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Universal Labels 47 Ronin a Flop less than 24 Hours After Release

Sunday, January 5th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

47 Ronin poster-smallUniversal Pictures announced it would take a writedown on its $175 million fantasy epic 47 Ronin on December 26th, the day after the film entered wide release on Christmas Day.

While it’s routine for studios to write off projected losses for underperforming films, it’s highly unusual for one to announce that such a major project is a bomb so early in the film’s run, virtually killing what little hope it had to defy expectations and turn things around.

My teenage sons, oblivious to wider industry news, saw the trailer — packed with gorgeous fantasy landscapes; pirates; dark dungeons; and life-and-death swordfights against samurai, monsters, and flying dragons — and were sold immediately.

For myself, I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, but I was astounded that Universal had dismissed the film so cavalierly, and my curmudgeonly nature immediately made me assume they were idiots. So we caught a matinee showing yesterday, in a nearly empty theater.

And you know what? It wasn’t bad. Rinko Kikuchi does a marvelous job as the (literally) scenery-chewing, shape-shifting witch and veteran actor Hiroyuki Sanada (most recently seen in The Wolverine and the TV shows Lost and Revenge) carries the film as the leader of the legendary band of 47 disgraced samurai who avenges the death of their noble lord, against the direct orders of the Shogun.

Even Keanu Reeves delivers an entirely serviceable performance as Kai, the half-breed who leads the weaponless ronin into a demon-infested forest and wins them some cool samurai ordnance. The marketing has portrayed Reeves as the lead, but it’s really Sanada who has the most screen time.

The tale of the original 47 ronin, whose 18th century graves still stand today at Sengaku-ji in Japan, is perhaps the most famous example of bushidō, the samurai code of honor, in Japanese history, and is considered by some the country’s “national legend.”

[Click on any of the images in this post for larger versions.]

47 Ronin screenshot3-smallWhile I found the climatic final battle to be a little too linear and predictable — this is a film that really could have used a few twists in the third act, especially given all that marvelously unexplained magic — I had no complaints at all about the pacing and production values. The sets make fabulous eye candy, especially the pirate den, the shadowy forest lair of the ronin, and the sinister castle of the treacherous Lord Kira.

Looking at its success in the last 12 months, it’s obvious financial realities for Universal made a writedown before the end of 2013 a good idea.

It had a record year, with hits that included Fast and Furious 6 and the smash Despicable Me 2, finishing third in domestic box office with $1.4+ billion, just behind Warner Bros. and Disney. A tax write-off to shelter that kind of profit probably saved them a lot of money.

But it saddled 47 Ronin in the public eye with the taint of a bomb, and to my mind unfairly. It takes a very exceptional film to shrug off that kind of poisonous publicity and still deliver solid box office, and 47 Ronin — which I found to be an altogether solid, if rather traditional Hollywood fantasy — is not nearly exceptional enough to pull that off.

And that’s unfortunate. Unsurprisingly, negative reviews have started to pile up for the film — since when have critics failed to pull out the knives for a movie that’s pre-labeled a major flop? — and doubtless the troubled road the picture took getting to the screen didn’t help.

47 Ronin screenshot2-small47 Ronin was originally scheduled for a November 2012 release, until the date was shifted to February 2013 to allow additional effects work; ultimately it was postponed to Christmas 2013. That kind of thing is like a matador’s flashing red cloak for critics; they see blood immediately.

As of today, Box Office Mojo is reporting that 47 Ronin has made nearly $33 million domestically, and over $50 million in international markets, in the roughly 10 days since its release.

I’m no expert in box office forecasting, so I have no idea if that’s enough momentum to give the film at shot at recouping its $175 million price tag. Probably not. From what I understand, a film needs to make roughly 2X its cost just to break even (as box office receipts are split roughly 50/50 with theaters over the life of a picture).

In any event, I’m not here to tell you that the critics are all wrong and that 47 Ronin is a neglected masterwork. I haven’t even read any of the reviews. But I sat in the theater next to two teenage boys, listened to their cheers and laughter, and saw the film through their eyes.

So I hope you’ll make up your own mind and ignore the events that made it fiscally expedient for Universal to prematurely label this film a bomb and the critics who smelled blood and drew their own swords. I’m happy to tell you that, if you remember what it was like to watch a rousing epic fantasy filled with heroism, treachery, beautiful maidens in distress, diabolical villains, and dazzling swordplay, you have the kind of heart you need to enjoy 47 Ronin.

16 Comments »

  1. Hmmm…sounds a lot like what Disney did to John Carter; throw a perfectly good movie under the bus without supporting it or even giving it a chance to stand on it’s own merits. John Carter was not a great movie, but it was pretty good. The company never gave it a chance. I will see 47 Ronin based on what I gather from the trailer, and my own interest in fantasy adventure, not on ‘critics’ opinions or the financial shell games of a big company.

    Comment by thedarkman - January 5, 2014 4:39 pm

  2. And have you ever noticed that it seems to be the science fiction and fantasy films that get this treatment? Not the chick flicks or the feel-good dramas. Of course I ignore those films entirely, so maybe I’m biased.

    I haven’t seen this one yet, but I’m planning on it. Guess I’d better hurry or wait until the DVD comes out.

    Comment by westkeith - January 5, 2014 6:56 pm

  3. > sounds a lot like what Disney did to John Carter; throw a perfectly good movie under the bus without supporting it

    Darkman,

    I didn’t make that connection, but perhaps I should have. Disney didn’t do any favors for JOHN CARTER with its marketing, for certain. Although I don’t know if they threw it under the bus by labeling it a bomb quite as early as Universal did with 47 Ronin.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 5, 2014 8:47 pm

  4. > And have you ever noticed that it seems to be the science fiction and fantasy films that get this treatment? Not the chick flicks or the feel-good dramas

    Keith,

    Well, to be fair, it’s big budget epics (or “tent-pole movies,” as I guess they’re called these days) that tend to get this treatment. And SF and fantasy tend towards bigger budgets than most romantic comedies.

    > I haven’t seen this one yet, but I’m planning on it.

    If you do, drop by here to let us know what you think!

    Comment by John ONeill - January 5, 2014 8:50 pm

  5. I saw this movie on Christmas Day, on a whim, and was recommending it to people right up until it disappeared from theaters after the announcement.

    It had a lot of Japanese actors that I don’t see enough of, Keanu Reeves being decent, and the special effects were good. Particularly the effect that they gave to magic swords should be replicated in other films.

    I’ll probably get the Bluray of this, and in the world of Netflix and Amazon Prime, that’s saying something.

    I think the studio panicked when it didn’t do well in Japan, and wanted the write down on the books before January 1st. Makes ’em seem twitchy, though.

    Their call, but I think they should have given the film a chance to recoup.

    Comment by darangrissom - January 6, 2014 1:35 am

  6. Daran,

    Glad you liked it. It’s still playing here in the suburbs of Chicago, but I don’t know for how long.

    If folks are interested in seeing it in the theater, I’d suggest they act soon.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 6, 2014 2:10 am

  7. John,

    Disney actually made a similar statement regarding JOHN CARTER after two weeks, which was unheard of at the time. 48 hours is sensational – in the worst way, of course.

    Best,
    Kai

    Comment by KaiMeyer - January 6, 2014 1:54 pm

  8. 24 hours, not 48. Sorry …

    Comment by KaiMeyer - January 6, 2014 1:55 pm

  9. It bored me to tears. I actually fell asleep during the climactic battle. It just draaaaaaged and draaaaged. When I found out this was a first-time director, I went “Oh, that makes sense.” It looks pretty, but it’s glacially paced.

    My advice is to skip it and watch 13 ASSASSINS instead.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - January 6, 2014 9:28 pm

  10. Not surprised this bombed. Is Christmas really the best time to release a fantastical epic based in Japanese folklore? And Keanu really has no star power at this point. He can’t open a movie on his own.

    And while it kinda sucks to see movies thrown under the bus so quickly, for a film with this high a budget- and they spent way to much on this- you really need to make a sizable amount of cash opening weekend to come close to just breaking even. I think the studio’s approach is to cut a movie like this loose and devote resources to making money on other flicks.

    I think the comparison to John Carter is apt- neither film is based on a mythos the average American has any familiarity with, neither film has any real star power to draw in unsure audiences, and both movies cost way too much.

    It sucks to see this happen, though, because films like this need to succeed in order for studios to keep taking chances on unfamiliar material. I still think it’s kinda amazing (in a good way) that a studio sunk over 100 million bucks in Zach Snyder’s hard-R, 3-hour, star-less adaptation of Watchmen.

    Comment by Golgonooza - January 7, 2014 1:35 am

  11. Not to be a dick (too late, right?) but there is no comparison between this movie and JOHN CARTER. 47 RONIN was a complete misfire directorially. The actors were good, the effects were good, everything was good–but the directing was hamfisted and every scene DRAGGED far too long to the point where there was NO TENSION LEFT in any of the scenes.

    I also have to point out the Keanu was actually GOOD in this movie. He played the tight-lipped, much-abused half-breed with latent supernatural powers. He was the resident bad-ass. And he did it with a minimum of dialogue, posturing, and other stuff that might have made his critics cringe in the past. Keanu was not the problem, nor was the nature of this movie (i.e. big Asian epic). It was the fact that all of this great stuff and huge budget was given to a first-time director who was in over his head. Now, I’m sure his next movie will be better, but this one was a total misfire.

    Now, JOHN CARTER was an amazingly good movie and it’s prime failure to “succeed” (i.e. make money) was a marketing blunder. They should never have removed the “of Mars” from the title because they lost the casual sci-fi fans. Most sci-fi fans today (under 40) didn’t knwo who “John Carter” was! They needed to get the whole story. And the advertising campaign stressed the Old West connection far more than the far-out sci-fi elements–another mistake. The budget was bloated and they spent TOO MUCH on this movie–then they mis-marketed it and ensured it was a failure–commercially.

    But make no mistake about it: JOHN CARTER was an astounding success ARTISTICALLY. A work of art cannot be wholly measured by the amount of goddamn dollars it made. In that respect (financially), JC was a failure. But in terms of bringing a classic concept to life with respect for the original, good scripting, great design and effects, and good acting on top of it–JOHN CARTER was a complete and utter success.

    Does that mean everybody liked JOHN CARTER? No. These days there’s never a sci-fi or fantasy film that EVERYBODY likes.

    But 47 RONIN was not JOHN CARTER. Not even close.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - January 7, 2014 7:50 pm

  12. > Disney actually made a similar statement regarding JOHN CARTER after two weeks, which was unheard of at the time.

    Kai,

    Right, it took about to two weeks for Disney to tell the world not to bother with JOHN CARTER, whereas Universal made the call after just 24 hours. Ugh.

    BoxOfficeMojo has 47 Ronin at about $87 million box office as of today, barely half its production cost (and most of that from international ticket sales), or barely $4 million in global ticket sales for the week. Hard to say if it would have been that bad without being written off by Universal, of if the announcement helped turn public opinion against the film, Hard to say.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 12, 2014 6:20 pm

  13. > It bored me to tears. I actually fell asleep during the climactic battle.

    John,

    Well, it’s certainly not as fast-paced or as dynamic as a John R. Fultz tale, I’ll grant you that! :)

    Comment by John ONeill - January 12, 2014 6:21 pm

  14. > And Keanu really has no star power at this point. He can’t open a movie on his own.

    I won’t argue that, but I will point out that I really enjoyed his performance in CONSTANTINE, which I thought was an underrated little horror film.

    > It sucks to see this happen, though, because films like this need to succeed in order for studios to keep taking chances on
    > unfamiliar material. I still think it’s kinda amazing (in a good way) that a studio sunk over 100 million bucks in
    > Zach Snyder’s hard-R, 3-hour, star-less adaptation of Watchmen.

    Absolutely — right on both counts. I don’t think WATCHMEN was entirely successful, but I was very pleased to see the studio take that kind of risk. And you’re right… every time an independent property tanks, it reinforces the message to Hollywood that the only safe route is to continue to make predictable, big-budget tent pole films.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 12, 2014 6:28 pm

  15. > 47 RONIN was a complete misfire directorially. The actors were good, the effects were good,
    > everything was good–but the directing was hamfisted and every scene DRAGGED far too long

    John,

    We’re just going to have to disagree here, I think. Sure, the movie wasn’t as fast paced as most action epics, but I didn’t find that a flaw. I actually thought it was paced about right for what the director seemed to be aiming for — a well developed, large cast.

    And unless you were expecting a single-hero action epic, like Conan or a Schwarzenegger flick (which I admit the trailers seemed to advertise), developing a large cast takes time.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 12, 2014 6:34 pm

  16. […] weeks ago I reviewed the film 47 Ronin, which Universal Pictures labeled a flop only a day after its U.S. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Revisiting A.B. Mitford’s The 47 Ronin: Japanese Tales of Vampires, Ghosts, and Renegade Samurai - January 19, 2014 5:32 pm


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