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Has Steven Spielberg lost his box office appeal?

Steven Spielberg attends
Steven Spielberg attends "The BFG" press conference during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 14, 2016 in Cannes, France.
Clemens Bilan/Getty Images
Steven Spielberg attends
"The BFG" is a family-friendly movie based on a beloved Roald Dahl book, with “Bridge of Spies” Oscar-winner Mark Rylance in the starring role.
Walt Disney Pictures

There was a time when a movie directed by Steven Spielberg was almost guaranteed box office gold. But this past weekend his latest film, "The BFG" was not a big deal at all.  At least, not according to moviegoers. Box Office Mojo reports that the film took in just $22.7 million in the U.S. over the four-day holiday weekend. That's a particularly bad showing given that the production budget was reportedly $140 million.

But "The BFG" wasn't alone. The new "The Legend of Tarzan," which had a reported production budget of $180 million, took in $46.6 million dollars domestically, which means that if it doesn't achieve success internationally, Warner Bros will be out some cash.

Scott Mendelson, who is a contributor to Forbes, joined The Frame's John Horn to talk about why "The BFG" debut turned out to be a disappointment, and how holiday weekends aren't what they used to be in terms of delivering blockbusters.  

Interview Highlights:

On paper, "The BFG" looked like a BFD at the box office: Steven Spielberg directing a family-friendly movie based on a beloved Roald Dahl book, with “Bridge of Spies” Oscar-winner Mark Rylance in a starring role. And yet "The BFG" was DOA at the box office. What happened?

"The BFG" is based on a book that a lot of people might know, but are not terribly fanatical about. Mark Rylance may have won an Oscar, but regular audiences don't really know who he is. Steven Spielberg certainly is still a name, especially among people that follow the film industry and are "film fans." But I would argue to a certain extent, he's not as much of a draw as he was a generation ago when the would-be blockbusters were less concept-based. 

It wasn’t a cheap movie — it cost at least $140 million to make, and probably even more than that to market worldwide. Spielberg has directed some 30 movies. Where does "The BFG" fall in his flops column?

It's always possible it will go nuts overseas. I'm not predicting as much, but I don't want to rule it out at this early juncture. But let's assume that it does badly. It will be basically the fourth flop ever for Steven Spielberg. But the interesting thing about "The BFG" is that it's the first Steven Spielberg flop that was explicitly intended to be a commercial, crowd-pleasing, blockbuster-ish movie. "Amistad" was a historical drama; "Empire of the Sun" was a relatively star-less, wrenching, historical drama. "The BFG" is different in that it was arguably what you think of when you think of a Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie. Except that it didn't have stars.

Next weekend the studio behind the "Despicable Me" and "Minions" movies has “The Secret Life of Pets,” which is aimed at the same audience as "The BFG." So it’s going to be tough for "The BFG" to get to even $60 million domestically.

Yes, there's going to be a lot of competition for "The BFG." The good news is, it's Disney's last release for around a month, until "Pete's Dragon" in the middle of August. They've been very [successful] for the entire year. The exception to the rule, of course, is "Alice Through the Looking Glass." If "The BFG" is another disappointment — and at this point I think it's safe to assume it will be — the irony is that the two misses thus far this year in the tentpole category are the films that opened over a holiday weekend, which is just more of a sign that holiday openings aren't necessarily the big deal they used to be. The big movies go for the weekend before the big holiday so they can use the holiday weekend to buffer the second weekend drop. 

Movie studios now have a The dog ate my homework excuse, which is that the movie is going to do great overseas. We heard that from Disney about "The BFG" and from another movie that didn't open to huge business, "The Legend of Tarzan." Is that often true that these movies will do better overseas?

There are plenty of examples of movies doing better overseas than in America, but it's not always enough to save them. A good example would be — in all likelihood — "The Legend of Tarzan," which, quite frankly, a $46 million four-day weekend is the absolute best case scenario that film could have hoped for. But the film cost $180 million to make, which is sequel money.

The other issue is that, even if box office revenues are running a little ahead of last year, the budgets and the marketing spends are huge, sometimes $400 million in one swing. So even if revenues are ahead, is the theatrical business still relatively healthy?

Yes and no. The thing that concerns me this year is that you have "Finding Dory," "Captain America," "Deadpool," "Batman v Superman," "Zootopia," "The Jungle Book," and then the two holdovers from last year, "The Revenant" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" — those are the top eight movies of the year. Those films make up a huge percentage of the overall domestic box office this year. And [that's] a much bigger amount than we usually see in a given year where you don't have as much of a chasm between the biggest movies and everything else. I don't want to be too simplistic, but the middle class is not doing well this year.

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