is set to take the top spot at the domestic box office this week, but with Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire looming for the rest of the month, it's unlikely the film, based on Orson Scott Card's best-selling '80s sci-fi novel, will generate enough revenue at the domestic box office to guarantee a sequel.
It's widely accepted that because of the cost of foreign distribution, it has to be a special case for a movie to underperform domestically and then be considered a success based on overseas sales. The rule of thumb that's been used for years by box office analysts and studio executives is that a film should make its money back domestically, so that anything it generates outside of the U.S. can go to offset promotion, backend deals for the cast and crew and other expenses, and provide the studio with profit.
That's far from an accurate reflection of how the process really works but, again--rule of thumb.
Ender's Game is tracking around $29 million for its first frame, which would put it almost exactly on pace with After Earth, the Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi vehicle that hit earlier this year. That movie opened at $27 million (with a budget of $130 million to Enders's estimated $100 million) and while poor reviews from both critics and audiences likely slowed it down a bit, the movie also came at a time of year that's generally better for big action tentpoles. That film ultimately did well overseas for a global cume of more than $275 million, but here in the U.S. it generated less than $70 million.
If Ender's--with its built-in sequels and a studio that has openly hoped for a franchise--can do a little better than that domestically--say, if its better reviews can score it an extra $15 million and make it almost break even--it should be able to generate the buzz to get a second movie greenlit. Certainly Card's political allies, out in force this week on the Internet, will jump at the opportunity to support more (or to blame gay rights groups who have endorsed boycotting the film if Ender's Game is seen as a failure).
Given the success of such strategies in the past, don't be too surprised if there's a push next week to market Ender's Game specifically to religious groups, especially since it's Card's religious beliefs at the center of the Ender's Game controversy and next week, the film will be struggling to keep its second week take up against Thor: The Dark World, a film in which Norse gods walk the earth. Such "church screenings" of films have helped movies as varied as The Passion of the Christ and Man of Steel to bump up their theatrical grosses by driving out a passionate segment of the audience.
In any case, similar overseas performance to After Earth or this year's Men in Black 3--which disappointed in the U.S. but went on to become the franchise's highest global earner--may render the domestic take less relevant but, as Pacific Rim learned this year, it's difficult to completely overcome the old U.S. market bias.