The failure of The Huntsman: Winter's War has ended Universal's attempts to establish a new fairy tale franchise and could lose the studio as much as US$70 million (AUD90.5m).
It's difficult to accurately assess the amount of red ink the studio will be mopping up, given that Universal does not provide a marketing and distribution budget for its films, but several rival studio executives said they are confident the film is a money-loser. Other sources projected that the film will be able to find some relief on home entertainment platforms, estimating it will lose between $30 million to $40 million over its life cycle.
Though the film is still in theatres, and has a handful of foreign locations left to open, such as Greece and Japan, these executives predicted that the film will ultimately bring in $55 million domestically in the U.S. and $150 million overseas, topping out at just over $200 million. Universal has to split those receipts with theatre owners. The global total is roughly half of what its predecessor, 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, generated during its theatrical run ($396 million).
Winter's War, which has tallied $98 million worldwide, opened to just $19.4 million at the U.S. box office last weekend, down 65% from the original.
Produced by Joe Roth, Winter's War has a bumpy history. In 2015, original director Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead) left the project over creative differences. He was replaced by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film's visual-effects supervisor. In addition, original star Kristen Stewart was jettisoned for the sequel, which brought back Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron and added newcomers Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt. The hope was to broaden the cinematic universe of the film beyond the Snow White character played by Stewart by focusing on Hemsworth's titular adventurer. With a production cost of $115 million, the second Huntsman film was less expensive than the first picture's $170 million budget.
Critics were not kind. The film earned a 19% "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Exit polls were stronger, particularly with younger female audience members, and the film received a B+ CinemaScore.
"The movie wasn't very good," said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. "Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth are all good actors, but you don't have anyone who is really a bankable lead."
The Huntsman: Winter's War was also hurt by the continuing strength of The Jungle Book. In its second weekend, the Disney live action film racked up an impressive $61.5 million, a modest 40% drop from its opening weekend. Strong reviews have helped the film show impressive endurance.
Rivals said that to break even during its theatrical run, the $115 million film would have to earn roughly $325 million -- a figure it will not hit. They pegged marketing costs at approximately $70 million, but noted that Universal may have pulled back some of its advertising if it sensed that the film was not connecting with audiences. The financial pain will be alleviated somewhat by other ancillary revenues, such as pay-TV deals and home entertainment sales.
Although Universal may have hoped to create a home-grown franchise to join the likes of Pitch Perfect and Fast and the Furious, the studio is likely done with the world of Snow White. Though the losses are steep and a reminder of the financial risks of playing the tentpole film game, Universal could rebound in the coming months. This summer brings back Matt Damon as the amnesiac title character in Jason Bourne, while Despicable Me creator Chris Meledandri will offer up the animated The Secret Life of Pets, and Zac Efron and Seth Rogen will return for Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising.
Editor's note: All figures are quoted in USD.