Why ‘Birds of Prey’ Whiffed at the Box Office

Rebecca Rubin

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After the commercial successes of “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and “Joker,” Warner Bros. had been on a hot streak with its DC Universe. Its latest comic-book offering, “Birds of Prey,” seemed to have all the ingredients necessary to continue that trend in the studio’s attempt to fashion an alternative to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But despite a solid reception, the R-rated superhero adventure — which puts the spotlight on Margot Robbie’s crazed baddie Harley Quinn from 2016’s “Suicide Squad” — stumbled out of the gate, debuting to $33 million in North America. Those disappointing ticket sales were still enough to place first on domestic box office charts, though well behind Warner Bros.’ already cautiously low estimates of $45 million. “Birds of Prey” failed to make up much ground at the international box office, where it launched with $48 million, bringing its global haul to $81 million.

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“They took a swing, and they missed,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It wasn’t for the movie masses, it was a niche comic-book movie. Warner Bros. keeps having to learn these lessons.”

“Birds of Prey” cost a reported $82 million to produce, with executives at rival studios putting that number as closer to $100 million (due to elaborate sets and CGI), and estimating the film needs to make around $100 million domestically and $300 million globally to break even. Sources close to the production say the breakeven number is closer to $250 million. Hitting those marks could prove difficult overseas, since fears of coronavirus have impacted moviegoing in Asia. However, its R-rating meant the film wasn’t going to open in China in the first place.

Given its cast of mostly unknown antiheroes, “Birds of Prey” wasn’t primed for a record-shattering debut. But it also wasn’t expecting to take over “Shazam’s” crown as the worst opening weekend to date for a DC film. That ignominious distinction is something of a surprise, considering reviews were strong, with the film enjoying an 80% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Such sentiment is practically glowing compared to the blistering reactions toward “Suicide Squad,” “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League.” Since reviews for “Birds of Prey” were embargoed until just days before it was unleashed on the moviegoing masses, audiences took it as a sign the studio was trying to limit exposure.

Thanks to a few rogue f-bombs and stomach-squelching violence, “Birds of Prey” was the first DC Extended Universe film to notch an R rating. While that’s didn’t stop “Joker” (though not considered part of the DCEU) from becoming an out-and-out smash, it likely prevented younger fans of Harley Quinn from buying movie tickets. Ticket buyers were mostly older males — 54% were men and 65% were over the age of 25 — according to PostTrack surveys.

Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn was a rare point of praise in “Suicide Squad,” the impetus behind giving the deranged delinquent her own movie. But another notch against the film was that its unwieldy moniker — “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — perhaps relied too heavily on assuming the general public was familiar with the characters at the forefront. Its title was just one of the marketing missteps that failed to create a sense of urgency to see the film on opening weekend.

“The first mistake in not focusing on her.” Bock said. “She has an IP, so Warner Bros. not naming it ‘Harley Quinn’ was a huge misfire.”

Unless “Birds of Prey” picks up steam, it’ll mark another casualty for Warner Bros. Other than “Joker,” the studio has suffered a steady stream of box office duds including “Richard Jewell,” “Doctor Sleep” and “The Goldfinch.” It’s unclear how much patience AT&T, Warner Bros.’ new corporate parent, will have with the current leadership. The pressure is certainly on studio chief Toby Emmerich, marketing leader Blair Rich, and other top executives to turn things around quickly. The good news is that help may be on the way in the form of this summer’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,’ which all appear to be crowdpleasers… at least on paper.

“In the coming days and this weekend, it will be joined by new films that offer little in terms of direct competition, in what will be admittedly be a very crowded theatrical marketplace,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analysts with Comscore. “That will be the true test.”