10 reasons why Tomorrowland may have failed at the box office

Ten reasons why the wonderful new movie Tomorrowland may have failed to make a dent at the box office, even though it certainly dinged the optimistic hearts of those who love it — and who will continue to cheer for it when the Blu-ray releases in September.

1. It wasn’t what the mainstream adult audience thought it would be, a straightforward and fairly mindless kids’ summer adventure movie. A further guess is that audiences are simply not used to that much raw optimism, or to seeing a positive vision of the future — it’s like an alien language to people who spend day after day wallowing in a diet of relentless bad news and pessimism about the future. Rational optimism perhaps takes a certain level of acclimatisation, before you can take high doses of it. Maybe you can only take that much optimism if you came of age between 1952 and 1975, or are an intelligent under-16 year old with all of today’s awesome opportunities spread out before you.

2. Clooney fans may have found a grouchier and seedier character than they’d seen him as before. Just my guess, as I haven’t been a Clooney fan until now. Actually, he’s great in the movie, like seeing Cary Grant on top form. But opening the movie with his giant face grumping down at the audience was the wrong choice.

3. There was some virulent ideological mis-interpretation by a few reviewers, which Google News ranked highly while the film was in the cinemas in the USA and UK. Socialists claimed it was an entry drug for kids who would be encouraged to read (horror!) Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and turn libertarian. Some on the political right hysterically found it to be ‘promoting’ global warming (actually, the novel reveals that the destruction is clearly nuclear). Either way, this led to some insidiously poisonous reviews in prominent political news outlets on both side of the political spectrum, from Breitbart London (I’m looking at you, James Delingpole, for allowing such a uniquely optimistic movie to be so thoughtlessly denigrated), to the Huffington Post etc.

4. Cynical snarly critics in the establishment press and on the movie-review websites, eager to trash it and move on to the next trashing. They were probably once the sort of obnoxious little boys who pulled the wings off butterflies or tied firecrackers to the tails of puppies.

5. Tomorrowland‘s primary audience, psychologically, appears to be girls aged 9-15 — which makes it a very rare bird indeed, in a world of packed to the rafters with boys’ formula action movies. Better, the lead actors are clever girls who look and act like real girls — and neither are swooning over sum cute boyz. The film’s another, secondary, audience is nostalgic 50+ baby-boomer males — of an age to remember the Moon landings, the planned manned Mars mission (Project NERVA), and the Great Optimism of the post-war era. All the others in the audience may have found themselves feeling a little shut out of the party, and resenting it without quite knowing why.

6. The marketing run-up appears to have been mismanaged or misjudged, something probably not helped by apparent back-stage studio wrangling about the shape of the movie (the main editor on the first cut was apparently abruptly sacked). The standard paint-by-numbers marketing playbook was never going to work effectively, for a $200m tent-pole movie as unique and new as this. Also, the ARG game ‘The Optimist’ may have been held way too early (2013), or could have been re-run closer to the opening. The free back-story comic-book was only available digitally to those in the USA and using Apple Macs or the latest Android tablets, thus slamming the door on tens of millions of curious Windows desktop users and those outside the USA. I suspect that many of such shut-out people would have disproportionately included older literary / serious SF / comics fans — a group who instead appear to have given a collective shrug, if they even heard about the movie.

7. There seems to have been no awareness at all, by 99.9% of the press and Web reviewers, that Tomorrowland is a transmedia work of storytelling, with a huge story-world behind it. Reviewers obviously couldn’t find or didn’t take the time even to quickly view the official interactive ‘explainer’ website Take Me To Tomorrowland. Still less to note the superb illustrated prequel novel Before Tomorrowland, the prequel Plus Ultra back-story comic-book, the archive of the ARG game, or the novelisation that contains a different ending and additional back-story. That lack of research is par for the course for harried newspaper office journalists, but Web fan-reviewers should be able to offer readers more than a glancing 30-minute fly-by.

8. There were no genuine ‘super-fans’ cheer-leading and Web-weaving for the movie. I’ve hastily planted a few seeds in that regard, in the last 48 hours, but who knows if they’ll ever blossom in the years ahead. Plus, during Tomorrowland‘s release-week super-fans of Tron and Tron: Legacy were highly annoyed by speculative and very ill-timed press reports blaming the ‘failure’ of Tomorrowland for the cancellation of Tron 3. So there’s a possibility that some of that Tron fandom animosity fed into the negative reviews.

9. The inclusion and/or presentation of the violence and physical injury was mis-judged (spoilers: someone takes a lot of severe knocks and blows, gets really aggressive with a baseball bat, someone else gets badly hit by a truck, policemen are quickly killed or maybe just teleported away, there’s a fist-fight, etc). The level of violence, Disney-fied though it is, probably turned off a lot of the nervous early-attender moms — who I’m guessing quickly told others on social media that it all was a little too heavy for the under 10s to see. And they’d have been right to do so. One could also note that a couple of the product-placements are crassly noticeable (the coke bottles, the car factory), but that’s a minor point.

10. My guess is that Tomorrowland simply taps too deep into the human psyche and also into the zeitgeist. A wide range of huge-but-silent depth-charges have been slipped under the surface of this movie. If only one or two of these detonate in the mind of an adult viewer, Tomorrowland may well feel rather too uncomfortable, and perhaps in ways that they can’t even articulate. On top of that, the movie basically asks the viewer to totally turn around the pessimistic way they approach and view the world. Many would rather pick holes in the movie, or simply misinterpret it, rather than throw away their comfort-blanket of pessimism.

Finally, it should probably go without saying that Tomorrowland was directly contending at the U.S. box office with some very strong movies, a fact probably not anticipated when Disney set the May release date (it was originally a December movie — but then the planned May 2015 Star Wars movie was moved back, leaving a vacant summer slot, and they also had to wait four months for Clooney to finish Monuments Men). Plus, the overall box office take across all movies was poor for Memorial Day 2015, and big movies in general have not done as much business as expected during the first half of 2015.

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7 thoughts on “10 reasons why Tomorrowland may have failed at the box office

  1. Marcelo June 6, 2015 / 12:50 am

    It’s a wonderful movie, but way ahead of its time. Congratulations to Disney and Brad Bird for this masterpiece and their courage to pursue their dreams.

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  2. Herp McDerp June 6, 2015 / 6:43 pm

    I enjoyed it, but I wish there’d been better explanations for the Big Disaster and for why the “current” Tomorrowland city looked so decrepit and depopulated. And I was very disappointed that Hugh Laurie’s character had so little time on screen.

    Damon Lindelof says they cut 15 minutes as a result of focus group comments. Apparently the focus groups preferred fights, chase scenes, and explosions over understanding the plot.

    Re: Point #6, Lindelof also basically said that they didn’t get the advertising budget they had expected, especially for viral marketing.

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  3. David Haden June 7, 2015 / 2:19 pm

    Hi Herp, thanks for the link and additional info on the viral budget. I hadn’t yet discovered comments about the focus groups and cuts. As for the Big Disaster, called ‘the Inevitability’ in the novelization, the novel version of the movie is fairly clear that it’s nuclear – since the Monitor can’t see it due to the radiation, on three months either side of the date.

    The depopulation of the city is very probably linked to Nix’s mysterious lack of ageing since 1964. The novel makes clear he’s not a robot, and great play of how The Monitor needs vast amounts of power. In the movie Frank says he was able to detect and tap into the Monitor on earth because it was being ‘switched on and off’. Nix later contradicts this with what is presumably a lie, saying hysterically that it’s impossible to turn it off. The implication is that Nix has secretly been turning it off occasionally, to draw huge power into his personal ‘immortality machine’ – at the cost of shutting down whole sections of the city permanently.

    The vain and dangerous pursuit of immortality is a strong and central theme in the prequel novel. The ‘draining the city of power to achieve something’ idea is visually foreshadowed in the movie, when the Paris rocket drains the city centre’s power as it ascends. It all fits very neatly. Clooney also publicised the movie with interviews that stated that as an actor he preferred to grow old gracefully and naturally, rather than have technology help preserve the surface appearance of youth — which suggests he may have been in on the full/deep plot of the movie.

    On Hugh Laurie, it seems that the Blu-ray / its publicity will have the ‘1960s TV science show’ that Hugh fronted, apparently filmed as a viral but not yet released. Presumably they’re holding it back for the Blu-ray release publicity, and it’s an appeal for inventors to come to the 1964 World’s Fair, free tickets to win etc – which would explain how Frank gets to the Fair from the midwest.

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  4. Herp McDerp June 7, 2015 / 7:53 pm

    The depopulation of the city is very probably linked to Nix’s mysterious lack of ageing since 1964. The novel makes clear he’s not a robot, and great play of how The Monitor needs vast amounts of power.

    In the movie, Nix makes a reference to the “milkshake” he drinks every morning that keeps him from aging. (They have anti-gravity, AI, and interstellar travel, so why not immortality as well?) I assumed that the depopulation of the city was linked to Nix gradually becoming a ruthless dictator; the city’s other inhabitants might have chosen to leave, or might have been exiled to the “sunny beach” world we saw … or liquidated. And I suspect that the Monitor needed enormous power to be able to punch its transmissions through to our world. I’d love to see an adult novelization that addressed these questions (and others!); with luck the Blu-ray disk will. From what I’ve read on the Web, the juvenile novel contradicts the movie in several places.

    … the novel version of the movie is fairly clear that it’s nuclear …

    I’ve seen claims that the climate change bit was a last-minute addition, possibly forced on the filmmakers by Disney upper management or by Clooney as a requirement for his participation. Yes, it makes no sense in terms of being the avertable cause of a suddenly arriving Doomsday.

    Socialists claimed it was an entry! drug! for kids who would be encouraged to read (horror!) Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

    I expected halfway through the movie that the ending would subvert a Randian interpretation — that Earth was doomed because our best and brightest had been spirited away to Galt’s Gulch and weren’t solving Earth’s problems, while we were left with the unimaginative second-raters, middle-management executives, and telephone sanitizers. But they didn’t do that.

    Two problems that could have been solved quickly and easily with fifteen seconds of dialogue: Both Frank and Athena kept Casey in the dark about what was going on and what Tomorrowland is, to the point where you want to shout “JUST TELL HER, ALREADY!” And there’s no explanation for why Frank, who knows that Doomsday is coming, doesn’t warn the people of Earth and give them some of his marvelous inventions. Solution: Both Frank and Athena are under strong compulsion (through mind control technology and programming) to not reveal any Big Secrets to anyone in our dimension. Once they’re in Tomorrowland, or once a secret is known to the other party, then they’re able to talk.

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    • David Haden June 7, 2015 / 10:49 pm

      Yes, I suspect the “milkshake” is a bit of a joke on Nix’s part, the use of humour showing he’s not a robot. There’s some stuff about robots handling (or not) humor in the prequel, and the novel has a sequence in which Frank finally makes Athena laugh (a new thing for robots).

      We don’t actually know they have interstellar travel – they showed it in the augmented reality filmed ahead of/for the abandoned 1984 ‘reveal’. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they had it then. But it’s quite possible they did. Why would they lie, in such an important peice of communication with their recruits and the normal world.

      Yes, I assume that Nix is rather squeamish about killing. Which is why I’d like to think that his earth assassin-bots may have used teleporter guns, that just teleport opponents out the way. The film perhaps missed an opportunity for humor there, by showing the policemen popping up in some strange place miles away.

      “I suspect that the Monitor needed enormous power” – yes the novel makes that very clear.

      “the juvenile novel contradicts the movie in several places” – It’s not that there are contradictions exactly, more elaborations and a somewhat different ending. Not that juvenile, either, more of a young adult novel.

      “the climate change bit was a last-minute addition” – I didn’t notice anything specific on that, other than some blink-and-you-miss-it background TV news reports of bad weather. It was all a bit of a jumble. Could be you’re right, though.

      “Earth was doomed because our best and brightest had been spirited away” – yes, that possibility was never mentioned. Probably because the best and the brightest never actually were spirited away. A few VIPs were shown the place in 1964 (adult inventors this time, compared to the kid SF fans targetted with comic-books in 1939), but it’s quite possible that Frank was the only normal recruit ever allowed to stay. The planned opening to humanity in 1984 never happened. So that’s presumably what Athena means when she refers to the relationship between Frank and her as Nix’s “experiment”. In the novel Nix says he has “just enough” to keep the city ticking over.

      “kept Casey in the dark about what was going on” – yes, but she’s freaked enough already. Athena, being a recruiter robot-android (androids with decanted human minds had been developed by the 1940s, according to the prequel) probably has protocols on handling and progressing such matters. And on when it’s not a good time to tell someone.

      “why Frank doesn’t warn the people of Earth” – apparently a whole 100 pages of the script (in an early 200-page draft) was used to introduce each of the characters thoroughly. So possibly Frank did try, from 1984-1994-ish then gave up with no success. Plus Ultra, of which he was presumably a member for 1964-1984, also had a code of non-intervention and other ethical restraints.

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      • Herp McDerp June 8, 2015 / 4:34 am

        It’s not that there are contradictions exactly …

        I’ve read that in Before Tomorrowland, the city supposedly is located on an alien planet in our galaxy, hundreds of light-years away, and not in an alternate dimension.

        Dang. It looks like I’ll have to order a hard copy of Before Tomorrowland and the Tomorrowland novel, just to look for clues. I’m very surprised there seems to be only a juvenile novelization of a movie that Disney spent a lot of money on.

        By the way, I really liked your proposed alternate ending. And even if Athena had been entirely self-contained — after all, she was hiding on Earth for thirty years without support, and if part of her mind had been housed in Tomorrowland Nix simply could have turned her off — prudent engineers would have made provisions for a BACKUP! Athena could have given Frank a data cartridge just before the drop scene, or Casey could have found a thirty-year-old copy of Athena’s memories in Tomorrowland and given Frank the nice surprise you described.

        Hmmm … It might have been interesting to cast Kristen Stewart (from Snow White and the Huntsman) in your ending as an “adult” version of Athena who had Raffey Cassidy’s voice … but I guess that wouldn’t have been compatible with the monorail scene that was filmed.

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  5. David Haden September 4, 2015 / 9:50 am

    “I’ve read that in Before Tomorrowland, the city supposedly is located on an alien planet in our galaxy, hundreds of light-years away, and not in an alternate dimension.”

    Well, it could be both. Certainly the laws of physics are different there. Perhaps the location is both in an alternate dimension AND on another planet in that dimension. I seem to remember that the Victorian-era Plus Ultra, as seen in the comic, did theorize that the place they had opened a portal to was on another planet.

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