(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)
To help button up "Titanic" week here at /Film, welcome to part two of the special two-part edition of this column. Earlier this week, we looked back at how "Tomorrow Never Dies," the second Pierce Brosnan "James Bond" effort, drew the short straw and had to go up against James Cameron's massive blockbuster in its opening weekend — and yes, 007 lost that fight. But what about the movie that finally dethroned "Titanic" at the box office? That honor, strangely enough, goes to 1998's "Lost in Space" which was, itself, a pretty sizable flop. Yet, it does have the honor of being the film that ended the longest winning streak in box office history.
New Line Cinema had big plans when they snatched up the rights to the classic sci-fi series from the '60s, with designs on launching a full-fledged multimedia franchise. Years before cinematic universes would become all the rage thanks to Marvel, the idea seemed to be to create a whole cinematic universe out of "Lost in Space." And yet, despite having the might to sink the ship that so many other big movies couldn't sink, those plans failed and never managed to extend beyond this single, expensive misfire.
In honor of the 25th-anniversary re-release of "Titanic," we're looking back at "Lost in Space," how it came to be, how New Line put the cart well in front of the horse expecting to create a franchise, how it managed to, for a single weekend, defeat one of the biggest movies ever, and what lessons we can learn from it all these years later. Let's dig in, shall we?
The Movie: Lost In Space
Hollywood was not always as franchise obsessed as it is these days. Be that as it may, New Line had franchise-sized dollar signs in its eyes when it scooped up the rights to "Lost in Space" in the '90s, hoping to adapt the classic '60s sci-fi series into an all-encompassing behemoth for a new generation. It would all stem from a big-budget movie, to be directed by Stephen Hopkins ("Predator 2"). Perhaps even more interesting, Akiva Goldsman, the man who would go on to write films such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "I Am Legend," would pen the script, following his work on movies such as "Batman & Robin" and "A Time to Kill."
Though budget figures vary a bit, the studio spent heavily on this one, with the number said to be in the $70 to $80 million range. Mind you, this was long before the era of the standard $100 million blockbuster. They tapped Industrial Light and Magic to handle the effects-heavy picture, with over 700 effects shots planned. Plus, the studio put together quite the ensemble cast led by William Hurt ("Jane Eyre"), Mimi Rogers ("Austin Powers"), Heather Graham ("Swingers"), Lacey Chabert ("Mean Girls"), and then-newcomer Jack Johnson as the Robinson family at the center of it all, with Jared Harris ("Smoke"), Matt LeBlanc ("Friends"), and Gary Oldman ("The Fifth Element") also on board. What could possibly go wrong?
Production kicked off in early 1997, months before "Titanic," which boasted an insane $200 million budget, would kick off its record-breaking 15-week run atop the box office charts in December of that year. Though the two films could not seem more different, on paper, they had a date with destiny that nobody involved in either production could have possibly seen coming. New Line, in particular, was far too busy hatching plans for something much, much bigger.
The Next Star Trek? Not Exactly
New Line didn't just option the rights to the series in the hopes of making a single movie. Their plans were lofty, even by today's standards. "There are 70 million baby boomers out there who remember the original 'Lost in Space' because it combines family adventure with sci-fi action," New Line TV president Bob Friedman said to Variety in 1997, well in advance of the film's release.
The studio had much in mind, including a possible animated and live-action series, as well as lots of movie tie-ins, and the presumption that a movie sequel would also happen. They also signed book and toy deals, expecting that this could become the next "Star Trek." They even had two different book deals with Harper and Scholastic to market to two different demographics, with plans for more than ten books by the end of 1998. David Imhoff, senior VP/licensing and merchandising for New Line at the time, said this in '97:
"We're separately marketing to two different demos to make sure the franchise has broad appeal. This goes hand in hand with the premiere of 'Lost in Space' as the serious sci-fi of the '90s."
None of that came to pass, with Netflix reviving the property as a TV show back in 2018, which lasted three seasons. It only took 20 years. That's because, for all of the hope and planning, the movie didn't ultimately perform nearly as well as anyone had hoped. It did, however, perform well enough in its opening weekend to etch its place in cinematic history as the film that finally sank the unsinkable ship.
The Financial Journey
"Lost in Space" opened on just over 3,300 screens, with that number representing a record at the time. This is to say, expectations were sky-high. New Line released the movie in the pre-summer window on April 3, 1998, more than three months after "Titanic" initially hit theaters in December of '97. And yet, for that entire time, it remained the top film at the box office, while big movies like "As Good as it Gets," "U.S. Marshals," "The Man in the Iron Mask," "The Wedding Singer," and many others failed to take the crown away. But come Monday, April 6, 1998, the streak would finally, officially come to an end.
In its opening weekend, "Lost in Space" made $20.1 million, which was more than enough to sink "Titanic," which fell to $11.5 million in its 16th weekend. Nobody was crying for James Cameron though, as his film earned more than $1.8 billion in its original run, and has since topped $2.19 billion through its various re-releases. Even so, against very poor reviews from critics at the time, Stephen Hopkins' take on this classic series generated enough interest from moviegoers to become the first new no. 1 movie in the U.S. in nearly four months.
Unfortunately, those negative reviews and poor word of mouth would doom the film in the coming weeks. It topped out at $69.1 million domestically, with an equally poor $67 million internationally for $136.1 million worldwide. That was not nearly enough to justify the budget and, moreover, wasn't enough to warrant all the toys, books, and everything else the studio had planned. The horse never caught up to the cart, and this became a dead-in-the-water, one-and-done. Albeit, one that has its place in the history books.
The Lessons Contained Within
What's interesting looking back at the fateful opening weekend for this movie is that yes, it had a decent opening and took down "Titanic." It was, in many ways, a big victory, but one that was short-lived and didn't even begin to tell the whole story. For years now, the opening weekend for a blockbuster has, more or less, been able to tell its tale, be it one of success or failure. For "Lost in Space," it was a taste of success initially, followed by a more telling, crushing defeat in the long run. All the while, "Titanic" won the long game in a way no movie really has before or since.
First and foremost, this serves as a reminder that yes, sometimes a movie can absolutely be dead on arrival depending on its opening weekend (we're looking at you, "John Carter"). Yet, sometimes it's not so simple as all that, as we saw with "The Greatest Showman" and its logic-defying run to become a $435 million sleeper hit. The beginning is not always the end, to put it simply, for better or for worse.
Aside from that, as we've seen far too many times in the cinematic universe era, planning too much at once while presuming a certain level of success almost never ends well. It didn't work for Universal's "Dark Universe," it didn't work for "Black Adam," and it didn't work 25 years ago for "Lost in Space." The way to build a universe is, more often than not, one piece at a time. It's unsexy and it takes patience, but that's the way Marvel largely did it, and other successes such as "The Conjuring" universe or the MonsterVerse followed suit. Build it like a wall, one brick at a time.
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The post Tales From The Box Office: Lost In Space Was The Unlikely Flop That Finally Dethroned Titanic appeared first on /Film.