The late Kirk Kerkorian's parting gift to Hollywood was The Promise, a big-budget epic about the Armenian genocide.
Starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, the movie opened to a mere $4.1 million at the North American box office over the weekend. At that rate, the film stands to lose $80 million or more unless it overperforms overseas and in ancillary markets, according to box-office experts.
The Promise cost $90 million to $100 million to make before marketing costs and a distribution fee paid to Open Road Films in North America. Kerkorian, who died in 2015 and was of Armenian descent, fully financed the movie via Survival Pictures, which was created to make the movie and to educate the public about genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The film's producers say the movie is a victory, its box office notwithstanding, since the intent was never to make a profit. Instead, The Promise was intended to shine a light on the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. And any proceeds from the film will be donated to charity, including to the new The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law, which was unveiled last week with a $20 million gift.
The release of the film was timed to the date the genocide began: April 24, 1915. That was the day when Turkey's Ottoman Empire began rounding up, arresting and deporting Armenian leaders and intellectuals.
"The movie was made as a living museum," says Eric Esrailian, a partner at Survival who also is a professor of medicine at UCLA. "We made the film knowing it would stand the test of time. And we will give millions away in charity. We wanted to shed a light on the best, and on the state of the world today."
Esrailian added, "I feel like it is petty to talk about money when we are talking about genocide."
The Promise premiered Sunday in Armenia at a screening attended by President Serzh Sargsyan.
"It was always going to be tough sell given its period, wartime subject matter," says box-office expert Paul Dergarabedian of comScore, who is also of Armenian descent. "For myself and many Armenians, it was a strong statement nevertheless and shed light on a period in history that many are not really familiar with. If one person saw the trailer and said to themselves, 'I'm going to research the events surrounding the Armenian Genocide,' then it was certainly worth the effort."
Box-office analyst Jeff Bock is of a different opinion.
"I honestly don't know who spends $90 million on a historical drama these days without a major distributor in place. This is just failed filmmaking from start to finish," Bock says. "There's always a way to tell a story without breaking the bank to do so."