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Why I Am Number Four Wasn’t Number One

Here’s a timely e-mailed question:

I Am Number Four was 2011’s first big science fiction release and was expected to win the weekend box office — and didn’t. Why not, and what does it mean?

Indeed, I Am Number Four ended up saying “I am number three” for the extended Presidents’ Day weekend box office, with about $22.6 million in box office, behind Gnomeo & Juliet ($24.8 million) and Unknown ($25.6 million). In itself, $22.6 million is not a horrible opening for a film that cost $60 million to make, but the filmmakers were hoping it would be the start of a beautiful franchise for them. Barring direct-to-home-video sequels, that doesn’t seem likely now.

So how did this happen? Here are three reasons.

First — and, one would like to think, primarily — it doesn’t appear that it
was particularly good. The film got an aggregate 30 percent rating on Rotten
Tomatoes, with most reviews calling it an ersatz Twilight, with
the hot sparkly vampires replaced by studly aliens with lasers in their
palms. (This will be important later.) A bad Rotten Tomatoes rating
doesn’t automatically mean box-office failure, particularly for science
fiction. Case in point: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,
which had a 20 percent rating and a $400 million box-office haul. But when
you’re attempting to start a new franchise from scratch and you don’t
have built-in name recognition, it certainly doesn’t help.

But some of the more book-savvy of you say, “Wasn’t the film based on a
best-selling series of young-adult books? And wouldn’t those readers
come to see the film, just like the Twilight-ers came to see the filmed
version of that book series? Isn’t there built-in recognition there?”
Well, in this case, not really. Yes, the movie was based on a young-adult novel of the same title (the presumed first in a series) —
but the story was optioned and the movie machinery began running even
before the book was out the door. And while the book has done fine in
the market, hitting the New York Times‘ young-adult best-seller
list, it hasn’t sold in the huge volume that the Twilight or Harry
series did. As a result, the film had a much smaller presell market.

Ultimately, the filmmakers might have been
better off waiting a couple of years for the book series to take off and
build its numbers before bringing their film to production (and if it
didn’t build its numbers, to cut their losses and move on). Remember
that both Twilight and Harry Potter were several books into their series before the movies were released.

A third reason the film didn’t win its weekend is the same reason lots of films don’t win their weekends: the competition. I Am Number Four was up against Unknown, which starred Liam Neeson and was an action film similar to his surprise hit Taken, from two years ago, which eventually pulled in $145 million at the box office. For some reason, chart watchers seemed surprised Neeson would pull in similar numbers in a similar film at a similar time of the year. Surprise: he did fine. Add in the holdover family business to the
animated Gnomeo & Juliet, and there was enough going on to keep Number Four at number three on the box-office chart. In a fair world, where you
were on the chart wouldn’t matter if you made enough money, but, as any
marketer will tell you, it’s hard to argue with being the number one
movie at the box office.

What does Number Four‘s lackluster debut mean for science fiction in 2011? My guess is not a whole lot. I Am Number Four was science fiction in its content — aliens, you know — but it was aimed at and marketed to the Twilight and young-adult crowd and much less to the traditional science-fiction crowd of young men and adults. Those two markets are more squarely in
the sights of the next two big science-fiction films of the year: The Adjustment Bureau, on Mar. 4, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, which is positioning itself as a high-end Inception; and the invasion film Battle: Los Angeles, which is a straight-up Independence Day-style action-adventure, on Mar. 11. Consequently, I think those two films might be a better test of the science-fiction audience. If both of those movies fall on their heads, then we can start wondering what’s going on in science fiction in 2011.

In the meantime, I suspect the filmmakers who should really be worried about Number Four‘s box-office numbers are those whose upcoming films are also aiming for the Twilight crowd, including Beastly (which also stars Number Four‘s lead, Alex Pettyfer) and Red Riding Hood, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first film in the Twilight series. The first of the films aimed at these audiences just
came out, and the audiences didn’t come out in droves to see it.
Hollywood executives are probably hoping this is a blip and not a trend.

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