“Mortal Engines” became the most recent YA adaptation tragedy to hit the box office, seemingly doomed to obscurity like “The Mortal Instruments,” and “Vampire Academy.”
Universal Pictures gave “Mortal Engines” a coveted, and very crowded, December premiere date. The epic fantasy film hit theaters a week before Christmas, during a rare holiday season when Marvel and Star Wars were taking a break. The film was expected to start a new YA franchise, and everything seemed perfectly aligned for the film’s big debut. Despite an almost eight-month long marketing effort and a strong supporting cast, the movie came up short when it debuted in theaters nationwide this weekend, losing ground to animated-comedies and previous hits.
“Mortal Engines” made an estimated $7.5M domestically this weekend, far behind this week’s big winners like “Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse,” which made $35M, and Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” which made $17M. Even films like Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “The Grinch,” two animated comedies that have been in theaters for weeks at this point, beat “Mortal Engines” at the box office.
With an estimated budget of $100M, Mortal Engines’ weekend box office total is terrible news for the studio. There’s little to no chance that the film will recover on the domestic market, with “Aquaman,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Second Act,” and the buddy comedy “Holmes & Watson” all set to release this month. This weekend needed to be significant for the film, and it debuted in fifth-place overall on the Weekend Box Office charts.
On paper “Mortal Engines” seems like an easy win. The film brought on Oscar winner and “King Kong” visual-effects artist Christian Rivers, and the screenplay was handcrafted by “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings trilogies” three-time Academy Award-winning filmmakers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. If you are going to create a fantasy world adaptation of a best selling book series, these four professionals are the ones to call.
Even the back of the house had an elite team of moviemakers, with Zane Weiner (The Hobbit trilogy), Amanda Walker (The Hobbit trilogy) and Deborah Forte (Goosebumps) producing the film. Ken Kamins (The Hobbit trilogy) and Boyens even served as Executive Producers for the project. There didn’t seem to be anyone standing in the way to make a terrific adaptation, yet audiences seemingly instantly dismissed the movie.
It wasn’t just audiences; critics weren’t kind to the film during the previews. “Mortal Engines” currently has a 28% rating on RottenTomatoes, while fans were a little more forgiving, giving the film a 61% rating.
December is one of the busiest times of the year at the box office, which can be a blessing and a curse for studios. While some films prosper, others films are buried under a landslide of new releases. Historically, December has been very kind to YA adaptations, which was one of the big reasons that “Mortal Engines” released this month. Almost half of the Top Ten box office openings in December were YA adaptations based on best selling novels. Those franchises include “The Hobbit,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, five if you count “Sherlock Holmes” as an adaptation as well. The top three December openings all belong to the Star Wars franchise, which as we mentioned earlier, took the year off. That power vacuum was yet another reasons that “Mortal Engines” was set up for success.
With a $7.5M opening, it’s unlikely that fans will get another “Mortal Engines” movie, but that doesn’t’ mean that the film is doomed. Other films have found success overseas when domestic markets have shunned them. “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” only made $20M when it debuted in theaters in America, but made over $346M worldwide from an estimated $85M budget. “Transformers: The Last Knight” had a $44M opening in theaters, well below the film’s estimated $217M budget, but that film ended up making over $605M worldwide.
Just like “Mortal Instruments,” the franchise could always move to streaming television. Freeform had a terrific run with “Shadowhunters: Mortal Instruments,” proving that franchise can live on after a failed cinematic run.
We will have to wait and see how “Mortal Engines” does overseas, but as of right now, things don’t look good for the franchise.