EDITORIAL: “The Expendables 2: Why Stallone’s Ragtag Crew of Action Heroes Didn’t Deliver the Box Office Goods in Their Second Outing”

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For an action movie with 11 genre heavyweights, The Expendables 2 really didn’t do that much damage at the box office this weekend. The testosterone-soaked sequel, delivered a mere two years after the original, took in a mediocre $28.75 million, an opening gross 17% lower than that of the original. Factor in the higher budget and the result is weakened even further. For a movie that shares so much in common with its successful predecessor, the gross is indeed surprising. The cast was there, the R-rating was present, the machismo and violence were delivered in heaps, the two movies even opened on the same weekend two years apart but yet The Expendables 2 wasn’t propelled to box office glory. What went wrong for our favorite action heroes? Here’s why The Expendables 2 was a miss at the box office:

1. Release date a week off

Two years ago, The Expendables found the perfect weekend to wreak havoc at the box office. The only other major releases unveiled on August 13th, 2010 were Julia Roberts rom-com Eat Pray Love and graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. One of the biggest hits of the summer, Inception, was in its 5th week of release and the only other “action” flick, Angelina Jolie’s spy caper Salt, was in its 4th. Stallone’s crew had a clear opening to attract every young male in America, and the movie towered over all its rivals.

The release strategy could not be replicated for The Expendables 2. The sequel faced stiff competition from The Bourne Legacy in its 2nd week of release, and the spy flick likely stole a few million from Team Stallone. The Bourne franchise may lack the collective star-power of The Expendables but it more than made up for it with a PG-13 rating and a chain of successful, critically acclaimed action films, all released within the last decade and still in the public conversation. Choice is good for consumers but it spells bad luck for studios at the box office.

What explains the decision to pit The Expendables against Bourne? One likely reason is the expensive budget of the former. The start and middle of August are usually reserved for the last $100 million dollar productions of the summer, with the last few weeks debuting more low-budget affairs. With schools and universities kicking into high gear, executives may have feared that delaying the release another week would have dampened teen and young adult turnout. But would next weekend, August 24th, really have been all that bad? By then, Bourne would have dwindled down entirely and presented much less of a threat.

Next week brings the wide release of Warner Brothers’ horror pic The Apparition and Sony Pictures’ action thriller Premium Rush, a PG-13 adventure that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a New York City bike messenger being chased by a mercenary cop. Why didn’t Stallone take his chances there? Rush may have posed somewhat of a threat to the heroes of The Expendables but it surely was a smaller one than Bourne, which grossed another $17 million this weekend.

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Pick your poison. Compete with The Bourne Legacy, the 4th movie in a franchise that’s grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, in its second week of release or go head-to-head with Premium Rush, an original property carried by an indie heartthrob whose box office appeal remains debatable, in its opening weekend? Yes, there’s a good chance that the second option would have led to just as low a gross for The Expendables 2 as the one the studio settled on but it still seems less dangerous. It may not fit the take-no-prisoners mentality that their characters so frequently convey in their movies but Stallone and his crew should have waited another week to rush into battle.

2. Underwhelming first installment

In a funny turn of events, the original Expendables may have weakened its sequel’s chances at the box office two years in advance by disappointing part of its audience. Not all action fans were satisfied with the direction of the first movie; it lacked the humor and style of the era it was trying to replicate, and was hampered by frenetic editing.

Star talent was underutilized as well. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most famous action star of the 90s, was featured in the original trailer and even used as a selling point on some promotional materials. Audiences came in expecting an action sequence, a bunch of one-liners, that classic accent…but were instead treated to a 15-second cameo by the actor that was unfulfilling and desperate. The actor’s extended role and the inclusion of previously unavailable actors (Jean-Claude Van Damme) in the sequel may have lent it some additional selling points but by this point, what reason did audiences have to care? Marketing oversold the first movie by putting all its eggs in one basket and promising more than it delivered. It worked then, it didn’t work so well when audiences knew what to expect.

As proof of this, take a look at the CinemaScore rating of both films. The independent research agency measures audience reaction to new theatrical releases in order to gauge a film’s long-term prospects at the box office. The new Expendables earned an A-. Audiences overwhelmingly enjoyed it despite mediocre critical reviews. The original didn’t do so bad either, a B+, but the small difference between the scores explains the lack of sustained interest in the sequel. Audiences who disliked the original may have actually enjoyed the sequel more. The problem is they didn’t turn out. Whomever The Expendables underwhelmed (this writer included) in its first assault on theaters in 2010 weren’t as interested in joining the team on its second mission.

It’s easy to attribute the performance to the uncontrollable past – the Expendables 2 simply had a more difficult challenge this time thanks to the overhyped expectations of the first movie – but the marketing department still deserves some of the blame. The sequel’s trailer didn’t offer anything new to disappointed fans except the same promises of explosions, gunfire, and knife fights. Placing 11 former A-list action stars on the marquee instead of 8 or 9, the “bigger and badder” selling point, may not have been the best strategy here. It took for granted the appeal of the original film and its stars, and didn’t attempt to reach out to any new audiences.

Will the defeated heroes of the box office live to fight in The Expendables 3? The results say “Maybe”. But before Stallone and crew rush to blow up more buildings and decimate more enemies, they’d be wise to go back to the drawing board.

Written by Boris Paskhaver

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