Shane Black’s risky ‘Predator’ strategy: Can a ‘genre’ title work as an event film?

In a new interview with Agence France-Presse, writer-director Shane Black has reiterated that his forthcoming sequel/reboot The Predator will be “significantly bigger” than previous entries in the franchise, giving us the first bona fide “event picture” of the long-running film series. No doubt this is an exciting prospect for longtime fans, but it also raises the question of whether a franchise that has been viewed as “genre” for 30 years can successfully be reinvented as a blockbuster. 

First, some context. The first Predator, which starred the then-unstoppable action-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, was budgeted at a mere $15 million (or about $31 million adjusted for inflation) and brought in a total of $98 million worldwide — an unqualified mid-range box-office success. In 1990, the Schwarzenegger-less Predator 2 received a significantly higher budget ($35 million) but underperformed relative to its predecessor with $57 million worldwide, effectively ending the franchise until the critic-loathed but financially-successful Alien vs. Predator films ($300 million worldwide against a combined budget of $100 million) suggested there was still commercial potential to be milked from the dreadlocked alien hunters. And in 2010, the Robert Rodriguez-produced reboot Predators confirmed that the character(s) could again thrive on their own by grossing $127 million worldwide off a $40 million budget — again, not a blockbuster, but a solid low-key success nonetheless.

Now, here's the thing: there has never been a Predator film budgeted at over $75 million adjusted for inflation ($60 million if you're counting solo outings only), and there has never been a Predator film which has grossed more than $216 million worldwide adjusted for inflation ($205 million counting just solo movies). Which leaves open a very sensible question: is the audience for these films large enough to warrant the $100 million-plus budget implicit in Black's previous statements?

Certainly, one big thing The Predator has going for it is Black, a co-star and uncredited writer on the first film in the series who proved his blockbuster mettle with his work on Iron Man 3 (an association that will no doubt be exploited as we get closer to the film's March 2, 2018 release date). And while he hasn't been a major box-office star for over a decade, a Schwarzenegger return could also help boost interest by appealing to fans who haven't felt wholly invested in the series since the original movie. 

And yet I don't know that those attachments entirely make up for the fact that as a character, the Predator's appeal is clearly more limited than that of, say, Iron Man or Batman or any of the other “-mans” (or “-womans”) of comic book lore whose broad fan bases are used to justify the bulk of “event movie” spending circa 2016. The biggest challenge for the studio will be to convince audiences who aren't “genre” fans that the monstrous extraterrestrials are more than the sum of their skin-crawling, Creature from the Black Lagoon-meets-the Wolf Man-meets-mutated-anthropod looks and “R”-rated origins. Like the xenomorphs of the Alien series, the grotesque character is a tough sell for mainstream filmgoers, and Fox and Black will be fighting an uphill battle to make a case to the more squeamish members of their potential audience.

While it's not a perfect analogy, I would point to 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick as a good example of what can go wrong in the transition from genre to blockbuster, which is rare for a reason. After Barry Diller's USA Films made a decent return on the small-scale horror-sci-fi effort Pitch Black in 2000, Universal (who by that point owned the USA library) gave writer-director David Twohy over $100 million for a big-budget follow-up thanks in large part to original star Vin Diesel's drastically-heightened profile since starring in Fast and Furious and xXx. And yet the gamble proved (at least initially) disastrous: Chronicles flopped badly in theaters, grossing just $115 million worldwide and forcing Twohy and Diesel to substantially scale down their ambitions for the belated sequel Riddick, which hit theaters in 2013 only after Diesel leveraged much of his personal fortune to get it made.

Again, it's not a perfect analogy: Predator is a much more recognizable character and franchise than Pitch Black or Riddick ever were. But like the latter, the character's origins are decidedly “genre,” and it will take a calculated approach by the filmmakers and some savvy marketing on the part of the studio to make the franchise palatable for an audience who aren't inclined to plop down 12 bucks for a “monster movie.” It's not that it can't be done, but it certainly presents a bigger challenge than that faced by your average tentpole.