The Box Office Tragedy of WB’s last Tarzan Movie, Plus the Pan Box Office Disaster, Define WB’s Challenge for Tarzan 2016

Legend of Tarzan (Movie), Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

Pan opened with a disastrous $15.5M in Domestic U.S. Box Office.  How bad is that?  Well, Pan cost $150M to make and did $15.5M; John Carter cost $267M to make and opened at $31M. Pan is in at least as deep a hole as John Carter — probably worse.

I’ve officially fretted that if WB doesn’t get its act together with Tarzan promotion, the same thing could happen.

The question arises — how bad could it be for Tarzan?

Well, fortunately, (or unfortunately) there is a historic comparable that is…well…sends a chill right down my spine.

Let’s get in the time machine and go back to April 24, 1998.  That was the Friday when Warner Brothers, same studio of the new Tarzan, released the last live action Tarzan movie — Tarzan and the Lost City starring Casper Van Dien and Jane March, opened in TWELFTH place with an opening weekend of $1.1M in 1,400 theaters for an absolutely devastatingly bad per-screen average of $787.  For an opening weekend — $787 is one of the worst performances in history for a wide studio release.  The film went on to last one more week in theaters before being pulled.

Casper Van Dien has gone on to become one of the most beloved of Tarzans to ERB fans – in part because he played an intelligent Tarzan, and in part because he’s been a friend to the ERB fan universe  and family, and to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Make no mistake that Casper Van Dien is respected as a great Tarzan and loved and respected  by the fans of the franchise.


But . . .

This is about things that were far beyond Casper Van Dien’s control.   This is about what the studio did or didn’t do to support the film, from production through release.  Because when the film came out, it performed at the extreme low end of the spectrum.

Is it completely apples-to-apples to compare WB’s Tarzan and the Lost City to WB’s Tarzan 2016?

Well, here’s the argument that says no.

Tarzan and the Lost City opened in 1,417 screens at a time when a full-on wide release was 2,200 screens. So right away, there’s a certain softness.  Secondly, the other aspects of the movie — cast, director, etc — are more modest than with Tarzan 2016.  A case can be made that the WB buiness model for Tarzan and the Lost City was to make it as cheaply as possible (around $20M), then simply play it in theaters so as to qualify it as a theatrical release which would increase its value in DVD, which in 1998 was booming.  So under this theory, the box office disaster was accepted as a “given” before the film was released, and is reflected in the lower theater count and, presumably, a lower marketing spend.  Under this scenario, the studio cuts its losses in theatrical and tries to recoup in DVD.

Supporting this notion is the fact that Tarzan and the Lost City was made on a budget. The exact budget isn’t known — but everything from the cast to the quality of the special effects suggests that WB did not go into the project with tentpole expectations.

Another differentiator — the critical reaction to Tarzan and the Lost City was absolutely scalding — it has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 6%  (that’s not a type– 6%) and an audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 21%.  I have never personally seen numbers that low.  The reviews were just screamingly bad — Variety is typical:   “This silly adventure with Casper Van Dien as the latest Lord of the Apes comes across more like a sequel to George of the Jungle, but without the laughs.”  But there are relatively few reviews, another indication that the rlease was a halfhearted one.

Still . . . .

As the months go by, and we keep hearing about Suicide Squad, for example — a WB release that is set for August, six weeks after Tarzan — and we hear nothing about Tarzan, the anxiety grows.

Is anybody at WB listening to my fretting over this?  Probably not, but just in case they are, — guys, you really, really need to be thinking about how to overcome the “meh” factor and when you do put this film out there, it needs to be done deftly and in a way that intrigues the moviegoing audience of 2016.    Somehow it has to communicate that this is “not your grandfather’s Tarzan.”

The irony is … in truth, it’s not your grandfather’s tarzan — meaning it’s not Weissmuller or any of the ones it spawned — in a way, it’s your great grandfather’s Tarzan because now, in 2016, more than a 100 years in the books, Hollywood has for arguably the first time decided to present a mature Tarzan who bears significant resemblance to the mature Tarzan of the original books of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

But is any of  that a useful promotional hook?

Well, for starters  the disaster of 1998 used this as its hook: “A New Tarzan for a New Generation” …. and the story’s premise was that Tarzan as Lord Greystoke was living an acculturate life in London when matters in Africa require that he return …. sound familiar?

tarzan lost city

Actually, I do have some thoughts about what WB can and should do as they try to position this movie favorably, but I think those are better put forward in a post that’snot headlined with the disaster that was WBs last Tarzan, so I’ll stop for now and try to shake off the gloom that this has produced . . . .

At this point, I think the main point I’m trying to make is — WB needs to be putting some very serious marketing brainpower into how to sell the IDEA of a Tarzan film in 2016.

It won’t be easy.

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