One week ago, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) arrived in cinemas. The movie was met with largely positive reviews (79% on Rotten Tomatoes), but within days of its debut it was also accompanied by stories that it was a flop at the box office.
During its opening weekend Birds of Prey made around $33 million at the North American box office. A seemingly decent amount of money, yet various news outlets reported this as a disaster for Warner Bros. Pictures.
So, is Birds of Prey a flop? And if so, why?
Is Birds of Prey struggling at the box office?
Birds of Prey was produced on a budget of $84.5million. This figure includes the cost of hiring the actors (Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez etc), as well as the cost to build the sets, create the visual effects, compose the soundtrack, and everything else that goes into making a major motion picture.
The budget does not include any additional marketing and distribution costs. Therefore, a film needs to make back its budget, then make enough money to cover these additional costs, before it can then make a profit, in order to justify its existence.
In the movie industry – an industry where multiple movies are released every week – a film needs to earn back its money very quickly. If it struggles to make a decent amount of money early doors, once the competition mounts up, the chances of it making a good return on investment are slim.
As a rule of thumb, studios want to recoup budget costs asap – within the opening weekend if possible. In the case of Birds of Prey, the film didn’t even make half the cost of its budget during the opening weekend.
A week on from its release and according to Box Office Mojo, domestically Birds of Prey has made around $61.6 million, which is around three-quarters of its production costs. This figure is closer to its budget, but still not there yet.
Internationally, the film has taken around $83.6 million. When this international figure is combined with the domestic total it gives Birds of Prey a worldwide figure of around $145 million, which looks great on paper, but it’s still not setting the box office alight.
Why? Because let’s say the marketing/distribution cost for this film are around $30 million (the actual figure hasn’t been disclosed). When we add this to the budget of $84.5 million, the film now needs to make $114.5 million to break even.
At its current tally of $145 million, the film is making a profit, but it’s not quite the profit the studio wants to see. Making a film is a huge investment, and it requires a huge return.
At the moment, Birds of Prey is not making a huge profit. Due to its connection to the wider (and very profitable) Batman/DC movie series, this film is considered a tent pole release for Warner Bros. Pictures, so it should be making more money than it is.
Will its box office fortunes improve? Yes.
The film will remain in cinemas for at least another couple of months and it will continue to earn money, potentially clawing back its slow start thanks to positive word of mouth. But the film has got off to a slow start and that’s not good.
Why is Birds of Prey struggling at the box office?
If the reviews for Birds of Prey are largely positive, why is the film struggling to attract an audience? There’s no single answer to this question – there are multiple factors in play.
One of the most widely reported stories during the first week of the film’s release was the confusion over its name. I’ve covered this in a previous post, but in short, some cinemas changed the name of the movie from the long-winded Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), to the much snappier, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.
The title change was initiated by cinema chains (not the studio) because audiences were getting confused about the film’s subject matter. The title didn’t convey Harley’s importance or involvement in the picture and that was decreasing interest.
To put it simply: If audiences don’t know Harley is in the film, then audiences are less likely to show up to support it.
In addition to the name confusion, the film has also suffered a little with identity crisis. Is it a film about a team called the Birds of Prey? Is it a Harley Quinn movie? Is it a sequel to the 2016 film, Suicide Squad?
In truth, it is a little bit of all of these things – but that hasn’t been conveyed clearly in the marketing for the movie. And all of these elements are potentially at odds with each other.
If some people believe it is purely a Birds of Prey movie, then they might miss the Harley connection. If some think it is a Harley film, then why is it called Birds of Prey?
And if it is a follow-up to Suicide Squad, well that brings its own problems, as Suicide Squad received a mixed response from audiences (despite being a financial success). Would you pay to see a sequel to a film you didn’t like?
And what about Joker – the Joaquin Phoenix movie that has been in the news a lot lately? Does that film have any connection to Birds of Prey? Wasn’t Harley getting it on with Jared Leto the last time she appeared on screen?
Many questions are asked and the answers aren’t forthcoming, unless you pay to see the movie or you are already heavily invested in this world. Personally, I know the answers to these questions, but that is because a.) I paid to see the film, and b.) I am a huge film/comic book fan. If I was just a casual cinemagoer, I wouldn’t have a clue.
Suicide Squad fallout
Now let’s address the Suicide Squad problem, which does loom large over this film.
Birds of Prey is a sort-of follow-up to Suicide Squad, in the sense it continues the story of Harley Quinn, but it is not about the Suicide Squad. Once again, you probably don’t know this unless you are already heavily invested in this world.
Some people felt disappointed by Suicide Squad and they don’t want the same experience from Birds of Prey. If they feel there is a strong connection between the two films, then they will not part with their cash – they don’t want to be let down again.
The release date
One of the defining characteristics of Harley Quinn is her on/off relationship to the Joker. In fact, this is lightly touched upon in Birds of Prey, with the film establishing that the two characters have now broken up – and this should have been the core focus of the marketing campaign.
From a marketing point of view, if you have a film coming out in February, and one of the lead characters is associated with being in a relationship with another (huge) character, you hope and pray that the film is released on Valentine’s Day. That way, you can use the love angle in the marketing campaign, to make it the must-see movie for couples over the Valentine’s weekend.
But Birds of Prey wasn’t released on Valentine’s Day, it was released the weekend before. As such, the film didn’t dive head-first into the V-Day connection for its marketing campaign and it missed a trick.
And then there is the pesky problem of the movie’s certification.
Sonic the Hedgehog was released this weekend and is an example of a film that is doing well, and is expected to continue to do well over the coming week. Like Birds of Prey, Sonic the Hedgehog has had largely decent reviews (63% on Rotten Tomatoes), putting it on similar footing, but the film has something that Birds of Prey doesn’t have – a PG certificate.
In the UK, Sonic the Hedgehog has a PG certificate, meaning pretty much anyone can go and see it. In the UK, Birds of Prey has a 15 certificate, meaning if you aren’t 15-years-old or over, you will not be seeing it in cinemas.
The problem here is the marketing for Birds of Prey makes the film look like something that would appeal to a younger, teenage demographic. Not the PG crowd, but certainly the 12A group.
Birds of Prey’s age rating is not helping the film at the box office, and it is something which should have been addressed when deciding who this film is aimed at. Why wasn’t this movie a 12A?
When films struggle at the box office, it is never down to just one reason. There might be a key defining factor (i.e. bad reviews), but usually there are multiple issues that hold it back.
Birds of Prey is moving slowly at the box office. The film isn’t a flop (yet) but it is certainly not the money-maker that the studio had banked on.