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The real reason why Valerian flopped at the box office

Things are not looking good for Luc Besson's sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The extremely expensive film was DOA at the domestic box office in its opening weekend, falling in fifth place with only $17 million against a $180 million production budget. Considering the weight Besson's name carries with sci-fi fans, many may be surprised to hear that his most recent outing had that much trouble finding an audience. However, there were actually quite a few warning signs that Valerian would fail. Here are the real reasons why Valerian was an intergalactic disappointment at the box office.

The source property isn't well-known enough

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the French comic strip Valerian et Laureline, which ran from 1967 to 2010. According to The New York Times, Besson had been reading the comic since he was a child, dreaming of adapting it into a film, but he had to wait until he had the technology and experience to pull off the comics' unique vision. 

The director isn't the only one with deference for Valerian et Laureline, either. The comic has been cited as an inspiration for Star Wars and a number of other notable sci-fi properties, and it remains a favorite overseas. However, in the United States, the comic never really found the audience that it did on the other side of the Atlantic.

For the movie's American theatrical prospects, this was not a good sign. Non-franchise and non-sequel films without much name recognition can struggle at the box office, especially during peak times like the summer, where blockbusters abound. While the film may be able to draw in some fans who have heard of the comic in Europe, the source material's draw simply isn't strong enough to attract most American moviegoers to the theater.

The reviews weren't good enough

Sci-fi is a tricky venture. While long-established properties like Star Wars and Star Trek have shown that they're able to pull in both dedicated and casual fans, sci-fi flicks often struggle to find the mass market appeal necessary to make up their huge budgets. As with any movie with a strange or esoteric premise, good reviews can be a huge boost, with critical praise often helping to push films towards bigger box office hauls.

For Valerian, the critics' love wasn't quite there. Reviews critiqued the leads for not having chemistry and called the story empty, with the impressive visuals being called out as the main positive selling point. While the film performed better than some notorious sci-fi flops with critics, its middling reviews — which earned it a score of 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes – were hardly enough to bring in sci-fi skeptics.

The leads don't carry enough name recognition

When Tom Cruise couldn't save The Mummy from becoming a box office flop in the States, online pundits began discussing declining effect of star power on domestic audiences. However, as The Mummy's international performance shows, while star power may be losing some potency at home, it definitely still matters — especially overseas. 

For Valerian, even a meager amount of star power just wasn't there. Dane DeHaan is best known for his appearances in indie films, and Cara Delevingne is an up-and-coming actress who only recently made the switch over from modeling. While both of them have had roles in huge films before — DeHaan in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Delevingne in Suicide Squad – neither of them were the main draw for those films. Meanwhile, their names were plastered all over the marketing materials for Valerian, despite the fact that few people, if anyone, would recognize them.

While Cruise's star power may not have been enough to save The Mummy, it definitely didn't hurt. But for Valerian, every little bit would have helped to push it over that hump. Even though DeHaan and Delevingne are both likely to have long and successful careers as huge stars someday, right now, they aren't enough to pull in audiences to an unfamiliar property. 

The competition is too fierce

Pit any film against Christopher Nolan and they're bound to fail. Nolan's latest epic, Dunkirk, shared the same release date as Valerian, and it ended up taking the crown, bringing in more than double Valerian's haul. Nolan has a history of success at the box office, and Dunkirk, hailed as an early Oscar contender, is no exception. 

Dunkirk wasn't the only competition Besson should've anticipated when scheduling Valerian, either. The film came out two weeks after Marvel's juggernaut Spider-Man: Homecoming and just one week after the trilogy-capper War for the Planet of the Apes. While both films saw their box office performances pushed beyond initial expectations due to stellar reviews, it was easy to see that they'd have legs long past their release dates. 

Valerian's other big competition, though, came from an unexpected place: the R-rated comedy Girls Trip. While R-rated comedies have been struggling at the box office this summer, Girls Trip managed to buck that trend for an unexpected (and incredibly impressive) $30 million opening weekend. The amazing performance of all four of those films would have been hard for any movie to beat, bumping Valerian all the way down to fifth place for its opening weekend. 

The film's trailers didn't focus on the story

If you watch the trailers, it's pretty hard to figure out what Valerian is actually about. Using a slowed down version of The Beatles' "Because," the previews focused heavily on the film's visuals over its content, a move that likely left audiences confused about what they might actually see if they bought a ticket.

The film's teaser trailer used its few words to highlight the awkward workplace sexual harassment storyline between Valerian and Laureline, something likely to not go over well with much of the audience. The second showed some more hints at the story, but it kept them extremely vague, only referencing the "unknown force" looking to destroy the metropolis of Alpha. 

The final trailer didn't give any further clues above the second trailer, going almost entirely wordless aside from a few quick explainers and just showing off the film's gorgeous landscapes and the alien creatures once again. None of the trailers took the time to go through the reality of the threat against Alpha or to discuss why Valerian and Laureline were the ones to stop it, making the previews feel hollow and failing to leave an impression on viewers.

While the marketing pushed viewers to see Valerian because of its impressive amount of visual spectacle, focusing entirely on the style over substance in the marketing wasn't necessarily a smart choice. Audiences do love to see beautiful films with incredible visual effects, but they're also looking for a story behind it, something which the Valerian trailers didn't show. 

Audiences are no longer lacking for spectacle

Besson has been hailed as a visionary director for The Fifth Element, a film which, like Valerian, is better known for its wild visual effects than for its storyline. At the time that the film came out, those types of visuals were unusual and offered something new and different. But that's no longer the case these days.

Visual spectacle is now commonplace at the theater. In Valerian's opening weekend alone, viewers could choose Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, shot almost entirely on IMAX cameras and given the widest 70MM release in 25 years, or the superhero flicks Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman, both full of huge, incredible action scenes. There's also War for the Planet of the Apes, which offered some incredible special effects in the transformations of the film's ape actors.

While none of those films quite match Valerian's visual effects scale — the film contains 2,355 visual effects shots, more than even Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – it still means that the film's extensive focus on visuals wasn't exactly as huge of a selling point as it once might've been. With audiences no longer starved for visually intense filmmaking, story's never been more important to moviegoers — and story was apparently not Valerian's strong point.  

There's a history of big budget sci-fi flicks failing

While films like Star Trek and Star Wars have pretty consistently performed well at the box office for decades. However, there's also a long history of big budget sci-fi flicks failing to find an audiences. To box office historians, it was pretty clear that Valerian risked falling into this group. 

Valerian's performance puts it on par with some pretty notorious bombs, including the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending, which brought in $18.3 million in its opening weekend on a $176 million budget. It even managed to do worse than one of the most notorious flops of all time, John Carter, which brought in $30 million. Meanwhile, that film was up against a $250 million production budget, while Valerian's is estimated to be closer to $200 million.

Valerian falls more in line critically with John Carter; both films experienced middling reviews, while Jupiter Ascending was resoundingly panned. If Besson gets lucky, this could mean that the film could follow a similar box office path, performing at least moderately overseas and bringing back in a portion of its budget. Still, with both films joining a growing list of sci-fi flicks presenting huge losses for their companies, there was historical precedence for Valerian's failure to find an audience. 

Creative financing may save the film

A number of different figures have been thrown around for Valerian's budget, but they all point to one thing — it was high. The film, which has been reported as the most expensive French production of all time, likely cost somewhere around $200 million including marketing. That means it'll require a pretty stellar comeback in order to make a profit.

However, there is still some hope for Valerian. Like many domestic flops in the summer of 2017, the international box office could be a savior, with the movie expected to do big business in France, where viewers are familiar with the comics. The film will continue to be rolled out in international territories throughout the summer. The best hope for the film, however, comes from Besson's creative method of financing it.

Tax credits are one of the film's first helpers, with estimates saying that they bump the film's cost down by $50 million. The movie is also said to be covering significant parts of its budget through equity financing and foreign pre-sales, so much so that EuropaCorp CEO Marc Shmuger says that the financial exposure to the company is under $20 million. Still, the slow start for Valerian is not a good sign for the film in the long run, and is an even worse sign for Besson's already planned follow-up films.

The summer box office is down overall

This summer has seen a series of high-profile disappointments at the box office. While there have definitely been some success stories, like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, a number of big stars and heavily promoted sequels have failed to find an audience domestically, with the latest entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchise both stumbling.

Aging franchises have been blamed for the decline of the summer box office, but it can also be attributed to the increasing availability of high-quality streaming entertainment, along with the rising price of movie tickets; in July, when Valerian was released, ticket sales were down eight percent from 2016. It's hard for any new film to break out right now, and Valerian is just one of the latest victims.

Luc Besson's name doesn't carry as much weight

Luc Besson's The Fifth Element wasn't exactly a hit at the box office, but it's a cult favorite with sci-fi fans—something Valerian's advertising relied heavily on, with the ads and press frequently putting his name front and center instead of the movie's stars.

However, data shows that Besson's ability to draw audiences may be on the decline. A number of the director's follow-ups to The Fifth Element, like Arthur and the Invisibles and its sequels and the Robert De Niro thriller The Family, were box office and critical disappointments. His most recent big-budget blockbuster, the Scarlett Johansson-led Lucydivided critics and made most of its money overseas.

While Besson is still clearly a favorite with sci-fi fans for his work on The Fifth Element, his subsequent projects didn't capitalize on that popularity. His name may have provided a bit of a bump for Valerian, but it wasn't as big as it had to be for the movie to succeed.

The advertising didn't sell the theatrical experience

Watching the advertising for Valerian's biggest competition, Dunkirk, it was pretty clear that this was a movie you had to see in theaters. Most of the later TV spots for that film focused heavily on its 70mm showings, while there was also a lot of talk around the fact that Nolan used IMAX cameras and shot on 65mm film.

All of this added up to the idea that Dunkirk was definitely a theatrical experience, not one you should wait for on home video. Valerian, on the other hand, showcased its nifty effects and promoted IMAX and 3D screenings, but didn't really sell the story—and, as a result, failed to put forth a truly compelling argument that audiences needed to spend their money at the theater rather than waiting to get the movie on VOD.

It didn't get much organic buzz on social media

Paid advertisements certainly help put a film at the forefront of viewers' minds, but there's no substitute for word of mouth. Despite the fact that Valerian had social media superstars Cara Delevingne and Rihanna in its cast, it failed to make much of an impression on social platforms in the weeks before its release.

Two weeks before its arrival, Valerian was topped by its main competitor Dunkirk in social media conversations, but it also notably lost out to The Emoji Movie and Avengers: Infinity War. In the week before its release, it failed to even track in the top 10 of conversation-generating films, losing out to San Diego Comic-Con favorites and D23 reveals. Valerian needed all the help it could get to push it past its competition, and the fact that it couldn't track on social media wasn't a good sign. 

The international box office may help

Besson's creative financing means that Valerian can still avoid being a huge disappointment for the studio, and international sales could help even more. The film had a strong opening in Besson's homeland of France (although it fared worse than his lower-budget Lucy), and it could also do big business in the rest of Europe, where Besson's name may be more familiar.

The film's real potential saving grace, though, is China, which has saved many a big-budget domestic flop in recent months. Overseas audiences tend to lean toward movies that are more of a visual spectacle, something Valerian clearly accomplished. The film may also see softer competition there, with its opening set for Aug. 25, a week before Nolan's Dunkirk.