Directed By: Stephen Gaghan
Written By: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand, Chris McKay
Release Date: January 17, 2020
Domestic Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Box Office Information
Budget: $175 Million
Financed by: Universal Pictures
Domestic Box Office Gross: $77,047,065
Overseas Box Office Gross: $150,861,065
Robert Downey Jr. electrifies one of literature’s most enduring characters in a vivid reimagining of the classic tale of the man who could talk to animals: Dolittle.
After losing his wife (Kasia Smutniak) seven years earlier, the eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Downey), famed doctor and veterinarian of Queen Victoria’s England, hermits himself away behind the high walls of Dolittle Manor with only his menagerie of exotic animals for company.
But when the young queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) falls gravely ill, a reluctant Dolittle is forced to set sail on an epic adventure to a mythical island in search of a cure, regaining his wit and courage as he crosses old adversaries and discovers wondrous creatures.
The doctor is joined on his quest by a young, self-appointed apprentice (Dunkirk’s Harry Collett) and a raucous coterie of animal friends, including an anxious gorilla (Oscar® winner Rami Malek), an enthusiastic but bird-brained duck (Oscar® winner Octavia Spencer), a bickering duo of a cynical ostrich (The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani) and an upbeat polar bear (John Cena, Bumblebee) and a headstrong parrot (Oscar® winner Emma Thompson), who serves as Dolittle’s most trusted advisor and confidante.
Box Office Breakdown
It was announced on March 20, 2017 that Universal had won the auction for a potential Dolittle franchise with Robert Downey Jr. attached. The sought after project was packaged by Joe Roth and Jeff Kirschenbaum (RK Films) and Robert & Susan Downey (Team Downey) and it landed in a heated bidding war from Sony and FOX. Dolittle would mark the third stab at Hugh Lofting’s public domain property after the 1967 box office disaster Doctor Dolittle toplined by Rex Harrison and the execrable hit Doctor Dolittle (1998) starring Eddie Murphy — which spawned a theatrical sequel and a handful of straight to video installments.
The Downey Downfall
Director Stephen Gaghan became attached to the high profile project just weeks after his film Gold opened to a poor commercial and critical reception. Downey Jr. landed a $20 million payday with undisclosed backend terms and was awarded a sizable amount of creative control over the production. The last film Downey had acted outside of the Marvel movies was the flop The Judge (2014), which was also produced by Team Downey.
After landing Dolittle, Universal immediately dated the movie for a prime holiday release on May 24, 2019, but it was quickly moved out of the competitive Memorial Day frame to April 12, 2019. In October 2018, Universal announced a nearly year-long release delay to January 17, 2020, in an attempt to salvage Gaghan’s edit, which apparently botched the comedic elements and did not incorporate the VFX animals nearly enough into the movie.
The studio initially reached out to Seth Rogan to help rework the comedic failings of Dolittle, but Rogan was busy, so Universal brought in The Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay. Reshoots were planned and McKay oversaw newly written material, but he departed the project for another job before the reshoots. Jonathan Liebesman was then tapped to direct 21 days of reshoots, whose familiarity with directing comedy must have come from his unintentionally hilarious work like Darkness Falls (2003) and Battle Los Angeles (2011).
A Bloated Budget
When reports leaked in April 2019 over the extensive reshoots, the studio insisted that Stephen Gaghan was still very much involved with the creative process and was collaborating with Liebesman. Ah, the power of the NDA. Despite the corporate sanitizing of the behind the scenes troubles, buzz did begin to sour from the long delay, reports that the budget had now swelled to a frightening $175 million and that Dolittle was a bloated problem picture that was testing poorly.
Universal financed the majority of Dolittle and the studio’s China-based slate investor Perfect World Pictures contributed additional coin. Universal also supported this stinker with a massive global marketing blitz and between the production and P&A costs, at least $300 million was sunk into this turkey.
For the domestic release, Universal spent $32.9 million on TV ads going into the release (as per iSpotTV) and after other marketing and distribution expenses, the stateside P&A costs were about $60 million. Even with the strong promotional push, tracking was pointing to a 4-day MLK holiday frame haul at about $27M.
Box Office Numbers
Dolittle bowed against Bad Boys For Life, Like a Boss and Underwater and was savaged by critics, with many calling it one of the worst films of 2020 — even though the year had begun just 17 days earlier. Dolittle opened within its muted expectations at $28,301,930 over 4-days and $21,844,045 over the weekend. Absolutely disastrous numbers for a movie of this expense. It placed #3 for the weekend led by Bad Boys For Life.
Dolittle declined 44.2% to $12,198,835 during its second session and dipped a modest 37.7% to $7,593,865 in its third weekend.
A Case of the Corona (Virus)
A China release was to be the last-ditch effort to minimize the film’s financial loss, but the release was canceled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. The offshore numbers were $150,861,065. Japan was also set to release the movie at the end of March, but the Corona has also canceled that plan. The only hope left is people watching the digital release (as a last resort) while they sit at home during the quarantine.
With Dolittle concluding its global run with about $230 million at the box office, Universal would see returned about $126 million after theaters take their percentage of the gross. This would likely cover only the P&A costs and the theatrical receipts would not dent the hefty budget. Dolittle will likely end as a loss of at least $100 million, making it one of the biggest flops on record. Any updates regarding the loss will be updated if Comcast issues a statement in their quarterly financial report.