“Black Adam” has hardly been given a hero’s welcome in its box office run, generating just $387 million globally after seven weeks on the big screen.
That may seem like a lot of coinage, especially in COVID times when movies of all shapes and sizes are struggling to reach pre-pandemic grosses at the box office. But “Black Adam,” a comic book adventure starring Dwayne Johnson as a villain who once promised to change the “hierarchy of power” in the Warner Bros. DC universe, didn’t come cheap, costing $195 million to produce. And a big-budget movie led by Johnson — one of the biggest movie stars in the world, who plays against type here as a murderous anti-hero — requires a worldwide marketing spend of $100 million, according to knowledgable individuals. Insiders at Warner Bros. push back, saying that COVID-related box office limitations led the studio to scale back the global advertising campaign to $80 million.
As a result, the film needed to earn around $600 million worldwide to break even and to surpass that lofty benchmark to turn a profit, according to sources familiar with the financials. Yet box office experts believe “Black Adam” will stall out with less than $400 million globally, which is problematic since movie theater owners get to keep around half of those sales. Now, the movie stands to lose $50 million to $100 million in its theatrical run, according to the estimates of insiders as well as rival executives with knowledge of similar productions. Sources at Warner Bros. dispute those numbers, saying the movie will break even at $400 million. When the film was commissioned, the break even was believed to be $450 million, but that figure has dropped given the particularities of the new home entertainment landscape, one in which “Black Adam” has over-performed projections. They also argue that these ancillary revenue streams have grown more profitable with shorter theatrical windows. Thanks to pandemic era concessions, films hit home entertainment platforms in 33 days rather than 75, which reduces the money needed to revive marketing campaigns for a digital launch. With ancillary revenues, sources at Warner Bros. say that the film is poised to get into the black.
In any case, “Black Adam“ isn’t the financial winner that DC had hoped when the movie was greenlit in 2019. Theatrical may only be one component of profitability; there’s also TV and Pay 1 deals, but box office returns dictate those downstream terms. Even with premium video-on-demand sales, which could bring in an additional $25 million to $35 million, “Black Adam” isn’t looking like it will get out of the red by the time it lands on HBO Max.
To be fair, most movies lose money during their theatrical release and depend on rentals, sales and consumer product sales to turn a profit. There’s also value in establishing a piece of intellectual property cinematically that isn’t always reflected on a balance sheet.
And it’s not just “Black Adam” that’s struggled greatly to earn back its budget in pandemic times. Disney’s “Strange World” and Pixar’s “Lightyear,” director David O. Russell’s star-studded period piece “Amsterdam” and Lionsgate’s disaster thriller “Moonfall” were other big-budget properties that failed to turn a profit in theaters. Even as COVID cases dwindle and normal life rebounds, the movie theater business hasn’t been able to regain its footing. It’s been a huge problem for mega-budgeted films that rely on outsized attendance.
“Black Adam” hit theaters in late October with $67 million, a solid but unspectacular start for a comic book tentpole. But unlike other standalone movies set in the DC Universe, like 2018’s “Aquaman” (which opened to $67.8 million) and 2019’s “Shazam!” (which debuted to $53.5 million), this superhero origin story didn’t have the kind of legs it needed to justify its outsized budget. Mixed reviews (it holds a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes) and its “B+” CinemaScore didn’t move the needle in terms of word-of-mouth, so the film struggled to expand its appeal beyond comic book fans. So far, it’s generated $165 million in North America and $219 million internationally. Like most Hollywood films, overseas box office has been limited because they’ve been cut off from playing in China or Russia, two major markets.
By comparison, “Aquaman” managed to earn a sizable $335 million in North America, and though “Shazam” ended its theatrical run with $140 million domestically, it cost $100 million to produce — about half as much as “Black Adam.” Other pandemic-era DC properties include “Wonder Woman 1984,” which earned $164 million while debuting day-and-date on HBO Max; “The Suicide Squad,” which generated $165 million while landing simultaneously on HBO Max; and “The Batman,” which grossed a solid $770 million.
And although “Black Adam” managed to hold the No. 1 spot for three weeks — thanks in part to a lack of big titles from other Hollywood players — ticket sales declined by 60% in its second weekend. When Disney and Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” premiered in theaters on Nov. 11, the superhero sequel steamrolled the competition with its $140 million domestic debut. Johnson, ever the diplomat, took to Twitter to celebrate those record-setting results. “Always rooting for our business to win,” he wrote. “We all benefit overall when box office flourishes.”
Marvel has long been operating in another stratosphere, but the turnout for “Black Panther 2” compared to “Black Adam” only illuminated the discrepancy in interest among moviegoers. “Wakanda Forever” earned almost as much at the global box office in three days ($331 million) as “Black Adam” generated after four weeks in theaters.
Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise”) directed “Black Adam,” in which Johnson plays an antihero who is unleashed into modern times after nearly 5,000 years of imprisonment. His baddie tendencies attract the attention of the Justice Society of America, whose members consist of Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who try to teach him to be a hero.
Johnson hasn’t been shy about wanting a sequel to “Black Adam.” Based on ticket sales, it’s not clear that audiences share his enthusiasm.