Free Willy 3: The Rescue

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    [Total: 4 Average: 2.5]
  • Directed By: Sam Pillsbury
  • Written By: John Mattson
  • Release Date: August 8, 1997
  • Domestic Distributor: Warner Bros
  • Cast: Jason James Richter, August Schellenberg, Annie Corley

Box Office Info:
Budget: N/A Financed by: Warner Bros; Regency
Domestic Box Office: $3,446,539 Overseas Box Office: N/A

free willy 3 1997
After Free Willy (1993) turned into a surprise hit that pulled in $153.6M worldwide and then sold exceptionally well on home video, Free Willy 2 was fast tracked and in theaters two years later in the same late July release frame.  The sequel had a major decline in stateside attendance, with $30M in theatrical receipts (overseas numbers are not available), but strong home video sales led WB to milk this franchise to death with Free Willy 3: The Rescue.

The first Free Willy had a modest $20 million budget and the sequel had a price tag closer to $30M, but there was no budget info from WB about this part 3 cash grab.  The whale from the first installment Keiko was replaced in both part 2 and 3 by an expensive animatronic Orca and Willy 3 also relied on pricey CGI.  The budget for Free Willy 3: The Rescue would certainly not increase after the diminishing returns from Part 2 and the estimated costs are in the mid $20M range.  Warner Bros co-financed the picture with Regency, which had also funded the first two movies with the studio.

The Willy pictures were spaced two years apart and Free Willy 3 was dated for August 8, 1997.  Unlike the previous installment which had tie-in promotions and toys to aid the release, audiences seemed to have had enough of Willy needing a rescue and there was minimal advertising and no corporate partners.  WB knew this property was running on fumes and booked the movie only moderately wide into 1,258 theaters.

The Free Willy movies were all produced by Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions, which was run by director Richard Donner and his wife Lauren Shuler Donner and WB dated Willy 3 against the Richard Donner directed Conspiracy Theory — though there was obviously no audience overlap between the two WB productions.  Def Jam’s How to Be a Player also bowed that weekend.  Free Willy 3 would have competition with other holdover kids fare George of the Jungle, Air Bud and Good Burger.

Reviews were mostly negative and Free Willy 3 posted a disastrous $992,651 — placing #15 for the weekend led by Conspiracy Theory, which also disappointed in its debut.  The film fell 51% to $489,037 in its second frame and then promptly lost most of its theater count.  The domestic run closed with an abysmal $3,446,539.  A made for the video market fourthquel was produced in 2010 called Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove.

WB had a string of box office losers in summer ’97, which kicked off with the fiasco Father’s Day, then the soft returns on Addicted to Love, Batman & Robin derailed that franchise, Contact did decent business but barely squeaked into profit, Free Willy 3 ended that franchise and their last major release was Conspiracy Theory, which also barely broke even — and the studio’s final summer movie was the Shaquille O’Neal embarrassment Steel.

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