By David Mumpower
May 20, 2011
A lackluster 2011 box office campaign has turned around in recent weeks thanks to stronger than expected showings from Fast Five, Thor and Bridesmaids. And this weekend sees the release of one of the blue blood franchises of modern cinema, Pirates of the Caribbean. Yes, Captain Jack Sparrow is back for the first time in almost exactly four years. The question is how many people missed him.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is one of the greatest box office achievements of our generation. Prior to its theatrical release, the Disney property had garnered little media coverage to that point. In fact, many analysts at the time were convinced that this movie would bomb. There were many reasons to believe that possibility.
The first Disney ride adapted into a mainstream feature, The Country Bears, was a perceived bomb although no financial disaster. That release earned just under $17 million against a $20 million budget. The most devastating comment I can make about the project is that this may be the first time you have ever heard of it. It is almost never shown on television on the heels of pathetic box office performance. Disney pretends as if this title does not exist.
In addition, storied producer Jerry Bruckheimer had failed to deliver the goods on his most recent two summer blockbusters, Pearl Harbor and Bad Company. The former movie is technically a box office winner yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone who enjoys the film. The latter feature cost a whopping $70 million to create yet earned only $11 million on opening weekend. And let’s not ignore the fact that Johnny Depp looks and sounds ridiculous if you sample Jack Sparrow in small bites. On paper, Pirates of the Caribbean looked like disastrous $140 million expenditure for Bruckheimer/Disney, the same as Pearl Harbor.
Instances such as this are exactly why the industry maxim “Nobody knows anything” is repeatedly so frequently. On paper, the project may have seemed like a poor use of capital. In execution, director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp were a perfect match whose melded sensibilities entwined to create a damn near perfect action adventure, one that will still be played 50 years from now. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an instant classic and the foundation for a franchise that has earned over $2.7 billion to date. That is the equivalent of 14 Pearl Harbors, 41 Bad Companys, or 159 The Country Bears.
Given that the Pirates franchise was only known for that stupid Disneyworld ride at the time, however, there was not a lot of opening weekend demand. Disney recognized this at the time and they sagely chose to release the film on a Wednesday in order to build buzz for the project. We see this several times a year. Pirates is the rare instance where it worked; I would go so far as to say that Pirates is the perfect implementation of this tactic.