Mortal Engines

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  • Directed By: Christian Rivers
  • Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
  • Release Date: December 14, 2018
  • Domestic Distributor: Universal
  • Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving

Box Office Info:
Budget: $110 million Financed by: Media Rights Capital; Universal; Legendary; Perfect World
Domestic Box Office: $15,951,040 Overseas Box Office: $67,663,924

Peter Jackson optioned the theatrical rights to the 4-part Mortal Engines YA series in 2009 from Scholastic, when the YA craze went full tilt after Twilight (2008) — but the project did not begin to move forward until 2016.  Jackson’s manager Ken Kamins brought the property to Media Rights Capital, which agreed to finance half of it.  Warner Bros and FOX were first tapped as co-financiers, but both studios passed.  Universal then boarded as co-financier and took on global distribution duties.  The budget for Mortal Engines was $110 million after a large 20% cash rebate from New Zealand and the production landed an additional 5% rebate from NZ, which was set aside for big budget projects that employes New Zealanders exclusively and benefits their economy.  While the film was in post-production, Universal reduced their exposure to the expenses down to 30% after bringing on Chinese financing partners Legendary and Perfect World.

The premise of predator cities on wheels was a decent enough concept, but Mortal Engines was yet another recycled YA narrative trope where the fate of a dystopian future lies in the hands of a young adult.  This has been done to death ad nauseam over the past decade.  By the time the picture was set for release on December 14, 2018 the YA craze was running on fumes and the last attempt to launch a franchise out of these templates was the flop The Darkest Minds earlier in 2018.

Universal launched an expensive global marketing blitz for Mortal Engines, reportedly north of $120M, but the movie was tracking soft.  The trailers did a mediocre job of selling this high concept world of moving cities, but quick TV ads were literally a hodgepodge of CGI mayhem and incomprehensible for those uninitiated.  Mortal Engines landed mixed to poor reviews and opened into a very competitive end of the year marketplace and became the last major box office catastrophe of 2018.

It bowed against Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, The Mule and Once Upon a Deadpool and was dead on arrival with $7,559,850 — placing #5 for the weekend led by Spider-ManMortal Engines posted one of the largest second frame declines on record, collapsing 76.8% to $1,751,605.  The domestic run fizzled out with only $15,951,040.

Mortal Engines also struggled overseas where the receipts stalled at $67.6M.  The worldwide total was $83.6M.  Universal would see returned about $45.9M after theaters take their percentage of the gross — leaving Mortal Engines as one of the biggest flops on record.

After Mortal Engines died at the box office, the usual post mortem explanations were tossed around.  Audiences only pay to see existing IP; the predator city concept was too difficult to convey in marketing; there were no bankable leads; the books were not well known enough, etc.  All reasonable complaints, but simply put, this concept was wrapped around generic plotting that was years stale — it never had a chance.


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  1. Japan has finally opened and it looks to make less than $1 million there. The foreign total will peter out around $67.6 million, leaving a worldwide total of $83.4 million – Universal will only see $45.9 million, leaving more than 60 percent of the P&A at a loss.

    • Actually, even less. Going by the typical theater splits (55/45 America, 40/60 overseas, 25/75 China), Universal would only see about $34.55 million ($8.77 million America, $1.87 million China, $23.91 million overseas), which subtracting the combined production and P&A costs of around $230 million, makes for a $195.45 million loss.

    • It had an absolutely dismal opening to total multiplier of 2.11. That means that the opening weekend made up a huge 47.4% of its total domestic gross. For holiday standards, that is as bad as it gets.

      • And not to mention that people has better films to see that week and the week after! “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse”, “Aquaman”, “Bumblebee”, “Mary Poppins Returns”, “Ralph Breaks The Internet”, and so on and so forth. No wonder this film flopped hard.

  2. Mortal Engines has just opened in China, where it only grossed a paltry 4.17 million USD in its opening weekend there. At this point, the Chinese opening will probably be the final nail in the coffin for this failed franchise starter of a film.

  3. “The premise of predator cities on wheels was a fantastic concept”

    Disagree, this is just a grittier, live action version of Howl’s Moving Castle (remember that anime from 14 years ago?). Who wants something like that?

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