The Argylle Cinematic Universe Is a Box Office Bomb
Feb 9, 2024
‘s poor performance at the box office highlights the difficulty of launching new franchises in the current film climate.
The movie industry is still stuck in a mindset that assumes mass-marketed blockbusters will make money, but the established logic shows flaws.
Apple’s film production business could be in jeopardy with the failure of
, as their other recent big-budget films have also struggled financially.
February claims another victim. Debuting in the months post-Christmas season, when films are discarded in a cinematic dumping ground, Apple’s latest film, Argylle, is proving just how hard it is to launch new franchises in the wake of the demise of the superhero genre’s implosion. Limping through a brutal opening weekend with only 35 million dollars, far from reaching the necessary 200 million needed to recover just the purported production budget, not including advertising, Matthew Vaughn’s would-be spy-caper franchise is finished. The initial reviews for the Henry Cavill-headlined film didn’t help, but ultimately, the sheer disinterest of audiences doomed this new entry in the spy-spoof genre.
If the secret sauce to Hollywood’s success over the last two decades was star power, great marketing, licensed music, and slick production, the recipe was undoubtedly that of the “blockbuster strategy.” Should there be any more meaningless accomplishment than winning a weekend at the box office in 2024, let us know. With alarming regularity, we’ve repeatedly reported on films topping the charts while crashing and burning financially, losing money. That’s bad for several reasons, but to break it down in simple terms, the movie industry is stuck in a 2018 mindset, where they anticipate a certain ratio of anything they make, properly marketed, will rake in cash. That math no longer works.
With singer Dua Lipa featured prominently on Sunday’s Grammys, you’d even suspect it would give the film a boost. It did not, leaving Apple and distributor Universal Pictures wondering why the film fared so poorly. The star-studded gambit shows how desperate film studios have become to manufacture a cultural event. After years of neglecting smaller niche genres, studios are discovering that viewers’ appetite for off-kilter or quirky “date movies” might no longer exist.
Argylle Is a Nightmare Scenario for Apple
Argylle 2/5 Release Date February 2, 2024 Runtime 2hr 15min
Read Our Review
Apple’s young film-producing journey has just suffered its most catastrophic setback. Sustaining profitability is proving far more difficult than breaking into making movies, as we discover that making hits isn’t that hard. Producing a cinematic universe, however, is. As early as 2022, the buzz was building for a rare, new IP.
Based on a novel by a previously unknown writer, starring Henry Cavill, Samuel L. Jackson, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, and Bryce Dallas Howard, the movie took huge chances on a story that no one had ever heard of. With singer Dua Lipa added in a dash of intriguing stunt casting, albeit with limited acting chops, Vaughn took a calculated risk that the film would attract enough eyeballs to break even. The film didn’t have the excuse of stiff competition for its poor launch; the Superbowl was not even a factor. Though the NFL spectacular will surely quash whatever hopes the film has of a comeback this weekend.
Even with the benefit of word of mouth in its inevitable streaming second life, Argylle will go down as a historical box office bomb that could reshape the business model of Apple’s movie production side hustle. For Apple, this puts their entire filmmaking business in question. Their last two large films, Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, struggled to earn back their budgets, placed at or just below the 200-million-dollar neighborhood. The difference is that those two were blatant prestige (Oscar bait) movies that studios would gladly deplete their coffers for.
Argylle was not that film and served completely different purposes than a period-piece movie by Martin Scorsese. With the dismal debut of Vaughn’s action comedy, Apple currently finds itself in a disturbing position of burning money and looking more like a musty movie warehouse than a treasure trove of in-demand films.
Related Every TV Series Coming to Apple TV+ in February 2024 Another round of top-notch television shows appears to be on the way next month for Apple TV+.
Argylle and the Blockbuster Strategy
On paper, the plan to film Argylle was based on a sound observation by Vaughn, who found his children more amenable to unconventional films while sequestered during the Covid crisis, unable to leave their homes. “What astonished me while I watched Romancing the Stone for two hours [is that] all of us escaped lockdown,” he told NBC Insider back in October. “We’d gone off on an adventure; we were enjoying it together.”
The film begins in the middle of a larger narrative, as he told Josh Horowitz on his podcast, the cinematic universe loosely plotted out like the Star Wars saga, a “meta-universe in the sense of having fun with reinventing what the clichés of what spies are all about.” Argylle was (and we can’t stress “was” enough) to be merely “Book 4” of an extended meta-spy adventure. He was correct that the winds were shifting away from the tried-and-true superhero film that kept Hollywood afloat for the last two decades. Unfortunately, the replacement for the genre has yet to materialize.
“He wasn’t afraid every year to say, ‘out of the 25 films that Warner Brothers releases, we’re going to be spending 2 to 3 hundred million dollars on maybe three to five of those films in the hopes that they reach a billion dollars.'”
Few film fans really understand the reasoning behind how certain types of movies get made. At the heart of Hollywood financing is the long-established concept that insiders call the “blockbuster strategy.” The idea permeates everything that is made, every sequel that is greenlit, every cult classic that gets shafted. Business professor Anita Elberse broke down the rationale in 2013, recalling how a Warner Brothers exec named Alan Horn viewed movies purely as a numbers game. “He wasn’t afraid every year to say, ‘out of the 25 films that Warner Brothers releases, we’re going to be spending 2 to 3 hundred million dollars on maybe three to five of those films in the hopes that they reach a billion dollars.'”
By redirecting a studio’s money only to the most sure-fire, noteworthy films, movie companies found a way to maximize profits. The drawback to the plan is that smaller-budget films are left out in the cold, solely there to act as what Elberse called “test cases.” Small films function for Sony, Apple, or Disney only to gauge audience attitudes, evaluating future trends or breakout stars to take advantage of. The science of the blockbuster strategy is now, however, showing some serious issues. All the ties to Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise don’t mean much now that Argylle was seen by so few people.
Related Argylle: How the New Matthew Vaughn Film Connects to the Kingsman Movies The end of Argylle teases a larger universe for the Matthew Vaughn film, and it’s not all that different from his Kingsman franchise.
The Blockbuster Bubble Is Bursting
What is a film studio to do when the newest slate of ideas fails to grab hold of the viewing public’s imagination? Vaughn’s ambitious but ultimately untenable Argylle franchise might create some deep ripples for the industry. Look no further than the next batch of reboots, prequels, and sequels. Tentatively titled (as of writing) Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the new Mad Max prequel launches May 24 with a lot riding on it.
The future of the Mad Max universe depends on how viewers take to a new actress filling an old role. Further, the film is banking on the name Mad Max, the movie riding a tidal wave of over 200 million dollars (probably double that after marketing is taken into account). Like Argylle, it faces an upward struggle to actually make a profit, being an origin-story prequel for a side character from a nine-year-old reboot of a film series originally made in the ’70s.
Studios are feeling the pinch. Audiences are getting harder and harder to read. The new incarnation of the horror classic Scream does indicate that a recognizable IP can still be squeezed to get a few extra drops out, regardless of whether you run out of the original stars to appear, but franchise fatigue is inevitable.
On a side note, a quick analysis of the Mad Max budgets illustrates the law of diminishing returns of the blockbuster strategy. The same formula resulted in the disastrous fate of Argylle and the entire movie industry crash post-2020. The original Mad Max (1979) made about 100 million dollars on a $200,000 budget. Fury Road was heralded as a success, though it barely doubled its initial budget of 150 million. Furiosa could quite possibly inch past the $200 million range and near $250 million. Regardless of its quality, it will have impossibly high standards to meet … Don’t say we didn’t warn you when this movie is labeled a “flop” for only making 400 million internationally. Such is the absurd budget situation the movie industry has engineered over the last twenty years.
The thought of a person predicting a Barbie movie getting eight Academy Award nominations 10 years ago would have brought them nothing but concerned looks. A lot has changed. If new, eccentric IP is deemed too dangerous a wager, don’t be surprised if a desperate Hollywood soon turns to any well-known brand or intellectual property it can for blockbuster movie plots, whether it be Slinky, Pong, or Elmer’s Glue. Argylle is currently playing in theaters everywhere now.
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