Science fiction is a hugely popular genre, particularly at the cinema where in the last decade especially it has been over-represented in terms of box office hits.
Of course there are also ample examples of sci-fi flops that have failed to click with seemingly fickle audiences, and ended up a financial misstep for studios.
So is it always a gamble to make a sci-fi movie, and what aspects of the genre play a part in determining the likelihood of any new release flying high or falling short in terms of box office earnings?
The element of uncertainty
If you only look at franchises like Star Wars, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these record-breaking behemoths are a sign that any sci-fi or sci-fi adjacent movie is guaranteed to be a box office smash.
Even discounting the role that brand recognition plays in helping to perpetuate these series, there are examples like Avatar which exist as standalone hits, captivating audiences and earning billions in ticket sales.
With great success comes immense marketing earnings, and ample licensing opportunities; for example, a quick glance at the appealing selection of new casino games will reveal quite a few that are either officially licensed from or at least indirectly inspired by the titans of cinematic sci-fi.
But even amongst all of this, there are plenty of instances in which studios took a gamble on a fantastical story and lost. Waterworld is arguably the best example of this, with even the star power of Kevin Costner failing to rescue it from tanking back in 1995. It has since become a cult classic, but it’s also a cautionary tale.
More recently, movies like John Carter and Cowboys vs. Aliens have come with production costs spiraling into the hundreds of millions, only to disappoint from a commercial perspective upon release.
So on the surface, it definitely seems like there’s always going to be plenty of uncertainty whenever a sci-fi movie is greenlit.
The benefit of low budgets
What’s worth noting about the major sci-fi flops mentioned earlier, especially the now-infamous Waterworld, is that their failure to break even or make a profit in the short term isn’t really a surprise if you dig a little deeper.
For Costner’s post-apocalyptic, aquatic adventure, the production was a protracted and unpredictable process, leading to spiraling costs that caused the originally planned budget to balloon massively.
Similar troubles have afflicted a lot of the other high profile duds in this genre, and whether it’s a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, or too much money being spent on a concept with niche appeal, there’s always some indication of why they were a washout, even if it only becomes obvious afterwards.
Thankfully, there is a lot less risk associated with backing low-budget sci-fi movies, along with the potential for much larger rewards, relative to the upfront investment.
From shoestring-budget indie upstarts like Primer, to movies like Monsters which aspire to match the intensity of blockbusters without needing to break the bank in the process, there are a multitude of affordably made, amazing sci-fi movies which earned plenty at the box office.
In movies, as in gambling, there’s no such thing as a safe bet. Even so, studios can stack the odds in their favor in a number of ways, whether that means choosing to fund projects that already have a following because they are adapted from an existing IP, or choosing to invest in low budget movies that don’t have to do big business to earn a return.