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Three Reasons Why Metallica’s Through the Never Failed at the Box Office

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While it has yet to open in international markets and ancillary revenue (the soundtrack, home video sales, etc.) may make it profitable yet, Metallica’s 3D movie, Through the Never, is, by any reasonable standard, a box office flop. After three weekends in release, the movie has grossed roughly $3.2 million — about a sixth of its $18 million production budget. And that doesn’t even cover the cash spent on promotional efforts; I have no idea how much that amount was, but my educated guess is that it was at least equal to the film’s budget, and most likely more (and that’s NOT counting the costs of promoting the movie abroad). So, conservatively, the movie cost $36 million to make and market… more than ten times its total gross thus far.

Like I said, a flop by any reasonable standard.

The question is… why? Metallica aren’t just the biggest metal band of all time — they’re one of the biggest bands in the world today, in any genre, period. So how come their movie wasn’t a slam dunk?

No one besides The Movie Gods can answer that question for sure, but I have some theories based on my former career in the film business (possibly the only business that’s even slimier and more brutal than the music business):

  1. THE MARKETING CAMPAIGN: This is, by far, the biggest reason people didn’t go see the movie. Here’s a question I heard far-too-many people ask in the weeks both leading up to and following the release of Through the Never: “So is it a concert movie or does it have a narrative?” The film’s marketing campaign never really answered this question in any satisfactory way. Look at the poster, for example:Metallica Through the Never PosterWhat are they trying to sell here? Actor Dane DeHaan isn’t really worth anything at the box office as of yet (which is to say, he’s not a movie star, even if he has appeared in successful movies), but that’s irrelevant because they covered up his face anyway, so if they were trying to sell him, well, they failed. The band is there, okay, but they’re tiny, barely visible, and almost wholly unrecognizable — if you didn’t know it was Metallica, you might not recognize James Hetfield or Kirk Hammett, and you DEFINITELY wouldn’t recognize Lars Ulrich or Rob Trujillo (the latter of whom has his back to the camera and is half-obscured by shadows — a fitting metaphor for Trujillo’s import in the band). The band’s name and some version of their logo appears… at the bottom of the poster. (Compare this with the album art of any given Metallica album — the band won’t be on the front cover there, either, but with the exception of The Black Album and St. Anger, their logo will be massive and easily visible. And The Black Album and St. Anger, it’s worth noting, were both released with a stickers on them announcing that they were new Metallica albums. And The Black Album already had the promotional power of a hit single and music video by the time it was released.) Really, the intense look in DeHaan’s eyes, the fact that he’s staring right into the camera (creepy), the shadowy lighting, and, oh yeah, the outlaw-esque bandana covering his face all suggest that this is an ad for some kind of thriller or horror movie, starring no one famous, about, uh, who knows? And the trailer is similarly unclear. Even Lars Ulrich admitted that “I’ve spent three years working on this movie and I don’t have any idea what [the narrative] means.” And the movie’s very title! Stephen Colbert may have joked about what it means, but, really: what does it mean? It’s not clear how it relates the plot of the movie; it’s not the title of one of Metallica’s biggest hits; and, apparently, the band doesn’t even play it in the film. The result of all these confused, and confusing, promotional efforts? Neither Metallica fans nor general moviegoing audiences were provided with any compelling reason to see the movie — so they didn’t.
  2. THE DIRECTOR: In 2008, The Rolling Stones’ IMAX concert film, Shine a Light, grossed $5.5 million at the domestic box office, even though its widest release was at twenty-eight fewer theaters than Through the Never. And earlier this year, the 3D documentary One Direction: This is Us grossed $28 million at the domestic box office (and only cost $10 million to produce before marketing). You know what both of those movies had that Through the Never Did Not? The attachment of a filmmaker whose name means something in the real world: in One Direction’s case, Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock, and in The Rolling Stones’ case, MARTIN FUCKING SCORSESE. The message the involvement of these directors sends to people is “Hey, we’re serious about this movie — take it seriously.” Furthermore, it meant that a celebrity who could appeal to moviegoers that weren’t necessarily fans of the band was also able to hit the promotional circuit. Metallica, on the other hand, hired Nimród Antal, whom movie geeks knew as the director of a lame Predator sequel, and the rest of the world doesn’t really know at all. When Antal did press for the movie, nobody cared. Really, he brought nothing to the table other than being able to bring the movie in on time and budget. Metallica didn’t have to hire a legend of Scorsese’s status, but there are any number of other filmmakers who would have brought more cred to the film.
  3. THE TIMING: Through the Never was sold as this big, premium, IMAX 3D experience. Too bad it was released with a whopping one-week window in which to play on IMAX 3D — then it had to give up all its screens to the sci-fi thriller Gravity, which early tracking suggested was going to a major hit (and early tracking was right). Suddenly, it was as though no one could see the movie in the format in which they had been instructed to see the movie. It would have been wiser to hold the movie until a time when it might have been able to remain on IMAX screens for a longer period — even if that meant delaying the release to 2014.

So, like I said: once the international money starts coming in and you factor in ancillary revenue, it’s possible that Through the Never will be profitable. But no one should hold their breath for Through the Never 2… or any other cinematic experience from Metallica. I guess the band will just have to rely on albums, concerts, merch, books, licensing for other people’s movies, fan club membership, and proceeds from the sales of their personal art collections to keep feeding their families.

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