Godzilla Vs. Kong marks perhaps the first time that a big-budget flop has spawned a commercially successful big-budget sequel.
Godzilla Vs. Kong earned another $1.2 million in China on Tuesday to bring its cume to $168.3 million. That puts it just over the unadjusted $168.1 million cume for Kong: Skull Island in 2017. That makes it the biggest-grossing MonsterVerse movie ever in China, and (after passing the likes of Rampage, The Meg, The Great Wall and both Pacific Rim movies) the biggest “giant monster movie” flick there outside of Jurassic World ($227 million in 2015) and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($267 million). No, there is no chance that GvK will pass the domestic $200 million cume of Godzilla or the $168 million finish of Skull Island. But with an over/under $365 million worldwide running cume (and a likely $425 million-plus finish) on a $160 million budget, it’s going to be a global hit.
The Adam Wingard-directed flick cost $160 million in make ($120 million from Legendary and $40 million from Warner Bros. until WB bought out Legendary to prevent the film from being sold to Netflix) and around $70 million to promote (less than average due to still-shuttered territories and a smaller pre-release window). So, yeah, the film will indeed be profitable even before the presumably lucrative post-theatrical revenue (and arguable HBO Max boost) comes into play. Again, I don’t think the film would have earned that much more in better times since it would have been one tentpole amid a crowded slate and the whole “first biggie of the Covid vaccine era” hook wouldn’t have applied. Those advantages arguably canceled out (or accounted for) limited playability, availability on HBO Max and viewers rejecting King of the Monsters.
That’s part of what makes this specific success so remarkable. It’s the first time, at least in the post-Batman era, where a flop franchise installment hasn’t just ended the franchise but resulted in a blockbuster sequel/follow-up. Online entitlement related to franchises and fandoms has created a presumption that their favorite flop franchise-starter or follow-up (John Carter, Power Rangers, Alita: Battle Angel, Pacific Rim, Dredd, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Birds of Prey, etc.) deserves a sequel despite underwhelming or outright bombing at the box office. My own critical opinion notwithstanding (regular readers know I’m a big fan of at least a few of those films), the misconception is that any cult bomb can spawn a breakout sequel. However, the likes of Austin Powers, Pitch Perfect and John Wick were hits the first time out.
I write a lot about “breakout sequels,” the follow-ups to smaller-scale hits that cash in on leggy runs and post-theatrical discovery to a disproportionate upswing on opening weekend. Some, like John Wick ($88 million on a $30 million budget), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery ($67 million/$15 million) and Pitch Perfect ($115 million/$17 million), were small-scale hits. Some, like Pirates of the Caribbean ($654 million/$130 million), The Matrix ($465 million/$60 million) and Batman Begins ($371 million/$150 million), were big-scale wins that spawned record-crushing sequels. They all had A) good reviews, B) a successful theatrical run, C) strong word-of-mouth and D) a post-theatrical fanbase. I adored the 2017 Power Rangers movie, but mixed reviews, short theatrical legs ($90 million on a $40 million domestic debut) and $142 million on a $100 million budget do not a sequel inspire.
Legendary thought they could pull off this “hit from a flop” trick with Pacific Rim: Uprising, spending $150 million on a sequel to a $190 million flick that earned “just” $411 million. This, sans original mastermind Guillermo del Toro, although subbing Charlie Hunnam for John Boyega was probably an upgrade. Alas, Occom’s Razor applied. Online fandom didn’t translate to general audience interest. Uprising earned $290 million worldwide. Most “this flop deserves a sequel!” films don’t get theatrical continuations, which made Uprising a unique experiment. Not an exact comparison, but momentary interest in China convinced Hollywood that Terminator: Genisys was a successful follow-up ($445 million on a $155 million budget, with $113 million in China) to Terminator: Salvation ($371 million/$200 million, with no money from China). Then came Terminator: Dark Fate ($265 million/$180 million).
Godzilla Vs. Kong was put in a terrible position when King of the Monsters bombed in summer 2019 with just $110 million domestic and $390 million worldwide (including a promising $135 million in China, +70% from Godzilla) on a $180 million budget. This wasn’t even entirely comparable to Justice League, as that Joss Whedon/Zack Snyder “producer’s cut” was at least following a commercially successful (if divisive) Batman v Superman ($873 million on a $250 million budget, but from a $424 million global launch). Without wading into that mess again, Justice League’s $659 million worldwide cume would have been “okay, I guess” had WB not spent so much on Joss Whedon-supervised reshoots and studio-mandated rejiggering that the budget hit $300 million. See also: Ron Howard’s Solo. King of the Monsters was a bomb, plain and simple.
However, against all odds, and partially thanks to some of the same “tricks” that doomed Justice League (but presumably with Wingard’s approval and participation), Godzilla Vs. Kong is a moderate global hit. Making a more stand-alone, brighter, shorter and more conventionally kid-friendly sequel to a longer, denser and more somber “dark sequel” installment did the trick. It worked for critics (74% fresh and 6.4/10 on Rotten Tomatoes), audiences (an A from Cinemascore) and commercially (it’ll pass King of the Monsters this weekend). Of course, a 113-minute Godzilla Vs. Kong isn’t noticeably shorter than the previous MonsterVerse flicks (120 minutes, 118 minutes and 132 minutes). Moreover, you don’t have fandoms arguing that these movies are sacred religious texts, nor do you have offscreen tragedies and allegations of misbehavior that turned the whole thing into a glorified passion play.
Thanks to the more significant general audience interest in seeing King Kong and Godzilla beat each other up, as well as artistic choices which made for a more commercially appealing release (framing the story around King Kong and making him an underdog), Godzilla Vs. Kong has done the near-impossible. It has become the first big-budget (in modern times) franchise sequel to be a big hit despite following a global box office bomb. Sure, Iron Man 2 ($623 million) and Thor ($449 million) were big hits following The Incredible Hulk ($267 million). However, the MCU is its own skewed thing, just as this isn’t the same as Aquaman ($1.1 billion) opening a year after Justice League. Even the “failed” 007 movies like License to Kill ($156 million on a $36 million budget) weren’t outright money losers.
This may qualify as “false hope” the next time a big franchise flick flames out, and Godzilla ($529 million) and Skull Island ($569 million) had to be hits for this to work. However, does this mean that Hollywood will start to think that “missed it by that much” flicks like Mad Max: Fury Road ($375 million on a $155 million budget sans China) Edge of Tomorrow ($375 million/$175 million), Alien: Covenant ($240 million/$97 million) and Alita: Battle Angel ($405 million/$170 million) can score big on the next go-around? I still would argue that Pacific Rim: Uprising is the better “example” regarding whether a big-budget miss deserves a sequel. The miracle of Godzilla Vs. Kong should be treated as an exception to the rule rather than the start of a new rule.