Shop Talk
Is the Pirates' booty ill-gotten?
By David Mumpower
May 25, 2011

He has a long...sword.

In the wake of the record setting debut of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, this is the perfect opportunity to evaluate the perceived pointless sequel. Yes, I am aware of the fact that the more passionate Jack Sparrow fans among our readers will bristle at this. Before you grab your torches and pitchforks and storm my castle, keep in mind that that I place myself within your ranks. I consider the first two films to be among the most entertaining of the 2000s and while I believe the third one’s experiment in Sparrow Multiplicity is a misfire, I still enjoy that title as well. What I cannot dispute is that creative reasons were not the driving force behind the creation of this film. Even so, I am a bit mystified to see people slagging Disney for their clever business decision to go to the well once more, even if it proves to be once too often.

I refuse to damn Disney for this project like so many are doing right now. I understand all too well the logic behind the premature release of another title in the Pirates franchise. While so many of us spend our youth dreaming of making features that reveal our hopes, dreams and aspirations, the reality is that by the moment wherein anyone in the industry attains a position of decision making authority, all of their childlike sincerity has long since evaporated. Tentpole movies are a business run by massive multinational conglomerates and even the ones we like such as Pirates of the Caribbean are still prone to meddling by a numbers cruncher sitting in their office.

These people do their projections and quickly realize that unless a sequel is given the greenlight, there will be a bare spot on the film schedule for that period. Even worse, this means that the expected revenue for an accounting quarter/year is too low. That is the type of thought that endangers jobs, particularly those of the people making the projections. Business is business, even in the land of dreams brought into reality. The bosses there are even bigger jerks than the ones you work for and when they say, “Make me more money”, their wishes are honored independent of whether a project is ready to go into production.

Yes, this is a cynical evaluation of the industry, one that unfortunately has the ring of truth. How many people do you know that were actively rooting for a quick Pirates sequel? Do you know ANYBODY who was? Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End tied off the main story of Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner in a manner that created questions to be answered at some point, but the expectation was that it would be a decade or so later when their child was old enough to ask questions about his father’s absence.

The short term futures of Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa were not much of a mystery. They are pirates; presumably, they will be off plundering somewhere else. The character of Jack Sparrow was always intended to be the comic relief, the scene stealer who would hop in and out of the story rather than be the focus of it. The mistake in At World’s End was giving the viewing audience too much Jack Sparrow and the results were predictable. Movie goers turned on him a bit, not a lot, mind you, but enough to damage the character some.

Creating another film only four years later with him driving the action is not an act of artistic license; it is a merchandising decision. The results have been predictable as the film’s domestic opening weekend take is not even half of the record-setting debut of Dead Man’s Chest when we factor out 3D/IMAX ticket price inflation. North American audiences have had more than their fill of Jack Sparrow in the short term, yet Disney made this movie anyway for the obvious reason: Money. The unwanted and somewhat unwelcome fourth movie in the Pirates franchise has the worst Cinemascore of the four titles to date, B+, and appears likely to wind up as the worst domestic performer of the bunch. In spite of these perceived negatives, Disney executives are almost assuredly giddy with the results since it has exploded worldwide to the tune of about $350 million in three days.

I realize that we discuss hard to comprehend numbers a lot of the time at Box Office Prophets, so let us go at this a different way. Let’s say that your household income is $100,000, a number well above the average household income in North America. I recognize that BOP has a more affluent reader base so I’m allowing for that. You would need to work for 3,500 years to earn that much. That’s about four times as long Methuselah supposedly managed. And if you think you hate your boss now, just imagine what you’ll think of the one in the year 5,601. That thing may be from Omicron Persei 8.

Alternately, you would need to find 349 friends and each work for a hundred years to make this much. We lose perspective at times regarding just how massive a big number is, but that should get the point across. Using a sports analogy, we are discussing either A) enough money to pay the entire New York Mets payroll for two straight years or B) half of the money Bernie Madoff cost Mets ownership with his Ponzi Scheme. I would apologize to New York Mets fans for kicking you while you’re down this season, but...I’m a Braves fan. You know the deal.

The point here is that $350 million is a massive take. The fact that it happened in one weekend is mind-boggling. It’s easy for people to slag Disney for making a quick buck (well, $350 million of them) in this manner and I have to be honest that I have demonstrated just this behavior in the past with regards to DreamWorks Animation and their linchpin product, Shrek. Even so, I am having trouble blaming Disney in the same scenario given that when this production was finalized in the late summer of 2009, we were still in the middle of an unprecedented global financial crisis. If you were working at Disney at the time and looked at the summer schedule for 2010 and 2011, knowing the economic peril of the time, can you honestly say you would have done any differently? Before you answer, I will repeat my comments from the recent edition of Monday Morning Quarterback.

“Whenever Disney determines how they want to outlay their capital for a given year, their choices are these. They can spend $200 million producing another Prince of Persia: Sands of Time or $160 million for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and hope that their attempt will create a new franchise. Or they can play it safe by giving that money to Johnny Depp, guaranteeing a reward for their investment. The two summer action pictures they produced last year came with a price tag of $360 million to create, not including negative cost expenses. Those two titles attained global revenue of $550 million, only 28% of which came from domestic box office. The worst performing Pirates film to date had a global take of $653 million. If you are sitting in a room watching a Power Point presentation and you see these numbers, the Pirates side of the argument looks like the clear victor.”

This is a different scenario from Shrek in that DreamWorks was out of fresh ideas by the middle of the second film. The third one was a cinematic abomination and the mere existence of the fourth one says everything about which side of the eternal Hollywood art/commerce battle is winning there. Also, now is as good a time as any to mention that Puss in Boots is getting his own movie this November. I’m sure that one will have all of the originality of a mediocre LOLCats post, but that’s not the point. DreamWorks has kept pushing the money-grubbing envelope even though consumers have clearly stated they are tired of the Shrek universe. We have yet to see that sort of slippage from Disney’s hottest live action property.

Everyone wants exciting new products that engage them artistically. Unfortunately, the dirty little secret in the industry is that those same new ideas are much harder to market and much more likely to fail. Consider one of the BOP staff’s favorite book/film projects of the 2000s, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It has everything a new action feature could want in terms of action, humor and special effects yet it cost about $85 million to produce while returning global box office of less than $50 million. Yes, Relativity Media and distributor Universal Studios cleverly used various tax incentives to lessen the capital outlay, but that’s not the point. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an instant classic, yet another masterpiece from BOP fave Edgar Wright. It’s almost impossible to launch a better franchise debut than this one, yet its box office is a disaster. Consider that, factor in Prince of Persia and the reboot of Sorcerer’s Apprentice and then try to make the argument that it is in Disney’s best interest to avoid cash grab sequels in favor of new properties.

Yes, Disney did pull a heist here, stealing what will wind up being another $900+ million from too faithful movie goers. If you were in their shoes, however, would you have done something different? Aren’t these record breaking results so emphatic that they are hard to dispute as anything other than the latest masterstroke from the best movie studio in the history of the industry?