Analysis: Why Did 'Elvis' Underperform At The Box Office?

·4 min read

There was good news and bad news from Warner Bros.’ (NASDAQ: WBD) biopic “Elvis” premiere engagement this weekend in U.S. theaters. The good news was the Baz Luhrmann biopic was the top grossing film from the line-up of theatrical releases.

The bad news was that the $31 million generated by "Elvis" in ticket sales made it the lowest grossing top-ranked weekend film since the animated feature “The Bad Guys” from Comcast Corp’s (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Pictures opened to $24 million in domestic ticket sales for the April 22-24 weekend.

What went wrong for “Elvis,” which came to theaters with extensive marketing and overwhelming positive reviews? It would seem there were several factors working against it.

Competition: “Elvis” came into theaters as Universal Pictures’ “Jurassic World Dominion” was entering its third week in release, while Paramount Global’s (NASDAQ: PARAA) was going into its fifth week. But while “Jurassic World Dominion” showed signs of losing steam as its engagement continued (a $26.4 million gross from the weekend), “Top Gun: Maverick” unexpectedly saw a second wind and challenged “Elvis” for box office dominance, closing the weekend at $30.5 million in U.S. ticket sales.

Complicating matters was another Universal title, the horror flick “The Black Phone,” swept up $23 million at the box office. While that might seem disappointing, the film’s budget was around $18 million, and it already earned back its costs thanks to a mostly younger audience that embraced its spooky storyline.

The Audience: Deadline cited Comscore/Screen Engine PostTrak data that found 31% of the “Elvis” audience was over 55 and 48% was over 45. Considering that this year marks the 45th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, nearly half of the audience had some recollection of the King of Rock and Roll during his halcyon days.

But where were the younger moviegoers? Deadline also noted that 51% of the audience for “The Black Phone” were women, with those between 18 and 34 accounting for 64% of ticket sales and those under 25 accounting for 53%. The other films striving for box office dominance divided up the millennial and Gen Z moviegoers.

This raises a question if younger viewers would respond to a film about a music icon that they only know about from historic references. Recent examples have been a hit-or-miss affair: United Artists Releasing’s 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” was a box office flop, despite the presence of Jennifer Hudson in the title role, yet 20th Century Fox’s 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a big hit with audiences and propelled Rami Malek to film stardom and an Academy Award.

Austin Butler, who plays the title role in “Elvis,” has his first starring role in this film, so audiences aren’t necessarily coming out for him. The film’s only box office name, Tom Hanks, plays against type (and under heavy make-up) as the unscrupulous Col. Tom Parker, but his presence helped sell the film – PostTrak found 25% of moviegoers came to “Elvis” because of Hanks. While this is good news for Hanks’ star cred, it seems off-kilter that one-quarter of the audience are coming for the Col. Parker character rather than the eponymous star.

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The Timing: One of the more curious decisions regarding “Elvis” was the decision to release the film at the start of summer, especially when action-adventure and family-friendly film are among the most popular fare on the screen.

As a film that could be seen as a major contender in multiple Academy Award categories – including Baz Luhrmann’s direction, possible acting nods for Butler and Hanks, plus the technical awards for the flashy production. And considering the bulk of Warner Bros.’ remaining 2022 titles are action-adventure flicks like “Black Adam” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” having its main Oscar bait in theaters in mid-year rather than at year’s end amid the major studio Oscar releases feels like poor planning.

However, a second act to “Elvis” may be coming soon – Luhrmann has already hinted a four-hour version of his 2-hour-38-minute work exists, which might generate a new rush of interest after the initial hoopla has evaporated.

Photo: Austin Butler in "Elvis," courtesy of Warner Bros.

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