Two days ago The Hollywood Reporter ran the tracking numbers for Tron: Legacy and The Tourist, and both films were looking soft. THR’s numbers had Tron opening at a project 35 million dollars over the three day, a number that would be disastrous for a film as expensive (and with as expensive a campaign) as this.
That number seems low to me, considering the fact that the weekend will likely be massively inflated by IMAX and 3D, but I don’t doubt the softness when it comes to awareness and interest to see the movie (Peter at Slashfilm thinks the film needs to open at 50 million to look successful, but I think that’s weak as well - Watchmen opened at 55 and was considered a failure, with a lower budget than Tron and with the impediment of an R rating).
Some people have been poo-pooing the tracking, saying that Avatar looked weak this far out and that there was all kinds of bad buzz on that film. And while Disney really wants Tron to be this year’s Avatar (just look at how they copied Avatar Day with Tron night), it simply is not Avatar. Here are some reasons why:
Joseph Kosinski is not James Cameron. Nobody knew what Avatar was, which makes it just about even with Tron: Legacy, as most moviegoers probably only have a passing awareness of the original Tron, and that’s probably from the film’s large pop culture impact, not from the film itself. So that’s a wash. But what Avatar, with an original story, has over Tron, a sequel to a movie that might as well not even exist, was James Cameron. Avatar was, for all intents and purposes, the sequel to Titanic. Cameron is one of the few filmmakers whose name carries that kind of weight. Joseph Kosinski’s name means nothing to audiences.
The reviews won’t be as positive. Harry Knowles is first out the gate with a review of Tron: Legacy; it’s pretty glowing and I suspect it will be in the minority. I’ve talked to many of the people who have seen the film already, and I know at least a couple of major critics who will be savagely panning the movie. The best that I’ve heard has been ‘it’s okay,’ and this is from people who are self-declared Tron freaks, ie the faithful easy lays. If these people - the film’s most target audience - are not taken by the movie, why would the general public be?
And remember, while there was some bad buzz in advance (much of it from curmudgeons like me), the initial screenings brought out ecstatic reviews. The critics LOVED the film; 95% of Rotten Tomatoe’s Top Critics gave the film a Fresh. Tron will be screening more this weekend, and it’s possible that Disney can find the critics to love the movie at those screenings, but remember that the very first Avatar screening was followed by a rush to praise the film. That has not been happening for Tron.
The palette is too dark. I thought Avatar looked cartoony and overbright when I saw trailers and materials; the rest of the world disagreed. The film’s bright, lush palette is probably a part of what drew interest - there’s a certain positivity and excitement that goes with bright colors. The palette of Tron is very, very dark. The black world of the Grid, cut with neon swaths, is very cool looking. I’m just not sure ‘cool looking’ is enticing to general audiences the same way it is to nerds.
The shine is off 3D. When Avatar came out it was the movie you had to see because of the stunning 3D. I think Tron: Legacy can reclaim some of that - everything I hear is that the 3D is amazing and beautiful - but it’s not new anymore. What’s more, audiences have had lots and lots of bad 3D experiences this year; I think 3D remains a draw and remains a way of padding your box office, but I don’t think it has the water cooler cache that it had last December.
Disney’s not going to let this one slip away quietly. Tron producer Sean Bailey is now the head of production at Disney (a job where he’s already working on Tron sequels), so he’ll be going to bat to keep the marketing strong. And he doesn’t need to go to bat, even, as Disney has been making Tron their marketing priority for a year. They’ve spent a gazillion dollars selling this film, and they’re going to spend even more in the coming weeks. Expect to be inundated with a wave of Tron commercials.
That will help to an extent; studios can essentially browbeat people into seats the first weekend. I think Tron will open - not spectacularly, but not as poorly as the tracking indicates - but the question becomes what happens next. Is the early critical word reflected in audience buzz? Does Tron become a repeat viewing behemoth like Avatar? Does it become a movie that everybody has to see? Disney hopes so, and they have their own billion dollar 3D movie - Alice in Wonderland - giving them hope. But that’s another editorial, because Tron: Legacy really isn’t Alice in Wonderland. But it’s not technically too late for them to throw Johnny Depp’s face on the billboards anyway.