Hollywood’s practice of mining classic films for remakes and sequels has led to several disasters, from Ben-Hur to Ghostbusters. But a new Blade Runner film has a shot at paying off for the team of studios and financiers who helped will it into existence.
Blade Runner 2049, opening this weekend, continues the dystopian sci-fi story of Harrison Ford’s Los Angeles cop, Rick Deckard, following up on the 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott. The sequel takes a big risk by revisiting a cult classic that’s revered as a masterpiece. It’s distributed by Warner Bros and Sony, which co-financed the project along with the film companies of FedEx founder Fred Smith and mining magnate Frank Giustra.
There are signs that the gamble will pay off. Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro, has ratcheted up his domestic ticket sales forecast by about 20% on positive buzz and Oscar talk after private screenings and marketing efforts. His concerns have subsided that the R-rated movie might be too esoteric for casual film fans. Robbins now estimates an opening weekend of US$54m, in line with mainstream releases this year such as War for the Planet of the Apes and Cars 3.
“It doesn’t feel like the kind of sequels they make these days,” Erik Davis, managing editor at ticket booking site Fandango, said of Blade Runner 2049. By delving into the world of artificial intelligence and the role of technology in human life, the film “is more relevant now than when it first came out”, he said.
That is music to the ears of Time Warner’s Warner Bros, which has the North American rights. The Burbank, California-based studio is enjoying a stronger run at the box office this year, with the hit Wonder Woman and the critical darling Dunkirk making up for disappointments such as The Lego Ninjago Movie and King Arthur. If Blade Runner does well this weekend, it could open the door for further films set in the same world.
“We are in a great place,” Jeff Goldstein, head of domestic distribution at Warner Bros, said in an interview. The studio has a more conservative $45m opening weekend forecast. The film may help Warner Bros pass the $2bn domestic box office tally this year for only the second time, Goldstein said.
While Warner Bros co-produced and distributed the original movie, Smith’s Alcon Entertainment made the sequel based on plans from producers Bud and Cynthia Yorkin. The Los Angeles-based film producer, which also backed Oscar-nominated The Blind Side, secured the support of Scott as executive producer on the new one.
The film ultimately cost $150m to produce, with Sony providing $90m and Alcon $60m, according to people familiar with the matter, not including marketing costs. Sony will share in the profits and has the rights to distribute the film internationally.
The filmmakers got subsidies from Hungary, New Zealand and France, along with three different Canadian tax credits, according to production notes. Still, the big budget and marketing campaign mean Blade Runner 2049 will need to bring in about $675m worldwide to be profitable, according to Jeff Bock, senior analyst at box office researcher Exhibitor Relations. That’s on par with 2014 sci-fi hit Interstellar.
Another key player in the film’s development was Giustra’s Vancouver-based production company Thunderbird, which invests in entertainment properties. “We had the opportunity to invest in the underlying rights and I approached my friend and partner Frank Giustra. Frank didn’t hesitate,” said Tim Gamble, a founding partner and vice chairman of Thunderbird.
Gamble said Giustra, the co-founder of Lions Gate Entertainment, considers the first Blade Runner a “brilliant piece of art”. The new film is by far the most high-profile project so far for Thunderbird, whose other investments include Beat Bugs, the Netflix children’s series inspired by the music of the Beatles. “We are grateful to be a part of this major franchise, ” Gamble said.
For Sony, the movie adds to the momentum after the successful reboot of its Spider-Man franchise this year and critical acclaim for heist movie Baby Driver. The studio is looking to rebound after several 2016 box-office disappointments, such as its attempted revival of Ghostbusters.
Blade Runner 2049 is already a hit with critics, with 91% giving positive reviews, according to aggregator Rottentomatoes.com, and some are putting it on early lists of Oscar contenders.
In addition to Ford, the movie has a bankable lead, heartthrob Ryan Gosling, and co-stars including Jared Leto. Director Denis Villeneuve is a rising star who was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year for Arrival, which Sony also distributed internationally.
Whether this is the first of a new world of Blade Runner movies will be up to the audience, Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s film studio, said in an interview.
“It’s an expansive universe with room for storytelling,” Rothman said. “That’s the difference between franchises that audience embrace and those they are tired of.” — Reported by Anousha Sakoui, (c) 2017 Bloomberg LP