‘Dark Fate’ Aims For $44 Million Debut, Making ‘Terminator’ A Metaphor For Judgement Day (Box Office)

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With the caveat that The Terminator was never intended to start a franchise, and that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was supposed to be the end of the line, the ongoing attempts at reviving or rebooting Terminator have turned the franchise into a metaphor for itself. A thread of the later sequels, specifically Rise of the Machines (which, to be fair, was not intended to launch a new series of Terminator movies), Salvation and Genisys, was that Judgment Day was inevitable. No matter what our heroes did, they couldn’t (to quote another 1990’s sci-fi franchise) fight the future. As Paramount, Fox/Disney and Skydance prepare to give it another go-around, the Terminator franchise may also be an example of folks doing things slightly differently in the hopes of a more optimistic outcome only to meet the same dark fate.

We are three weeks out from the domestic launch of Terminator: Dark Fate, which opens overseas in a slow-rolling expansion beginning October 23 before opening in North America on November 1. The film is being screened for press prior to that date with the review embargo dropping right before it opens overseas. This implies that all parties think/hope that the film is at least as well-received as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which Universal opened early overseas to avoid conflicts with the World Cup but let domestic critics sample the goods first). And if the first batch of pre-release tracking is to be believed, then Paramount’s expensive (a cost shared with Skydance, Fox and other related parties), the third attempt at Terminator 3 will open with around $45 million in North America.  

That number could go up or down in the next three weeks, depending on reviews, overseas reception and the coverage the film receives in the run up to its domestic release. But presuming that the $45 million figure is “in the ballpark,” it’ll be both not big enough to guarantee overall success and essentially the same number that has defined the saga. First, for what it’s worth, Tim Miller and James Cameron’s Terminator: Dark Fate is the first Terminator movie since The Terminator back in October of 1984 to open on a conventional Fri-Sun weekend. T2, Rise of the Machines and Genysis opened on July 4th weekend in 1991, 2003 and 2015 with a Wed-Sun frame while Salvation opened on the Thursday of Memorial Day weekend 2009.

For reference, Terminator 2 earned a then-record $52.5 million Wed-Sun launch, including a near-record $31.7 million Fri-Sun frame (second only to Batman’s $43 million debut two years prior) on the way to a $204 million domestic and $519 million worldwide cume. That made the film the third-biggest global blockbuster ever behind only Star Wars and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Jonathan Mostow’s (arguably underrated) Terminator 3, which was as much about positioning Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for Governor as it was about continuing the franchise, opened with $44 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its $73 million Wed-Sun debut. It would earn $150 million domestic and $433 million worldwide on a then-massive $170 million budget. As recently as January of 2015, it was the 15th-biggest R-rated global grosser ever.

Despite that, the next two entries were PG-13, to their overall detriment. McG’s Terminator: Salvation was a polished and visually dynamic $200 million sci-fi actioner that nonetheless didn’t have much to offer beyond its action sequences. The promised “future war” sequel turned out to be a bust, earning just $42 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its $65 million Thurs-Mon debut, ending with $125 million domestic and $371 million worldwide. Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys would open with just $29 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its $42.4 million Wed-Sun holiday opening, ending its run with $89 million domestic, or fewer domestic tickets sold than The Terminator ($38.3 million in 1984, $102 million adjusted for inflation). It earned $328 million worldwide absent China.

It earned a big (but frontloaded) $113 million from a $26 million opening day in China, coming off a blackout period on local titles, but that was enough to give it a $441 million global cume on a $155 million budget. The China gross perhaps led Skydance and Paramount to think the series could still thrive under better circumstances. And, presuming it’s at least halfway decent, Dark Fate is “better circumstances.” It’s produced by James Cameron, rated R, a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and features Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. Schwarzenegger is back, in a supporting role (he gets second billing behind Hamilton), while newbies Mackenzie Davis (the "good" Terminator), Gabriel Luna (the "evil" Terminator) and Natalia Reyes (the target) add some new blood.

Will it work? As noted last month, just because China was gaga for Terminator Genisys doesn’t mean they’ll show up for Terminator Dark Fate. X-Men: Apocalypse earned $121 million in China, but Dark Phoenix earned just $59 million this past summer. But concentrating just on domestic grosses for now, it would be quite ironic if the new Terminator movie, after all the huff-and-puff, still opens to the same over/under $44 million figure that the last few did. T3 earned $44 million in its Fri-Sun debut, Salvation earned $42.5 million in its Fri-Sun frame and Genisys earned $44 million in total over its Wed-Sun frame. Even an optimistic $50 million debut would essentially tie it with T2’s $52.5 million Wed-Sun frame back in 1991.

Yes, there is inflation, release patterns and other factors to consider. But it’s still worth noting that the Terminator franchise, come hell or high water, seems stuck at a certain place in terms of its opening weekend grosses. Terminator 2 earned $52 million in five days, Terminator 3 earned $44 million in three days, Terminator 4 earned $42 million in three days while Terminator 5 earned $44 million in five days. And now, inflation and a lack of a holiday notwithstanding, Terminator 6 is on track to open with around, wait for it, $44 million. Insanity is conventionally defined as doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. With the caveat that even a $45 million Fri-Sun opening would be, by default, the franchise’s biggest ever, well, Judgment Day is inevitable and all.

Now, for the record, presuming the movie is well-reviewed and well-received, a $45 million debut may not be an automatic death sentence. This is the first Terminator movie since The Terminator to open outside of the summer and within a conventional Fri-Sun frame (for reference, Veteran’s Day is November 11), so direct comparisons will be challenging. A run like Thor: Ragnarök (2.56x its $122 million debut) or Doctor Strange (2.736x its $85 million launch) seems more plausible than either Bohemian Rhapsody (4.2x its $51 million launch), Interstellar (3.8x a $49 million debut) or Ender’s Game (2.2x a $28 million opening). And, yes, a 2.736x multiplier from a $50 million opening would be an okay $142 million domestic cume, which presuming it plays well overseas (along with, fingers crossed, China), then yeah, Cameron may have “done it again.”

But the other scenario is one where all parties look at the $405 million global gross (including $133 million in China and $85 million in North America) of Alita: Battle Angel with jealousy and awe. The film that took the place of Dark Phoenix last February ended up severely out grossing the X-Men sequel while the Freddie Mercury movie earned more ($905 million) than all but a handful of non-Avengers superhero movies. Can Terminator: Dark Fate show that the fourth time is the charm when it comes to a “Terminator 3”? Or will Judgment Day prove inevitable for a franchise that was never really intended to be a franchise in the first place? Is Judgment Day inevitable, or is there no fate but the fate we make for ourselves?

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With the caveat that The Terminator was never intended to start a franchise, and that Terminator 2: Judgment Day was supposed to be the end of the line, the ongoing attempts at reviving or rebooting Terminator have turned the franchise into a metaphor for itself. A thread of the later sequels, specifically Rise of the Machines (which, to be fair, was not intended to launch a new series of Terminator movies), Salvation and Genisys, was that Judgment Day was inevitable. No matter what our heroes did, they couldn’t (to quote another 1990’s sci-fi franchise) fight the future. As Paramount, Fox/Disney and Skydance prepare to give it another go-around, the Terminator franchise may also be an example of folks doing things slightly differently in the hopes of a more optimistic outcome only to meet the same dark fate.

We are three weeks out from the domestic launch of Terminator: Dark Fate, which opens overseas in a slow-rolling expansion beginning October 23 before opening in North America on November 1. The film is being screened for press prior to that date with the review embargo dropping right before it opens overseas. This implies that all parties think/hope that the film is at least as well-received as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which Universal opened early overseas to avoid conflicts with the World Cup but let domestic critics sample the goods first). And if the first batch of pre-release tracking is to be believed, then Paramount’s expensive (a cost shared with Skydance, Fox and other related parties), the third attempt at Terminator 3 will open with around $45 million in North America.  

That number could go up or down in the next three weeks, depending on reviews, overseas reception and the coverage the film receives in the run up to its domestic release. But presuming that the $45 million figure is “in the ballpark,” it’ll be both not big enough to guarantee overall success and essentially the same number that has defined the saga. First, for what it’s worth, Tim Miller and James Cameron’s Terminator: Dark Fate is the first Terminator movie since The Terminator back in October of 1984 to open on a conventional Fri-Sun weekend. T2, Rise of the Machines and Genysis opened on July 4th weekend in 1991, 2003 and 2015 with a Wed-Sun frame while Salvation opened on the Thursday of Memorial Day weekend 2009.

For reference, Terminator 2 earned a then-record $52.5 million Wed-Sun launch, including a near-record $31.7 million Fri-Sun frame (second only to Batman’s $43 million debut two years prior) on the way to a $204 million domestic and $519 million worldwide cume. That made the film the third-biggest global blockbuster ever behind only Star Wars and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Jonathan Mostow’s (arguably underrated) Terminator 3, which was as much about positioning Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for Governor as it was about continuing the franchise, opened with $44 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its $73 million Wed-Sun debut. It would earn $150 million domestic and $433 million worldwide on a then-massive $170 million budget. As recently as January of 2015, it was the 15th-biggest R-rated global grosser ever.

Despite that, the next two entries were PG-13, to their overall detriment. McG’s Terminator: Salvation was a polished and visually dynamic $200 million sci-fi actioner that nonetheless didn’t have much to offer beyond its action sequences. The promised “future war” sequel turned out to be a bust, earning just $42 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its $65 million Thurs-Mon debut, ending with $125 million domestic and $371 million worldwide. Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys would open with just $29 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its $42.4 million Wed-Sun holiday opening, ending its run with $89 million domestic, or fewer domestic tickets sold than The Terminator ($38.3 million in 1984, $102 million adjusted for inflation). It earned $328 million worldwide absent China.

It earned a big (but frontloaded) $113 million from a $26 million opening day in China, coming off a blackout period on local titles, but that was enough to give it a $441 million global cume on a $155 million budget. The China gross perhaps led Skydance and Paramount to think the series could still thrive under better circumstances. And, presuming it’s at least halfway decent, Dark Fate is “better circumstances.” It’s produced by James Cameron, rated R, a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day and features Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. Schwarzenegger is back, in a supporting role (he gets second billing behind Hamilton), while newbies Mackenzie Davis (the "good" Terminator), Gabriel Luna (the "evil" Terminator) and Natalia Reyes (the target) add some new blood.

Will it work? As noted last month, just because China was gaga for Terminator Genisys doesn’t mean they’ll show up for Terminator Dark Fate. X-Men: Apocalypse earned $121 million in China, but Dark Phoenix earned just $59 million this past summer. But concentrating just on domestic grosses for now, it would be quite ironic if the new Terminator movie, after all the huff-and-puff, still opens to the same over/under $44 million figure that the last few did. T3 earned $44 million in its Fri-Sun debut, Salvation earned $42.5 million in its Fri-Sun frame and Genisys earned $44 million in total over its Wed-Sun frame. Even an optimistic $50 million debut would essentially tie it with T2’s $52.5 million Wed-Sun frame back in 1991.

Yes, there is inflation, release patterns and other factors to consider. But it’s still worth noting that the Terminator franchise, come hell or high water, seems stuck at a certain place in terms of its opening weekend grosses. Terminator 2 earned $52 million in five days, Terminator 3 earned $44 million in three days, Terminator 4 earned $42 million in three days while Terminator 5 earned $44 million in five days. And now, inflation and a lack of a holiday notwithstanding, Terminator 6 is on track to open with around, wait for it, $44 million. Insanity is conventionally defined as doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. With the caveat that even a $45 million Fri-Sun opening would be, by default, the franchise’s biggest ever, well, Judgment Day is inevitable and all.

Now, for the record, presuming the movie is well-reviewed and well-received, a $45 million debut may not be an automatic death sentence. This is the first Terminator movie since The Terminator to open outside of the summer and within a conventional Fri-Sun frame (for reference, Veteran’s Day is November 11), so direct comparisons will be challenging. A run like Thor: Ragnarök (2.56x its $122 million debut) or Doctor Strange (2.736x its $85 million launch) seems more plausible than either Bohemian Rhapsody (4.2x its $51 million launch), Interstellar (3.8x a $49 million debut) or Ender’s Game (2.2x a $28 million opening). And, yes, a 2.736x multiplier from a $50 million opening would be an okay $142 million domestic cume, which presuming it plays well overseas (along with, fingers crossed, China), then yeah, Cameron may have “done it again.”

But the other scenario is one where all parties look at the $405 million global gross (including $133 million in China and $85 million in North America) of Alita: Battle Angel with jealousy and awe. The film that took the place of Dark Phoenix last February ended up severely out grossing the X-Men sequel while the Freddie Mercury movie earned more ($905 million) than all but a handful of non-Avengers superhero movies. Can Terminator: Dark Fate show that the fourth time is the charm when it comes to a “Terminator 3”? Or will Judgment Day prove inevitable for a franchise that was never really intended to be a franchise in the first place? Is Judgment Day inevitable, or is there no fate but the fate we make for ourselves?

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I've studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all

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