Here are the facts: Sucker Punch cost Warner Bros. around $82 million to make, and if you've watched TV or looked at a billboard at all lately, you know they spent even more on marketing. Let's call the total cost for this film around $100 million, maybe it's more, but we'll play it conservatively here. Expectations for Sucker Punch were pretty high. Director Zack Snyder has a history of delivering big blockbuster pictures in the spring. Not this time.
Sucker Punch opened with a $19 million debut this weekend, and that wasn't even nearly enough to earn it the weekend's number one spot. Instead it was beat rather handily by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules which, while based on a popular series of children books, wasn't really marketed at all. Maybe Sucker Punch will find a way to break even, in today's modern international economy, most movies do. It won't make much of that money in American theaters, but it'll probably make it in international markets where Hollywood has a history of finding ways to sell just about anything, to someone.
Whether or not it eventually ekes out a break even number, by just about any measure Zack Snyder's latest was a tremendous disappointment at the box office. What went wrong? I have a few ideas, here's where for Sucker Punch, the whole thing fell apart.
Who Was This Movie Made For Again? It's hard to be sure just who this movie was made for. It's not a superhero movie, exactly, and it's not really science fiction or a fantasy film. It's kind of steam punk, but not really. It's set in a dream world, sort of. It seems to want to be an action movie, but there's all this stuff about girls an insane asylum which feels like it's halfway to being Girl, Interrupted. I said in my review of the film that it seemed like it was three completely different movies, crammed together. A drama about a girl dealing with her abusive step-father, a heist movie set in some sort of bordello, and an action movie set in, well, cgiland. Alone any one of those movies might find an audience yet stick them together and show them to most crowds, while they might like one of them, odds are they won't be interested in the other two.
The movie's marketing didn't help, exactly. It never really got around to the business of telling us what Sucker Punch was about. You can't blame the film's marketing team really, since the movie as it turns out, wasn't really about anything. So the trailers mostly just showed girls leaping around, and never really explained why they were leaping around or why we should be interested in all the leaping, other than our natural love for girls. The film seemed to be trying to sell itself based on the sexiness of its female characters, but what exactly is sexy about a twenty-something dressed up like a little girl in a sparkly sailor outfit? Sucker Punch has an uncanny ability to make girls with guns spectacularly unsexy. Maybe those TV spots played well to the barely legal porn crowd, but they left everyone else sitting on the couch next to their daughter feeling vaguely uncomfortable. There's a reason no one outside of creepy guys who live in their parents' basement has ever heard of Sailor Moon
Buzzkill Bad reviews don't kill blockbusters, even truly terrible movies often make money when they get the kind of marketing blitz Sucker Punch got. But since the marketing misfired, Sucker Punch needed good buzz. It might have been able to convince some of those skeptical audiences to show up in spite of their reservations or confusion about the subject matter, if it had been any good. But it wasn't, and word got out quickly, in spite of the studio's attempts to hide the truth from audiences. Even that, backfired. Critics weren't allowed to see the movie until late Wednesday night, in an obvious ploy to delay reviews and keep them off the internet as long as possible. It's a tactic that studios have been using with increasing frequency in the past few years, and audiences are starting to figure it out. Most people now know what it means if you look up a movie on Wednesday and don't see any reviews, particularly with the web savvy crowd in Sucker Punch's key demo. They're not falling for that trick anymore.
Once critics did review it, they destroyed it. Sucker Punch is one of the worst reviewed movies of the year and, odds are it's not exactly getting good word of mouth either. You will find an extremely vocal minority of people taking to the internet in an effort to defend it, but in this case it's probably the more silent majority, comprised of people like the guy who sat in front of me waving his hands in the air and whisper-shouting to his friend “WTF?” throughout the picture, who are dominating the offline chatter. That's reflected in the movie's sinking box office totals throughout the weekend. It opened with $8 million on Friday, but by Sunday, only managed to pull in $4 million. Don't expect Sucker Punch to stick around very long in theaters.
Failure To Recognize All the reasons we've discussed so far, will probably be ignored by Hollywood. What they're most likely to take away from Sucker Punch's failure is this: audiences want name recognition, not original ideas. They're not right, Inception has already proven that, but Hollywood has been staunchly avoiding the lessons of Inception for nearly a year, choosing instead to keep right on swimming out into the deep end of a pool full of remakes, reboots, and adaptations. Still, it's true that a lack of name recognition made Sucker Punch harder to sell. A great movie like Inception can overcome that, but a bad one simply cannot. Make a bad movie, title it Garfield and people will still show up because they're familiar with the name. Call that bad movie Sucker Punch and, people will ignore it, having no interest in discovering who it is that's being sucker punched and why someone has made an entire movie about it.
Inception at least had recognizable actors in it. That helps. People know Leonardo DiCaprio and they're comfortable with him. Big stars don't really sell pictures on their own anymore, but they can help audiences feel more comfortable when walking into unfamiliar territory. Sucker Punch had no one to move the recognition needle very far outside of its director Zack Snyder, and even though he's made one or two pretty popular films, he's not exactly Steven Spielberg. His name alone will earn you almost exactly $19,015,000 million in box office and not a penny more.