Pacific Rim: Uprising has earned just $55 million. At this juncture, it should top out a bit over $60m domestic, which is well short of the $102m domestic gross of the first Pacific Rim back in 2013. And while it’s doing a little better overseas, Legendary’s $150m-budgeted sci-fi sequel isn’t making up for lost ground, not even in China. While the sequel arguably only exists because Pacific Rim earned $113m in China five years ago, this time out Uprising scored a $66m debut, terrible word of mouth and a swift decline to under-$100m. With $267m worldwide, it’ll be lucky to top $280m. It’s a big miss.
This shouldn’t be a surprise since Legendary (and distributor Universal/Comcast Corp.) violated the most obvious rule of all: Don’t make a sequel if folks didn’t flock to or love the original. As a general rule, sequels happen when a movie earns a lot of money or grosses a figure that is A) noticeably higher than the production budget and B) has a somewhat leggy, buzzy run which in-turn leads to a vibrant post-theatrical lifespan. Sequels are supposed to be a reward for a movie that is a big hit and (theoretically) has another story worth telling. If the first film bombs, you shouldn’t get a sequel.
That’s what made a second Pacific Rim so intriguing. Guillermo del Toro’s monsters versus robots flick earned mixed reviews and didn’t really break out beyond the hardcore nerd crowd, earning $101 million domestic from a $38m debut and $411m worldwide on a $190m budget. Yes, $411m+ worldwide is pretty solid, especially for an original live-action feature, but that was still barely over double its budget. And with marketing costs being what they are, 2.5x-the budget is usually the magic spot for eventual profitability once VOD, DVD and other post-theatrical revenue streams are tabulated. So, Pacific Rim: Uprising was a big-budget sequel to a big-budget flop.
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and the clickbait-driven media, we get all kinds of buzz about continuations to every franchise under the sun. Chris Pine joshingly responds in a positive way to the notion of a third Princess Diaries movie and it gets reported as if it’s a greenlit picture. Folks are asked about Fantastic Four and they act like it’s something that’s actively being considered. But no matter how much Karl Urban talks about playing Judge Dredd again on the big screen, we are no closer to getting a sequel to Dredd than we are of getting MacGruber 2, Terminator Genisys 2 or John Carter 2.
But Pacific Rim 2 actually got made. Sure, this all started in 2014, when Universal had recently joined forces with Legendary (the first Pacific Rim went out as a Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. release) and when Universal was lower on stockholder-friendly franchises. But as Universal’s 2014 slate of record profit margins (in a year sans tentpoles) led to a market share-winning 2015, Pacific Rim: Uprising became less an essential IP and more of… something from a bygone era. Pacific Rim 2 was a lot less necessary in 2018 than it was in 2014. In retrospect, Pacific Rim could have been treated as a “dodged a bullet” one-and-done.
Universal was planning to toss Kristen Stewart out of her own franchise before Snow White and the Huntsman even opened in June of 2012. Taking a female-led hit, and it did earn $156 million domestic and $394m worldwide on a $170m budget, and creating a male-driven spin-off was both a bad idea in terms of why the first film did well and oddly cruel. But the appeal of saying “Hey, we’ve got a new franchise!” was too much to resist after Battleship bombed and The Bourne Legacy slightly underperformed. Yet, by early 2016, Universal needed The Huntsman: Winter’s War as much as Disney needs Tron 3.
Disney has threatened to make a third Tron movie in one form or another over the years. Tron: Legacywas more successful than the other “next Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Disney’s Avatar” titles (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Prince of Persia, etc). The Joseph Kosinski-directed sci-fi sequel has its cult following (it’s still terrible but Oblivion is good and Only the Brave is a new classic). But once Disney started kicking butt with Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, plus those live-action fairy tales doing their thing, there was zero need to take a risk on a third Tron movie.
A Pacific Rim sequel became riskier and riskier with every year that went by, as the new installment now presented itself not as a sequel to a recent hit but as a long-gestating sequel to a film that wasn’t all that fondly remembered or (depending on viewer awareness) an outright original. And once Guillermo del Toro jumped ship, you somewhat lost the fan loyalty that almost justified the project in the first place. Unless Steven S. DeKnight had created a new classic on par with, I dunno, Edge of Tomorrow or Fury Road, this was always a huge risk, even with a winning John Boyega in the lead role.
Pacific Rim: Uprising was a sequel to a box office miss, borne of a notion that having IP was in itself valuable to the overall portfolio no matter if that IP had any worth. You don’t get and shouldn’t expect sequels to truly underperforming originals. You can get sequels to surprise blowout hits like Ted or leggy cult favorites like Pitch Perfect or John Wick. Yes, you can have breakout sequels, but those have to originate from films that earned good reviews, profitable global box office (preferably with a leggy run) and post-theatrical interest. Pacific Rim was 0-3, and you can’t will a franchise into being.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was a hit ($68 million worldwide on a $17m budget), so the production of The Spy Who Shagged Me shouldn’t have been a surprise. Unbreakable was a minor disappointment, earning $96m domestic and $256m worldwide on an $80m budget, so it’s no surprise that a sequel didn’t come until M. Night Shyamalan released Split and then made Glass into a 2-for-1 sequel Unbreakable/Split sequel 18.25 years after the first superhero drama. And even if you argue that Tron: Legacy was a minor hit, nostalgia magic didn’t strike twice for Blade Runner 2049. A movie isn’t more appealing because it’s a sequel.
Unless you’re Batman Begins and you earn $371 million on a $150m budget but with rave reviews, superb legs, great word-of-mouth and strong post-theatrical, your next chapter isn’t going to be The Dark Knight. Pacific Rim: Uprising was a big budget sequel to a big-budget predecessor that wasn’t remotely an outright hit. So if you’re wondering why we don’t have Tron 3 or why Universal is gun-shy about a third stand-alone Hulk movie, well, look at Pacific Rim. They didn’t need Pacific Rim: Uprisingany more than they needed The Huntsman or Disney needed Tron 3. Having no franchise is better than having a poor franchise.
Universal will be fine (go see Blockers), but what could have been a box office game changer instead becomes an all-too-apparent cautionary tale. In the end, the lesson of Pacific Rim: Uprising, a movie that I actually enjoyed on its own pulpy merits, is pretty simple: Don’t make a sequel to a box office bomb.