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Editorial: Will Ender's Game be a Box Office Hit?



Ender's Game opens in Europe this upcoming week, and in North America the week after. Time to look at the film's prospects at the box office and the success of Lionsgate/Summit's marketing strategy so close ahead of the film's release.

We have seen plenty of footage, trailers, clips and featurettes in the last couple of weeks. The film's stars, director and producers toured the U.S. and Europe extensively, promoted the film in various countries from Spain to Russia, the U.K. to Comic-Con, so we have a pretty clear picture of some key elements of the movie:

We know the story of Ender is one worth telling, its themes are universal and despite the book being almost 30 years old those themes are very relevant in today's world. Asa Butterfield seems to excel in playing the protagonist; he just looks perfect to me, as does Harrison Ford as the grouchy Colonel Graff. We have also seen enough evidence by now to conclude that the visual effects will be fantastic, the space battles mindblowing, and the set design is nothing less than brilliant. So the movie is guaranteed to be a visual treat.

At Ender News we also have a very good idea of how the footage is being received by long-time fans of Orson Scott Card's book. I would say it is 99% positive at this point and the omission of certain plot points, like Locke and Demosthenes, is widely accepted with the fans. This is supported by Flixster where Ender's Game currently has a strong 98 percent anticipation score from over 38,000 voters. But for the movie to become a box office hit it will have to reach far, far beyond the fans of the original story.

Predictions and Comparisons

The movie has an estimated production budget of $110 million before marketing, which means the movie should break the $100 million mark for U.S. domestic returns to be considered a success and possibly keep the franchise alive. This target looks very challenging two weeks before the domestic release date. At the time of writing BoxOffice.com predicts an opening weekend in the $25-30 million range; the odds at MediaPredict are currently at $39 million, but that number is down from above $60 million in August.

BoxOffice.com is comparing the current status of Ender's Game with recent Sci-Fi/Fantasy releases Pacific Rim, Oblivion, John Carter, and Tron: Legacy, which I believe is a very good approach to determine the success of the studio's marketing campaign at this point. The site notes the following comparisons:
Online, the film's early indicators are a mixed bag. Twitter activity is 51 percent behind that of Pacific Rim at the same point before release, but 45 percent ahead of John Carter. Ender's chatter also trails Tron: Legacy and The Last Airbender by significant amounts.

On Facebook, the November 1 release just nabbed its 100,000th fan on Tuesday--a respectable benchmark, but still noticeably lagging behind Pacific Rim (253,783 fans) and Tron: Legacy (248,485) at the same point. Ender's Game does have the Facebook advantage over Oblivion (85,340) and John Carter (86,030), though.
These four films all have made similar numbers on their opening weekend to what is predicted for Ender's Game: between $30.2 million (John Carter) and $44 million (Tron: Legacy). Their total domestic gross, however, ranges much wider with John Carter ($73 million) and Oblivion ($89 million) missing the $100 million mark clearly, but with Pacific Rim returning $102 million and Tron: Legacy making $172 million.

This is what Ender's Game will have to do as well, generating enough buzz from moviegoers on its opening weekend to keep the numbers strong for a few weeks. Of course, that's unless all these box office predictions are completely off and the film exceeds all expectations for its first weekend just like Gravity did.

Competition

Gravity is also the biggest hope for Lionsgate/Summit as the film's setting bears certain similarities with Ender's Game and its success bucked the negative trend in the Sci-Fi genre with box office disappointments such as Oblivion, Pacific Rim, and Elysium lining up earlier this year. Maybe the audience has appetite for more spectacular zero gravity now?

The biggest obstacle the film will have to face is keeping its buzz for more than just the opening week as there will be an onslaught of Sci-Fi releases targeting a similar audience in the remaining weeks of November. Marvel's Thor: The Dark World opens just a week after Ender's Game and is predicted to make three times the money on its opening weekend. And Lionsgate's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens in Ender's fourth week with box office odds currently putting it in the all-time Top Five for opening weekend returns. As BoxOffice.com put it, "genre fans may end up turning Ender into a one-weekend movie unless word of mouth miraculously trumps that of its competition."

Concerns

We will get the first reviews from Germany or the U.K. in the next few days and box office returns from these markets will give us a good idea for what to expect from the U.S. launch on the November 1 weekend. But for now we have to raise the question why the current predictions are somewhat lagging the expectations for such a prestigious film with a stellar cast, crew and visual effects team.

I don't believe the Orson Scott Card debate has much to do with it. While I personally support a strong public stance against intolerance and pro-marriage equality and embracing all human beings the same way, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, gender, religion or nationality, I believe the call for boycotting this movie is very misguided. And it looks to me this is the general public opinion.

The filmmakers and all of the cast have strongly distanced themselves from Card's personal views - often in a pretty harsh way - and there is no doubt in my mind that none of the people involved in making this film support any of his positions. Neither do the book or movie's plot or themes reflect these positions in any way. So I do not believe that this controversy will have a major effect on the film's returns.



However, now I get to my real concerns: I believe that the studio's marketing campaign could have been more effective in terms of addressing the film's target audience and this is the main reason we are not looking at a solid $50 million opening weekend for Ender's Game at this time.

The studio's approach to promote the film is focused on veteran Hollywood stars Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley and on showing off the amazing visual effects action. But the film is first and foremost about the coming-of-age journey of a young boy, Ender, and quite frankly, we haven't seen enough of Ender in the trailers and clips that have been released so far, whereas Harrison Ford and his voice are all over the place. Entertainment Weekly points out that in all the trailers combined "we have heard four beats of dialogue," from "So I'm not the first?" to "In 3, 2, 1, NOW!"

The story is about Ender and his journey, his struggles, and most of the 114 minutes (total running time) will take place in Battle School where Ender will mostly interact with his fellow students. It's a movie about kids in Battle School with a stellar cast of young Hollywood talent, and unfortunately this important fact will remain widely unknown to a target audience that is not familiar with the book. Besides a few scenes with Hailee Steinfeld (Petra) and her participation in the junket, all the other key young characters haven't been promoted at all. And I think that's a mistake.

Just as a reminder: the film has Abigail Breslin co-starring as Ender's sister Valentine. She's one of the busiest top-league young actresses in Hollywood, starring in Oscar contenders like the upcoming August: Osage County, and we haven't seen anything of her in this campaign despite her huge fan base. We've also seen nothing of Moises Arias who plays Ender's antagonist Bonzo in the film. Moises has a similarly huge following as Breslin, both ranking higher than Asa Butterfield on Google Trends, and most of his fans might not even know about his participation in Ender's Game.

As for the rest of the young supporting cast -- some of them playing a major role in the original story and who will likely have plenty of screen time in the film -- actors like Aramis Knight (Bean) or Khylin Rhambo (Dink), we have seen only faint glimpses of footage, if anything at all. And while we know the character's role was cut drastically for the film, Ender's brother Peter (played by Jimmy Jax Pinchak), hasn't even been granted an official still yet, as if he wouldn't exist.

My main concern is that the most avid group of moviegoers in the U.S., teenagers and young adults age 12 to 24, could have been addressed much better by promoting the young cast beyond what has been done so far. This movie is about Ender and his fellow kids in Battle School.

Let me conclude with another quote from Entertainment Weekly: "Here's a challenge to Lionsgate: Make a wide-release Ender's Game trailer with no adults. It's a story about kids, after all."
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