Men in Black III, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, opened with “solid,” though hardly outstanding figures at the North American box office this weekend. I have “solid” in quotes because for an eagerly anticipated, highly expensive 3D movie at 4,248 locations, $55 million in three days (including a Sunday preceding a holiday) and $70 million in four days (Memorial Day is a major US holiday) simply isn't good enough. Not even close.
Box-office prognosticators were expecting the third Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones pairing to bring in $80m-90 million. The above figures, studio estimates found at Box Office Mojo, fell way below expectations.
If Sony Pictures is to recover its Men in Black 3 investment – anywhere between $225m-$300m, plus another $100m-$150 million marketing / distribution expenses – that will be on account of MIB3's popularity abroad, where the film has raked in an estimated $132 million. Even then, the latest Smith-Jones pairing has a long box office road to travel, as on average studios get about 50-55 percent of a film's domestic gross and 40 percent of the overseas tally.
Directed by Men in Black / Men in Black II's Barry Sonnenfeld, MIB3's big feat at the domestic box office this weekend wasn't its grosses, but the fact that it managed to dethrone Joss Whedon / Chris Evans / Scarlett Johansson's The Avengers, which remained at the top for three consecutive weekends. Directed by Rupert Sanders, and starring Kristen Stewart, The Avengers' Chris Hemsworth, and Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman opens next weekend. We'll soon find out if Men in Black 3 will manage to stay on top for more than one single weekend.
MEN IN BLACK 3 way behind its two predecessors
Now, it would be ludicrous to say that MIB3 opened on a par with the two previous Men in Black movies. True, Men in Black took in $69 million after four days at 3,020 sites, including $4.81 million from Tuesday evening screenings (MIB opened on Wed., July 2, 1997), while Men in Black II brought in $73.43 million in its first four days at 3,557 locations (MIB2 opened on Wed., July 3, 2002). However, in 2012 dollars, MIB opened with approximately $117 million while MIB2 debuted with approx. $99 million.
Another minor detail: Neither previous MIB movie was in 3D, which can increase ticket costs by up to 45 percent. A third minor detail: Men in Black's reported budget was $90 million (approx. $129 million today); Men in Black II's was $140 million (approx. $179 million today). As mentioned above, Men in Black III's production budget hovered anywhere between $225m-$300 million.
Emma Thompson, Will Smith / Men in Black 3 photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.
MIB3: Will Smith, Men in Black 3
Why the underwhelming (estimated) Men in Black 3 opening-weekend performance at the domestic box-office? Barry Sonnenfeld's 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 because people who go to big action / horror / trademarked movies / franchises on the first weekend usually don't bother reading reviews.
What then? Well, as mentioned in a previous article, one possibility is that Will Smith hasn't made a movie in four years. And Smith's pre-MIB3 release, the Gabriele Muccino-directed $55 million-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 Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones (Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive, 1993) 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' highest-grossing vehicle since Men in Black II was The Hunted, a William Friedkin-directed, $55 million-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, which was resurrected in the late '90s, it's difficult to whip up interest for a long-dormant movie franchise.
Imagine if the gap between, say, the second and third Twilight movies, 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 Edward, Bella, and Jacob, or the trio of stars who brought them to life.
Indeed, even Star Wars would most likely have faced attendance issues had Return of the Jedi opened a full decade after The Empire Strikes Back.
Ultimately, it's worth remembering that as per the Motion Picture Association of America, approximately 30 percent of North America's “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 has 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 (not to be confused with the Coen brothers' Ethan Coen) wrote the MIB3 screenplay.
Will Smith / Men in Black 3 photo: Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures.