Why was ‘Blade Runner 2’ dumped into the middle of January? Box-office experts weigh in

On Thursday it was announced that Warner Bros. will release director Denis Villeneuve's highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2 on January 12, 2018 — a surprise to many given that January is historically (and perhaps unfairly) viewed as a dumping ground for less-than-quality films. But is it actually a smart decision to debut the Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling-starring sci-fi sequel so early in the year? We asked four leading box-office experts to weigh in, and — not surprisingly — Deadpool's startling box-office success in the middle of February was top of mind for all of them.

“I think Deadpool has been obviously part of the proof of that — that if you have the right movie and the right marketing campaign, people don't really care [about] the specific date that you release it,” said Bruce Nash, founder of TheNumbers.com. “Obviously if a movie like Blade Runner came out the same weekend as a Star Wars movie, then there would be a big conflict between the two. But putting it on a weekend where it's not gonna have very much competition, and [being] the kind of film that people are basically going to go see, I think it's actually a smart move.”

Box Office Guru founder Gitesh Pandya also credits Warner Bros. for the release date, which will not only give the sci-fi follow-up a “good three or four week” window before any other major blockbusters arrive in theaters but which may also allow it to ride the sizable wave created by Star Wars Episode VIII, which is slated to hit theaters a month prior.

“[Warner Bros.] is hoping that the masses that come out for Star Wars Episode VIII that holiday season will see trailers and posters for Blade Runner and then come back for that one in mid-January,” says Pandya. “This date could totally pay off.”

Given the increasingly-crowded release schedule for big-budget franchise movies, it may also be that Warner Bros. doesn't have much of a choice. While the studios put out fewer films than they used to, they're releasing more mega-expensive tentpoles than ever before, resulting in a sort of musical chairs scenario on the release calendar that has been pushing the blockbuster movie season earlier and earlier every year.

“It seems to be part of a broader move to a 52-week release schedule that the industry has been shifting gradually to over the past couple of years,” notes Box Office Media analyst Daniel Loria. “Memorial Day used to mark the start of the summer movie season in the recent era, but the prototypical 'summer blockbuster' is no longer as seasonal as it used to be. If we look back as recently as 2014, Disney released Captain America: The Winter Soldier on the first weekend in April — then considered an early date. A year later, Fast & Furious 7 comes out on the same weekend and also does big business. This year we've got Batman vs Superman coming out in late March …and after the success of Deadpool, don't be surprised if we start seeing more big titles line-up in February.”

While its January 12 release date will certainly give Blade Runner 2 a wide berth on the calendar before other big movies explode onto the scene, the sequel is by no means a surefire bet at the box office. Despite being an iconic title, Blade Runner doesn't have the brand power of a franchise like Star Wars or The Avengers, and that means many moviegoers will be looking to word-of-mouth on social media and elsewhere before buying a ticket. “It just gets more extreme each time with these social media cycles,” said Mumpower. “It used to be that reviews didn't impact box office at all. That notion is completely blown up today. We saw it just last weekend with Deadpool, where when the buzz begins on something, it just gets explosive.” 

The original film's age will also undoubtedly serve as a barrier to box-office success. Blade Runner will be over 35 years old by the time its sequel hits theaters, presenting a challenge in appealing to younger filmgoers who may be unfamiliar with the title.

“We're now in the present that was the future in 1982,” Mumpower notes (the original film was set in Los Angeles circa 2019). “So we've reached the point where it's grandchildren hearing about Blade Runner, it's not children. So you don't know how much demand there's going to be for it. There is this thing where they're going, well you know, it just worked for Harrison Ford with Star Wars, maybe that translates. That's a gamble, that's a hope. If they make a good movie, the thought process bears out. If they don't make a good movie, then realistically we're probably looking at a Prometheus type of performance.”

Prometheus, the 2012 Ridley Scott film that was billed as a sorta-prequel to Alien and which was seen as a disappointing box-office performer Stateside, is one precedent, but perhaps Tron Legacy — itself the sequel to a sci-fi film from the early '80s that wasn't particularly successful at the box office — is an even more apt comparison. Despite grossing over $400 million worldwide, that film was widely viewed as a commercial disappointment thanks to a gargantuan $170-180 million production budget and expectations that were perhaps artificially heightened by fanboy excitement in the months leading up to release. It also received a lukewarm reception from critics and, perhaps more importantly, failed to capture the zeitgeist in a way that would have bolstered its commercial prospects. The latter is something that Nash believes Blade Runner 2 — which will presumably traffic in the still-timely themes of the original film while also appealing to audiences that flocked to serious-minded recent sci-fi films like Interstellar and The Martian — can overcome if done properly.

“I think a lot of the reason that the original film resonates still is that it does bring up things that…have been sort of becoming more true,” says Nash. “You can argue about the timeline…we may not have transformed as quickly as the original film said, but a lot of what it said is still relevant today, and some of the things we're thinking about in terms of the way that we interact with technology. So I think if it can tap into that and into this sort of greater realism in science fiction, I think it could actually really hit a sweet spot.”