people’s minds as a major, marketable star people will throw money at the screen to see like DiCaprio or Tatum. Surely someone at Universal must have wondered if having Hemsworth front load the franchise they wanted to build around the Huntsman was risky? Perhaps that’s the major reason they sank a lot of money into surrounding him with three major female stars of the day. They calculated this wrong too because the money paying their salaries no doubt meant they didn’t have the green to hire a decent director. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan graded up from visual effects specialist and second unit director on Snow White and the Huntsman (and the equally rubbish Maleficent), with this being his first directorial outing. By all accounts, it shows. Universal therefore took a risk on an unproven director to helm a major fantasy franchise, led by a likeable star who nonetheless can’t seem to get punters in on his own, and decided the script could come second. A classic example of throwing a ton of money at effects and stars and hoping people didn’t notice what you were making is a load of old tosh, money that could have been better spent making a film more worthy of the talents of the people involved.
Truth is, ultimately, nobody did notice. The Huntsman’s Winter War sank without a trace with an audience far more entranced by The Jungle Book and excited by Captain America: Civil War on its way. If anything the saddest fact is that James Newton Howard’s rather good score may end up as lost as his work on Snow White and the Huntsman given how bland and forgettable the films are. What this should ultimately be however is a lesson to Universal. Stars and the popularity of genres is not a given. People love and go back to Marvel for instance because, on the whole, they are good at what they do and employ talented people in front of and behind the camera to do it. The Huntsman’s Winter War deservedly failed because it wanted something for nothing and you know what? We know we deserve better.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.