Features and Columns · Movies

‘Alita’ Could Become a Steady Box Office Hit

The James Cameron-produced sci-fi spectacle has the potential to be a success in the long run.
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on February 18th, 2019

Box office narratives are easily spun one way or another, and Alita: Battle Angel is a strong example of a movie appearing to be either a huge flop or modest success depending on who you read. Or maybe it’s both. The live-action manga adaptation from director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron topped the weekend with an estimated attendance of 3.1 million ($27.8 million). Despite its top placement on the chart, that figure is quite low for a big-budget sci-fi spectacular costing close to $200 million. But it’s also a figure with a lot of promise, especially when joined by Thursday opening day and Monday holiday ticket sales, which can both complicate and help the box office reports. Plus, it exceeded expectations by a lot when you look at how poor it was tracking, according to Box Office Pro, just last week.

Although Alita is not an original movie, its source material is not well-known like a popular series of YA novels or a major publication comic book, so it plays like something lacking in that built-in audience. These days, no matter how many people say they want “original” releases, the fact is that most completely new or even “new to cinema” titles (as Forbes’ Scott Mendelson coins them) either tank or struggle. Even the Cameron-helmed Avatar, which is the record-holder for highest-grossing movie worldwide ever (and second-highest in the US), started out relatively slow for the phenomenon it’s remembered as. The movie sold just 10.1 million tickets its first domestic weekend but 95.9 million overall.

If enough news outlets claim Alita is a bomb, then that’s how the public will see it; if enough claim it’s got promise, then maybe it truly will do well. Poor media literacy translates these two things as the movie is bad or good. Nobody wants to run out and see something deemed a failure. But a positive spin on the box office can translate to free marketing and good word of mouth, especially if paired with an ‘A-‘ grade from moviegoers via CinemaScore polling and a Rotten Tomatoes score accompanied by a full red tomato on a quick glance. Add in and lean on the fact that Alita has made more than $130 million worldwide, and you’ve got some optimism flowing. Alita just needs to be affixed with strong legs, and the movie will have strong legs.

Another way we can promote Alita‘s best case scenario is to look at comparable original sci-fi movies at the box office. Mortal Engines, the Peter Jackson-produced steampunk flick opened late last year with an attendance of 0.8 million, and its critical and audience reception was very poor. The Wachowskis’ last three movies, all big-budget sci-fi efforts were duds upon release. Jupiter Ascending (2015) started out with 2.3 million tickets sold; before that was Cloud Atlas (2012) with 1.2 million; and earlier, Speed Racer (2008) disappointed with just 2.6 million. All but Cloud Atlas received terrible reviews, and all but Speed Racer were graded low via CinemaScore — sadly, Speed Racer‘s ‘A-‘ didn’t translate to greater box office favor going forward. 

Other comparables that weren’t exactly original ideas but were new for most moviegoers include Warcraft, which kicked off with just 2.8 million tickets sold, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which drew in just 1.9 million people in its debut. The manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell initially sold about 2.1 million tickets. Many of these movies were deemed dead on arrival and then performed even worse in subsequent weeks. Whether they deserved their fates is up for debate. They fared poorly with critics and general audiences but some of them have a share of fans today. Alita, in my opinion, deserves much better because its visuals are, even more so than its comparables, best appreciated on the big screen in 3D.

Unlike Cameron’s own leggy blockbusters, particularly his chart-topping movies Titanic and Avatar, Alita doesn’t have a ton of ideas or imagery that’s never been seen before, just visuals that are executed in both direction and effects that its kind of movie is used to. If only there were one or two truly outstanding or fresh talking points for Alita, especially outside of the arguably problematic big eyes (which for me is like E.T.’s neck in terms of showing audiences how much of a non-human character the filmmakers have achieved but for some others seems a disturbing distraction). There’s a wow factor to Alita but not any specific wow moments to make any of it iconic or something that could last in the pop culture conversation. Maybe the bar fight scene. Maybe.

With that lack of something specifically special to inspire a Saturday Night Live sketch or cosplay and fan art or even the guilty pleasure buzz of, say, Eddie Redmayne’s loud-quiet-loud performance in Jupiter Ascending, there’s less chance that Alita will be particularly leggy in North America, but the consistent spectacle will at least keep the movie going strong overseas. But who knows? Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle never had a lot of mainstream cultural currency but the moviegoers kept coming. But that movie also had a more family-friendly appeal. Still, the make or break of Alita is going to be how its second weekend turns out, so we could be revisiting this topic next Monday.

In other box office news, there’s talk of how this was the worst President’s Day weekend at the box office since 2001. With overall attendance at just 12.1 million for all titles over just the three days, we actually haven’t seen anything so low since 2000. And before that, we have to go back another decade to 1990. The ’80s were really typically so low. But who cares? Yes, box office at this point in the year is down compared to recent years, and sadly Happy Death Day 2U opened severely lower than the first Happy Death Day, but at least documentaries are still going strong with Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old passing $15 million! And the Oscar-nominated shorts are doing very well! Also, the well-reviewed wrestling biopic Fighting With My Family is apparently going to be a hit given it posted the highest per-screen attendance in limited release.

Here are the weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Alita: Battle Angel – 3.1 million (4 million)
2. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part – 2.3 million (6.9 million)
3. Isn’t It Romantic – 1.6 million (2.3 million)
4. What Men Want – 1.2 million (4 million)
5. Happy Death Day 2U – 1.1 million (1.5 million)
6. Cold Pursuit – 0.66 million (2.3 million)
7. The Upside – 0.62 million (10.4 million)
8. Glass – 0.43 million (11.6 million)
9. The Prodigy – 0.35 million (1.2 million)
10. Green Book – 0.3 million (7.3 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.


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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.