Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Tomorrowland
Tomorrowland featured an A-list director coming off a massive box office hit, one of the biggest movie stars in the world and a tie-in to a high-concept sci-fi premise that is recognizable to people all over the world. And yet, it joined John Carter and The Lone Ranger as high-profile box office disasters. What went wrong?
A big part of the problem is, no one knew what the heck Tomorrowland was supposed to be about. The marketing was a confusing mishmash of futuristic skylines and cornfields. Something about a magic pin and George Clooney in serious Clooney mode.
What’s the conflict here? Something about “fixing the future”. What does that even mean? And why does Britt Robertson keep popping in and out of a cornfield? Are cornfields futuristic? What does any of this have to do with Tomorrowland? I’ve been to Tomorrowland and there are no cornfields.
Adding to the problem, Tomorrowland received mixed reviews. Critics complained that it was preachy and unfocused. The reviews claimed it was too self-important for a family film and would likely bore children – presumably the intended audience.
Director Brad Bird is known for mixing in ideas that some feel border on Randian Objectivism. The Incredibles and Ratatouille were entertaining enough that most audiences were able to get past any discomfort Bird’s thesis may have caused. But in a weaker movie like Tomorrowland, the philosophizing threatened to weigh down what was supposed to be a light-hearted romp.
As a theme park fan, I would suggest that making a movie based on Tomorrowland is a daunting proposition. There are multiple Tomorrowlands at various Disney theme parks and none of them are especially unified in theme. The most recognizable attraction in Tomorrowland is the wild mouse roller coaster, Space Mountain. But Bird’s movie seems to be more inspired by the Carousel of Progress – an attraction that is skipped by all but the most serious Disneyphiles.
When Tomorrowland flopped, there was a lot of discussion about George Clooney’s fading star power and the notion that movie stars weren’t nearly as important as they used to be. All of that is true. It probably didn’t help that Clooney wasn’t really the lead in Tomorrowland despite his star billing. Even if audiences were inclined to go see a George Clooney movie, Tomorrowland wasn’t one.
The main lesson Hollywood took away from the failure of Tomorrowland was that launching franchises was a riskier proposition than perpetuating them. Brad Bird set out to tell an original story with his movie – or at least as original as a movie can be when it is based on a theme park. But instead, Tomorrowland became a cautionary tale against doing just that.
The other lesson of the day – and one that was long overdue – is that mid-budget movies have their place in a studio’s line-up. While the expensive Tomorrowland was under-performing at the box office, less expensive movies like Spy and Pitch Perfect 2 were making a tidy profit. Several studios took notice.
Ironically, the big loser in all of this was Tron. Tron Legacy performed below Disney’s expectations, but there had been talk of a sequel. After several years of waffling over whether or not to continue the series, Disney gave Tron 3 a green-light. Then after Tomorrowland flopped, Disney quietly pulled the plug on the third Tron movie. Disney assumed the failure of Tomorrowland meant that audiences were no longer interested in science fiction.
To be fair, I should note that while Disney almost certainly intended to launch a Tomorrowland franchise, Brad Bird was pretty clear that he viewed Tomorrowland as a stand-alone movie. This might help explain why Disney put so little effort into selling it to audiences. Unlike failures like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, Disney shrugged off the failure of Tomorrowland. Thanks to the acquisitions of Marvel and Pixar, they know they have their franchises covered for now.