Anatomy of a Flop: ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass” disastrous performance, explained

With a gross of around $35 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, Disney's Alice Through the Looking Glass fell far short of analysts' expectations and is well on its way to becoming one of the year's biggest flops. So how did the James Bobin-directed sequel fall so short of its predecessor's massive $116 million opening weekend? HitFix reached out to box office experts to contextualize the film's disappointing performance. 

Alice was a disaster any way you look at it,” bottom-lined Box Office Guru founder Gitesh Pandya. “It was not a sequel that audiences were asking for in the first place and the final product was dull which led to bad reviews. Hence, there was no must-see factor.”

In terms of competition, Looking Glass went up against the mega-sequel X-Men: Apocalypse (which also underperformed relative to expectations despite handily finishing at No. 1) this weekend, which would understandably lead many to assume the films cannibalized each other's audiences. But Box Office Prophets founder David Mumpower was quick to pooh-pooh that line of thinking.

“The concept of box office competition is largely overstated,” said Mumpower. “The two films didn't damage each other in any tangible way. When a single film can earn in excess of $200 million on opening weekend, it's missing the forest for the trees to say that a pair of movies earning less than $100 million combined hurt one another. Neither film stoked the passion of consumers, so each one failed relative to its predecessor.”

As Mumpower sees it, Alice's underperformance can in large part be attributed to moviegoers' underwhelming memories of the original film, which in his estimation was “something of an enigma” box-office wise. 

“Nobody was calling for a sequel, which meant that the marketing department had to work hard to entice those same people back into theaters,” he said. “Since the film was a dud, they couldn't do that. Everybody failed here, but the primary mistake came in giving this project a greenlight. I didn't envision many scenarios where it could succeed.”

Numbers-wise, it's not hard to see why Disney was bullish on the sequel: Alice 1 finished with a whopping $1 billion-plus worldwide, and based on the marketing for Looking Glass they clearly believed in the starpower of Depp, who in the estimation of The Numbers founder Bruce Nash often doesn't warrant the extravagant productions that are sold in large part on his alleged appeal.

“I actually never quite bought into the idea that he was as huge a star as he appeared to be,” says Nash. “His credentials were in many ways obviously built on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and there's no question that when he appears in those films he's a huge star, and he's a massive draw for those films. And Alice was the other example of one of his films that just was this huge outsized success. But when you looked beyond that at all of his other films…he's not really a mainstream superstar. He gets involved in much more interesting, quirky projects.” 

Indeed, despite making up to $20 million a film, Nash pegs Depp's overall value to any given film as far lower than that.

“[Based on] our Bankability Index, we believe him to be worth about $7 million to a typical film,” Nash said. “And that hasn't really changed very much actually over the last few years. …But I think there was sort of that expectation that he could do no wrong, probably after the last Alice movie. I think [that] was sort of his peak in that regard.”

Pandya had similar thoughts on Depp's bankability, going so far as to claim the actor is “on probation from Hollywood's A-list.”

“Look at the box office data from his movies over the past couple of years and it”s easy to see that he is not the commercial draw he once was,” said Pandya. “A kooky role in a big paycheck project can only sell so many times. Black Mass proved last year that he still has tremendous talent if in the right project so I hope he explores those types of films going forward.”

Added Mumpower, “Depp was over around the time Dark Shadows debuted. Audiences emphatically confirmed this with the releases of The Lone Ranger and then Transcendence and yet again with Mortdecai. He's been a pinata for a while now, and there's no candy left in the confetti belly.”

Of course, the elephant in the room for Alice this weekend were the allegations of domestic abuse by Depp's wife Amber Heard, which hit the press just as the lucrative holiday moviegoing frame was kicking off. So did those allegations play into the film's lower-than-expected take? Nash, for his part, is skeptical.

“Our analysis of past incidents like this tends to indicate [negative press for a film's star] doesn't have a huge impact one way or the other,” he said. “You don't see sort of mass movements come out of it. I certainly don't think it helped. It may have harmed it a little bit, but I don't think it would be a huge influence actually on the turnout of the weekend.”

Mumpower offered a broader-strokes view on the controversy, stating that the allegations will only serve to further Depp's downfall as a mainstream star — if not this weekend, then in the foreseeable future.

“Depp's been crashing hard for a while now,” he said. “The recent allegations simply reinforce the public perspective that most people are ready for other actors to take his place in the Hollywood hierarchy, independent of the veracity of the claims.”

Whatever the reasons behind Alice's grand bellyflop, based on this weekend's performance its outlook is exceedingly grim. “I project that its final domestic gross will finish below Johnny Depp”s big-budget flop The Lone Ranger,” offered Pandya, “as well as films Disney launched unsuccessfully over Memorial Day weekend in recent years like Tomorrowland and Prince of Persia.” 

Needless to say, that isn't great company to be in.