Time Warner (TWX) , whose Warner Brothers studio is struggling to turn around after two lean years at the box office, is betting its road to recovery on an iconic vine-swinging literary character who hasn't been seen by movie audiences in years. Warner's big-budget The Legend of Tarzan opens on July 1, but word of mouth about the film has been underwhelming.
The film, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' series of novels about a boy raised in Africa by apes, is expected to open with a thud. Hollywood industry tracking services predict the film, made for an estimated $180 million, will open with a minuscule $30 million for the four-day holiday weekend.
"It's hard to say what's driving it, but the film feels out of place with its time period in the current environment," said Tony Wible, a senior analyst with Drexel Hamilton. Wible has an $88 a share target and buy rating on Time Warner based on its robust TV operation.
Time Warner shares were down 3.5% to $70.53 on Friday morning in the wake of the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union.
Wible said Tarzan, whose film history dates to the 1918 Tarzanof the Apes silent film starring Elmo Lincoln, faces the uphill task of grabbing attention in a marketplace chock full of franchises, superheroes and special-effects laden movies.
"It's hard to break through all of that noise," he said.
The Legend of Tarzan will open against Disney (DIS) - Get Report and director Steven Spielberg's film The BFG, based on a 1982 children's book about a friendly giant, which also is suffering from slack word of mouth.
Warner shared the cost of making the expensive film with Australian film producer Village Roadshow Pictures and film finance company RatPac Entertainment. Still, the prospect of a dud couldn't come at a worse time for Warner. The studio, whose film revenue declined from $6.1 billion in 2013 to $5.1 billion in 2015, seemed to be getting its box office stroke back this summer with a pair of lower-budget films.
Horror film The Conjuring 2, made for $40 million, has generated nearly $195 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to movie site Box Office Mojo. Central Intelligence, an action comedy starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart that cost $50 million to make, collected $47.6 million in its first week in domestic theaters.
The Legend of Tarzan stars Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, best known for his role as a vampire on the HBO drama True Blood, and was directed by David Yates, who directed the final four installments of the Harry Potter series for Warner Brothers.
In the film, Tarzan leaves the jungles of Africa for a gentrified life in London as Lord Greystoke but returns to the Congo as a trade emissary to battle a plot to enslave the natives. To appeal to modern audiences, the producers made the bare-chested Skarsgård a more complex, thinking star. His wife, Jane, played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, is fiercely independent.
The film took more than a decade to make and went through three directors; at one point the studio assigned two writers to work on competing scripts. In 2013, work on the project was suspended due to budget issues, according to news reports at the time.
Warner is opening the film in the U.S. on more than 3,500 screens, including some 300 large-format IMAX (IMAX) - Get Report screens, which could boost the movie's box office take with higher-priced tickets. The studio promoted TheLegend of Tarzan with a heavy dose ofsocial media, including contests on Twitter (TWTR) - Get Report and Facebook (FB) - Get Report. In one of the more unusual promotions, it also teamed with Stop Ivory, an international group dedicated to protecting elephants.
Even if The Legend of Tarzan bombs in the U.S., Warner Brothers executives are counting on the film performing well overseas, where other recent Hollywood films have overcome lackluster domestic box office. The studio is banking on Tarzan's allure in Europe and even Latin America. In China, the film was given a July 19 release date, a rare summer opening for a U.S. film without having to contend with a Chinese or a rival big-budget Hollywood film.
Tarzan, though, only will have a few days to swing into the hearts of viewers before competition arrives. Three days later, China theaters will open Skiptrace, an action film starring Jackie Chan, one of the nation's most popular actors.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held positions in Disney and Facebook.