The summer season at the North American box office isn’t exactly opening with a bang. Men in Black III debuted with hardly outstanding figures in the U.S. and Canada on Friday. Directed by Men in Black / Men in Black II’s Barry Sonnenfeld, and starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, the action / comedy / sci-fier will undoubtedly be this weekend’s top-grossing movie — which means that after three weekends on top, The Avengers’ reign at the domestic box office has ended. On the other hand, there’s no denying that MIB3’s Friday performance fell below expectations, especially for a 3D movie budgeted at somewhere between $225m-$300m.
Men in Black 3 collected $18m-$20m (including $1.55 million from Thursday midnight screenings) at 4,248 theaters on Friday according to early, rough estimates found at Deadline.com. As per Deadline, that means a relatively underwhelming $65m-$75 million for the four-day weekend (Monday is Memorial Day in the United States). Box-office prognosticators were expecting the third Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones pairing to bring in $80m-90m.
It gets more worrisome: according to Deadline, the film cost Sony Pictures either $225 million (as per Sony) or $300m (as per "rival studios"). For its part, the Los Angeles Times has the Men in Black 3 budget pegged at "nearly $250m." For comparison’s sake: Disney’s John Carter cost a reported $250m and The Avengers $220m, while the reported budget of Universal’s Battleship was $209m.
Men in Black III: Why the underwhelming Friday debut?
Why the underwhelming (estimated) Men in Black 3 box-office? The film has an acceptable 73 percent approval rating among Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics (with a so-so average rating of 6.3/10). In any case, movies such as Men in Black 3 are review-proof.
What then? Well, one possibility is that Will Smith hasn’t made a movie in four years. And Smith’s pre-MIB3 release, the $55m-budgeted Seven Pounds, was a major box office disappointment, grossing only $69.95 million in North America. (Internationally, Seven Pounds performed better — though without reaching blockbuster status: $98.21m.)
Not helping matters is that Tommy Lee Jones hasn’t had a box office hit of his own since Men in Black II a full decade ago. (Captain America: The First Avenger and No Country for Old Men weren’t "Tommy Lee Jones movies.") Jones’ biggest personal "box-office hit" since Men in Black II was The Hunted, a $55m-budgeted 2003 release that took in a paltry $34.24 million domestically and a dismal $11.25 million internationally.
Men in Black III: After long hiatus
And finally, as mentioned above, the previous Men in Black movie was released ten years ago. Apart from something as iconic as Star Wars, it’s difficult to whip up interest for a long-dormant movie franchise. Imagine if the gap between, say, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse had been ten years. However popular Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner may be with the Twilight crowd, there’s a good chance that young fans of the series would have outgrown it, while potential new ones might never have heard of either Twilight or its trio of stars.
Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that as per the Motion Picture Association of America, approximately 30 percent of North American "frequent" moviegoers are 17 and under. Ten years can represent, quite literally, a lifetime.
Now, what about Brad Bird / Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol? I’d say that the success of Cruise’s fourth Mission: Impossible movie has less to do with the franchise itself than with the fact that MI4 earned excellent early buzz and highly enthusiastic notices: 97 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with a 7.6/10 average. That’s hardly been the case with MIB3.
In addition to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black 3 features Oscar nominee Josh Brolin (Milk), two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Best Actress for Howards End, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility), Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Colter, Nicole Scherzinger, Michael Chemus, and Alice Eve. Etan Coen wrote the MIB3 screenplay.
Will Smith / Tommy Lee Jones / Men in Black 3 photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.