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Judgment Day for Terminator Salvation

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Unlike everyone else with a blog/web site, I do prefer to wait till the final numbers roll in before discussing box office at length (part of that is convenience, as I'm usually playing with my daughter when the Sunday estimates roll in). So here's the top-ten list for now, and I'll discuss everything non-Terminator related on Monday night or Tuesday. For now, it's time for to face facts about a certain beloved sci-fi franchise.

There was no major Saturday bounce. Grosses actually went down 1.6% from Friday to Saturday. Terminator Salvation is officially in trouble. I was bending over backwards to be fair, not wanting to the be the sort of pundit to condemn a movie as a financial disappointment after just one or two days. But while the three-day total is $43 million, which is just below the three-day opening Fri-Sun for Terminator 3, the five day total is expected to be a bit less than the $72 million that Rise of the Machines pulled in over July 4th weekend in 2003. The $56 million four-day total is already $3 million behind the Jonathan Mostow sequel, and it's only going downhill from here.

Ironically, it may be a matter of expectations. Everyone expected that the third Terminator film was going to be a cash grab, designed to give Arnold Schwarzenegger one last payday before his California gubernatorial run. Unless I'm mistaken, it's near-record $170 million budget was caused partially by the actor's insistence on shooting in Los Angeles, in order to boost the economy of the business capital of the state he wanted to run. Cringe-inducing trailers highlighting the campier elements did not help. But the film shocked critics and audiences by actually being pretty good, with tight, low-key character interplay and some astonishing action beats (plus a stunningly powerful finale). So it was able to weather the one-two onslaught of Pirates of the Caribbean and Bay Boys 2. The film pulled in $150 million in the US and nearly $300 million overseas for a profitable $433 million total.

Comparitively, for whatever reason, expectations were high for the fourth installment. I'm honestly not sure why. Yes Christian Bale is a great actor, but he was no more suited to play John Conner than Kevin Costner was to play Robin Hood (Bale may have a reputation as a gloomy brooder, but most of his characters are lively mad men). While I have nothing against McG and rather enjoyed the first Charlies Angels, his name did not inspire confidence amongst the masses. So why did everyone expect this to be something other than a bigger budget variation on Reign of Fire, with robots filling in for dragons (and minus the character development)? Why didn't we expect Warner Bros. to (apparently) panic over the collapse of Watchmen and demand a PG-13, action-filled theatrical cut? The trailers promised atmosphere and action, and that's what the picture delivered on in spades. I'm not saying the movie is a wrongly condemned masterpiece, but I think the movie turned out about how we all should have known it would had we been thinking logically.

So the film will likely end its first five days with about $66 million. After that, lousy word of mouth and negative press will keep it fighting to even approach the $150 million that part 3 reached. The official budget, which was funded by six private production companies, is 'only' $200 million but, and I mean this as a compliment, I don't believe that for a second. The ad campaign has been super-saturation level as well, so this very expensive marketing investment could hurt Warner Bros. in a mass-layoff kinda way, since Columbia has the rights for international distribution (and this film could very well double or triple its domestic take overseas). The saving grace for Warner's domestic investment may be the DVD/Blu Ray release that may or may not contained some kind of extended cut involving that 40 minutes of deleted footage. Here's hoping that WB Home Video doesn't wimp out a la Speed Racer and just cancel all of the already completed bonus materials.

With Terminator Salvation, Observe & Report, and Watchmen under performing to varying degrees, Warner Bros' decision to move Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to July is now an unmitigated stroke of genius. It's now up to 'the boy who lived' to save the studio, as well as the world. Who would have thought that Warner Bros' highest grossing picture of 2009, heading into July, would be Gran Torino?