Even without the delta variant and Hurricane Henri keeping prospective moviegoers at home, a poorly reviewed post-apocalyptic noir wrapped in a love story may have been a tough sell in theaters.
Movies aimed at older audiences have been particularly challenged at the box office in recent years, with more falling flat than not. Yet “Reminiscence,” starring Hugh Jackman and directed by “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy, failed to reach even modest box office expectations. In its first weekend, the Warner Bros. film, which is playing simultaneously on HBO Max, barely scraped together $2 million from 3,265 North American theaters, marking one of the worst starts in history for a nationwide release — and that’s including the swath of nondescript action dramas that premiered during the bleakest days of the pandemic.
At a time when roughly half of the nation’s movie theaters were entirely shuttered due to COVID-19, the scant amount of movies released in late 2020 and early 2021 — Russell Crowe’s revenge thriller “Unhinged” ($4 million from 1,823 venues), the Liam Neeson caper “Honest Thief” ($4.1 million from 2,425 locations), and “Let Him Go,” a little-talked-about drama with Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, ($4 million from 2,454 cinemas) among them — were able to make twice as much as “Reminiscence” did in its opening weekend. That suggests the ongoing global heath crisis isn’t entirely to blame for the film’s paltry launch in theaters.
“I don’t know if you can lay it all on consumer’s habits during the pandemic,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “Even in this marketplace, product is the No. 1 factor. People want to see a good movie. A film has to have a lot of buzz to rise above the fray.”
“Reminiscence” did not enjoy the kind of reception that galvanizes people to rush to their local multiplex. Moviegoers and critics alike dismissed the film, which received a “C+” CinemaScore and 37% average on Rotten Tomatoes. It centers on Jackman, who has been a consistent box office draw in musicals and superhero fare and a mixed bag in other genres, as a private investigator who runs a business that allows people to access lost memories. He’s thrown for a loop when he discovers a violent conspiracy while trying to solve the mystery behind a missing client. Many reviews for the film praised its creative concept but felt it didn’t begin to live up to similarly cerebral sci-fi films like “Blade Runner” or “Inception.” It co-stars Rebecca Ferguson and Thandie Newton.
“No one could accuse ‘Reminiscence’ of being an incompetent movie,” Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review. “Yet here’s one case where that feeling of clockwork precision is actually part of what’s numbing about the film. ‘Reminiscence’ plays like a perfectly calibrated two-hour mirage of things we’ve seen before.”
Its hybrid debut on HBO Max didn’t help boost ticket sales. Warner Bros. has been releasing its entire 2021 slate on its parent company’s streaming service and in theaters simultaneously, and several of the movies for adult audiences, such as Angelina Jolie’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” ($2.8 million debut), Denzel Washington’s “The Little Things” ($4.8 million debut) and “Judas and the Black Messiah” ($2 million debut) fell flat at the box office. The studio has been more successful with its action-packed tentpoles catered to the general public, like “Godzilla vs. Kong” ($31 million debut) and “Space Jam: A New Legacy” ($31 million debut).
“This temporary hybrid release strategy is susceptible to the ups and downs of the pandemic,” Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro, says. “It goes without saying that certain films without an ‘all-audience’ angle and aimed narrowly at adults over a certain age are in a more challenging spot to succeed commercially until those moviegoers are more comfortable returning to public lifestyles.”
That’s problematic for a film like “Reminiscence,” which has a production budget around $65 million and needs to generate roughly $130 million worldwide to break even. That number doesn’t include the millions paid to compensate Jackman after Warner Bros. decided to put the film simultaneously on HBO Max. At the international box office, “Reminiscence” didn’t make up much ground and generated $3 million from 48 overseas markets, meaning the movie stands to lose a substantial amount in its theatrical run. The studio didn’t report the number of people who watched “Reminiscence” on HBO Max, but studio executives have previously indicated that streaming metrics have been similar to box office returns. If a Warner Bros. movie flops in theaters, chances are high that people didn’t go out of their way to see it at home.
Prior to the pandemic, an adult-skewing drama with a complicated premise and tepid reviews, like “Reminiscence,” would have been far from sure-fire. Now, with COVID-19 cases surging again due to the delta variant, it has become that much more difficult to get its target audience to show up. Three of the four new movies that opened this weekend, the others being Searchlight’s thriller “The Night House” starring Rebecca Hall, and Lionsgate’s “The Protege” with Michael Keaton, Maggie Q and Samuel L. Jackson, were targeted to adults and also fizzled in their respective debuts.
“That’s a lot of content competing for an audience that is reluctant to go out in the first place,” Dergarabedian points out.
“The Night House” and “The Protege” each collected an estimated $3 million between Friday and Monday as Disney’s action comedy “Free Guy” ($18.8 million in its second weekend) and Paramount’s animated kids film “PAW Patrol” ($13 million in its opening weekend) led domestic box office charts. Among holdovers, MGM’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” ($3.6 million in its second weekend) and Focus Features’ Matt Damon-led drama “Stillwater” ($450,000 in its four weekend) haven’t been huge box office draws either. Industry analysts suggest that’s because the delta variant is a bigger deal for older patrons. On average, males between the ages of 25 and 35 have been the most consistent demographic of moviegoers, which explains why Marvel’s superhero adaptation “Black Widow,” the “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9” and “A Quiet Place II” have been the year’s top-grossing movies.
“Older moviegoers — and by ‘older,’ we’re talking about 35 through baby-boomers — have the most to be concerned about their health, so for now they’re erring on the safe side,” says David A. Gross, who runs consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “They’re also more affluent than younger moviegoers, so they have the most comfortable and high-quality home entertainment options. It raises the bar for movies that are less than must-see.”
He adds, “Why take a risk when it’s easy to stay home and watch something good?”