James Cameron's 'Alita: Battle Angel' battles at box office to prove doubters wrong

Key Points
  • James Cameron has powered some of Hollywood's biggest successes and visual breakthroughs, including 'Titanic' and 'Avatar.'
  • Cameron is executive producer on Robert Rodriguez-directed 'Alita: Battle Angel.'
  • The movie comes out during a slow February, and early critical reaction has been negative.
James Cameron (in back) and Robert Rodriguez (second to left) arrive for the premiere Of 20th Century Fox's 'Alita: Battle Angel' held at Westwood Regency Theater on February 5, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Albert L. Ortega | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

February has been an underwhelming month for Hollywood studios at the box office, but Robert Rodriguez is confident that his new movie, "Alita: Battle Angel," will prove the doubters wrong. The director's dismissal of predictions that the film will flop may come from its behind-the-scenes power broker's history: James Cameron, director of the two highest-grossing and visually arresting films of all time — "Titanic" and "Avatar" — is an executive producer for the film.

"People write stuff all the time. The first thing they wrote about Jim's 'Titanic' was negative," Rodriguez said in an interview with CNBC. "Nobody really knows anything. We don't know. What we do know is that the audiences' minds [who have seen the movie early] are blown."

The feature, based on a popular Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, is set in a dystopian world and centers on a female cyborg-cyberpunk who cannot remember her past. The film has a strong cast, with Alita played by "Parenthood" actress Rosa Salazar in a role that was in development for years — using new computer-generated imagery techniques.

"[Visual-effects house] Weta Digital has been working on that for a number of years," one of the film's producers, Jon Landau, recently told Cnet.com. "[Skin] is something they know is so key to making a CG character look real. They put a lot of research into that."

The Rotten Tomatoes' early scoring from audiences is very high (93 percent), and its overall critics score is at 61 percent on the site.

Cyberpunk has struggled at box office

"Advance buzz is extremely mixed," said box-office analyst Karie Bible of Exhibitor Relations. "It has been described as a cyberpunk adventure, and frankly that genre hasn't had much success at the box office."

There have been several recent misfires in this genre. "The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story" took in $35 million worldwide, less than half of that in the U.S., on a production budget estimated at $43 million by Box Office Mojo. Peter Jackson's "Mortal Engines" has grossed more than $81 million worldwide, but only $15.9 million in the U.S., and against a budget estimated at $100 million. And the 2017 Scarlett Johansson-fronted "Ghost in the Shell," which took in $40 million the U.S. and roughly $170 million worldwide, against a budget of $110 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst, said February is a traditionally slow month at the box office because distributors don't view it as a prime time for release. Over the past decade, February ranks among the three lowest-grossing months at the box office, behind September and October. Stone said "lack of school breaks and national holiday periods" explain the fall struggles.

In February "there are a ton of other things going on ... like the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Grammys and tons of other awards season events. March is usually the time when the box office picks up before spring and summer releases kick into high gear," Bible said.

In addition to an "incredibly slow" box office, Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said "Alita: Battle Angel" lacks brand familiarity, which could compromise the movie's profit potential. "The very things that make it a challenge also comprise its greatest assets," Dergarabedian said. "Its imagery looks stunning, and the film is not a sequel to a reboot or the fourth installment of a franchise. Audiences looking for something fresh and made by brilliant filmmakers with true vision should be lining up to see it."

"Alita" faces competition this weekend from a horror film that shares a similar ticket buyer demographic, Universal Pictures' "Happy Death Day 2U," a low budget horror flick which Stone called "Alita's" biggest competitor.

"["Happy Death Day 2U"] probably hits a similar market at least age-wise, but Alita seems to trend more male," Stone said.

Star power doesn't guarantee success

Bible said Cameron, who has been nothing short of box office gold, is one of the film's strongest assets. Cameron's "Avatar" and "Titanic," grossed a combined total over $4 billion worldwide. He also created the "The Terminator" franchise and directed "Aliens," the sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic, "Alien."

Director Rodriguez was behind the animated success "Sin City," based on Frank Miller's graphic novel. That 2005 film grossed over $158 million worldwide on a budget of $40 million and received largely favorable reviews.

"Alita" has a strong cast including three Academy Award winners: Christoph Waltz, who won Best Supporting Actor for Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained" Jennifer Connelly, who won Best Supporting Actress in 2003 for "A Beautiful Mind"; and Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor in 2017 for "Moonlight" and is nominated this year in the same category for "Green Book."

Yet Stone said star power only goes so far. "The film's biggest asset? Clearly the stunning visuals. As to star power, there isn't that much going for it. Stars mean less and less relative to a good story these days." Stone said. "Cameron and Rodriguez certainly have a following, and much like stars, means a little, but not nearly as much as entertainment."

Rodriguez said his love for the story is one of the things that attracted him to the project.

"What I loved about the story is that it's a rather dystopian existence. But this girl's point of view changes everything around her. She sees the world for what it can be and she's able to use her power for good. It's a hopeful story."

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