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This weekend's dismal box office shows all the ways a movie can fail

Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, which underperformed in its first week of wide release, despite Oscar buzz.
Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, which underperformed in its first week of wide release, despite Oscar buzz.
Universal Pictures

Generally speaking, October is one of the best movie months of the year. That's true from both a creative and financial perspective, thanks to the combination of prestige pictures making early Oscar bids and audiences' seasonal appetite for cheap horror films, which tend to do well in this, the spookiest of months. But this past weekend's box office numbers looked more like those we'd see during the late-summer doldrums or post-holiday winter dumping ground.

Put simply: It was a spectacularly bad weekend for new releases, and the only thing keeping it from being one of the worst of the year, financially speaking, was a handful of holdovers (The Martian, Goosebumps, Bridge of Spies, Hotel Transylvania 2) that pulled in more in their second, fourth, or even fifth weeks than most of the week's newbies.

There are several factors that combined to create this vortex of suck at the cinemas, with each new wide release providing its own lesson in how to keep away paying audiences. Let's look at this week's five big movie losers, and what contributed to their downfall.

Steve Jobs biopic

Universal

1) Steve Jobs

Opened at: No. 7 (first weekend in wide release)

Weekend gross: $7.3 million ($2,916 per screen)

Estimated production budget: $30 million

What went wrong: The reviews for Steve Jobs — which expanded to wide release this week after playing in only 60 theaters nationwide last week — have been solid to good, and Michael Fassbender's performance as the troubled tech genius is generating Oscar buzz. Yet the Danny Boyle–directed, Aaron Sorkin–penned film opened well below its projected $13 to $17 million expectations, at just $7.3 million, only a little more than 2013's much-derided Ashton Kutcher–starring Jobs earned in its first week ($6.7 million). This new film has the prestige factor that the earlier Jobs film lacked, but audiences didn't seem to care.

There are lots of possible reasons Steve Jobs failed to meet expectations. Viewers may simply be over Jobs-related stories for a bit, or early biopic fatigue could be setting in. There's also the fact that Fassbender, while a reliably compelling and critically beloved actor, isn't exactly a bankable star outside of the X-Men movies, which he didn't carry on his own. But the answer may boil down to simple oversaturation: There are a lot of new movies out right now, and Steve Jobs is fighting for the same target audience — men over 25 — as most of them, including the movie that popped back up to the No. 1 slot this weekend, The Martian.

Will it recover? Probably. Chances are good Steve Jobs will hold steady, and maybe even bump up a spot or two, in the coming weeks — especially because next weekend, which falls on Halloween, is pretty bleak in terms of new releases. As Oscar buzz for the film grows, audiences who didn't rush out to see the film in its first weekend will very likely grow curious, giving it a longer shelf life and a chance to earn back its budget.

Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter. Lionsgate

2) The Last Witch Hunter

Opened at: No. 4

Weekend gross: $10.8 million($3,512 per screen)

Estimated production budget: $90 million

What went wrong: Vin Diesel has become a bigger box office draw than many thought possible in recent years, thanks to the Fast & Furious franchise and his beloved social media presence. But Diesel is really the only thing The Last Witch Hunter has going for it: Reviews for the film are terrible (it's currently sitting ugly at 14 percent at Rotten Tomatoes), and it doesn't even have the courtesy to see through its Halloween-friendly B-movie premise.

But frankly, Diesel isn't that big a draw on his own; his most successful recent film without the words Fast, Furious, or Guardians of the Galaxy in the title was 2013's Pitch Black sequel Riddick, which just barely made back its production budget in theaters. Studios keep throwing money at Diesel projects in hopes that he'll deliver the same sort of numbers he does with the Fast & Furious movies, but Diesel is just one component of those movies' success — and, arguably, not one that can be translated outside of the franchise.

Will it recover? Likely not. The Last Witch Hunter's budget seems pretty inflated, and even a quick move to VOD (video on demand) and home video to mitigate the damage may turn out to be too little, too late.

paranormal activity ghost dimension

3) Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

Opened at: No. 6

Weekend gross: $8.2 million ($4,952 per screen)

Estimated production budget: $10 million

What went wrong: The found-footage Paranormal Activity franchise is one of horror cinema's sturdiest, having cranked out new entries nearly every year since 2009, each of which handily makes back its meager budget. But even though the new Ghost Dimension will almost certainly break even by Halloween weekend, it underperformed dramatically by series standards, making it the lowest-debuting Paranormal Activity film by a wide margin. It opened to $10 million less than its predecessor, 2014's The Marked Ones — and that's with the inflated prices commanded by 3D, which Ghost Dimension is the first Paranormal Activity film to offer.

While The Ghost Dimension has been critically lambasted, it would not be the first poorly received horror sequel to succeed despite itself. Momentum may play a factor here: The last Paranormal Activity movie, the aforementioned The Marked Ones, was the first in the franchise to not open around Halloween (it debuted instead in the very spooky month of January), so the last time a Paranormal Activity was a Halloween viewing option was in 2012, with Paranormal Activity 4. Audiences simply may have broken the habit of expecting a new Paranormal Activity every Halloween.

But the real cause of Ghost Dimension's failure is likely even wonkier than that: The film opened in only 1,656 theaters, compared with the 2,500 to 3,500 theaters these films usually play to. The reason for that involves a deal Paramount cut with theater chains AMC and Cineplex to shorten the film's theatrical window in order to make Ghost Dimension available on VOD after 17 days. Because of this deal, a bunch of other chains, including Regal and Cinemark, declined to screen the film.

Will it recover? Financially speaking, yes. Even though its overall numbers were disappointing, Ghost Dimension boasted the weekend's highest per-screen average, which means that in cities where audiences could see the film in theaters, they showed up. Factor in the shortened VOD window, and Ghost Dimension will likely redeem itself within a couple of weeks, if that. But the surface-level disappointment of these opening-week numbers may end up hurting the franchise's long-term viability (though, given how cheap the films are to make, probably not).

Rock The Kasbah

4) Rock the Kasbah

Opened at: No. 13

Weekend gross: $1.5 million ($750 per screen)

Estimated production budget: $15 million

What went wrong: There's only one reason an R-rated comedy starring Bill Murray and directed by Barry Levinson should perform as poorly in 2015 as Rock the Kasbah has: It's awful. Reviews have been absolutely dismal, with many critics comparing it to the famous boondoggle Ishtar. Comedies generally have a harder go of things anyway this time of year, and even with the beloved Murray on board, Rock the Kasbah couldn't outrun its toxic buzz. It's Murray's lowest-opening film of all time (of all time), which indicates that most Murray fans are opting to act like it doesn't even exist.

Will it recover? Murray and Levinson will be just fine, because they're Murray and Levinson, but Rock the Kasbah itself will likely remain a definitive loser, with a guaranteed position on year-end "worst of" lists. The film will also likely go down as one of the top five lowest-grossing wide releases ever, right behind this weekend's biggest loser…

Jem and the Holograms

5) Jem and the Holograms

Opened at: No. 15

Weekend gross: $1.3 million ($547 per screen)

Estimated production budget: $5 million

What went wrong: Reviews for Jon M. Chu's update of the campy 1980s cartoon have been slightly kinder than they were for any of the weekend's other new releases, but just barely. Jem was suffering from bad buzz before it even screened, though, due to a marketing campaign that made it look way darker and moodier than fans of the cartoon series would like. And while those fans were certainly the target audience, the fact is Jem doesn't really appeal to anyone outside that fan base, which is probably much smaller in the real world than it is on the nostalgia-fixated Internet.

Most people who loved Jem in the '80s are well into their 30s now, yet Jem and the Holograms is a kids' movie, plain and simple. There's nothing to the film that would draw any but the most hardcore Jem-ophiles, and there were plenty of other, better option for young audiences at the multiplex this weekend — namely the well-received Goosebumps movie, which treads on Jem's nostalgia territory as well, and Hotel Transylvania 2, which has the added benefit of scratching young moviegoers' Halloween-viewing itch. Frankly, there was no place for Jem in this weekend's lineup; it didn't work as programming or counterprogramming. Even if it had been great — which, I must stress, it is not — it likely would have still underperformed.

Will it recover? Jem has the benefit of being an extremely cheap film, so if it makes the move to VOD quickly, it might get enough curiosity views to break even on its $5 million budget. But anytime your film lands on a "worst openings of all time" list, chances aren't great that a studio will want to make a sequel. So even though Jem and the Holograms sets itself up as a franchise starter — with a post-credits sequence introducing the group's cartoon nemeses, the Misfits — it's very likely this cinematic experiment in the limits of '80s nostalgia will be the last we hear of the property for a while.

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