The fall of Camelot: how Guy Ritchie's King Arthur became a $175 million box office bomb
The last reboot of King Arthur courted controversy for digitally enhancing the breasts of its female lead, Keira Knightley, on the official poster.
You’ll probably remember that snafu, as it’s the only thing anybody actually remembers about 2004’s flop reimagining of the ancient myth. But despite the fact that Clive Owen medieval vehicle made only $50 million (€45m) at the global box office (budget: $120 million), Warner Bros. bent over backwards to make another film inspired by the story.
Similarly, despite the box office kryptonite of many a recent swords-and-sandals epic, from Warcraft to Ben-Hur to Pompeii, the beleaguered studio pressed ahead with their $175 million (€158m) Guy Ritchie-directed reboot, which opened to an impressively low $14.7 million (€13.3m) at the US box office over the weekend.
So how did such an expensive summer spectacle end up grossing less than the second weekend of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and a movie which sees Amy Schumer getting chased around the jungle with her mum?
Somewhat inevitably, the flopping of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword appears to stem from the usual Marvel-era Hollywood source: the lure of a potential ‘shared universe’ franchise, wherein every bit of available intellectual property can be mined, extended and spread out over multiple films, which all congeal into one big super-ensemble film at a later date -- à la The Avengers.
Warner Bros. were particularly eager to spark their own King Arthur universe, initially earmarking Bryan Singer for an Excalibur remake, before landing on Arthur & Lancelot -- a fantasy script by David Dobkin, director of Wedding Crashers. Arthur & Lancelot came very close to starting production, until it was abruptly axed from Warner’s development slate.
Joel Kinnaman, of The Killing and Suicide Squad fame, was initially cast as Lancelot, while a who’s-who of British B-listers were invited to screen test for Arthur, among them Sam Claflin, Kit Harington and Jim Sturgess.
While Harington eventually scored that part, Warner Bros. reportedly got cold feet as to mounting a potentially fruitful franchise off the back of two relative unknowns -- Game of Thrones was only just starting its second season, after all.
Attempts to cut back the $130 million budget were rejected, so rather the studio decided to drop both actors in favour of bigger names. But despite efforts to woo Colin Farrell and James McAvoy, both ended up turning the project down. Gary Oldman was also in the mix to play Lancelot.
Development on Arthur & Lancelot went quiet after that, until 2014 saw Warner Bros. approach Guy Ritchie, who had previously attempted to develop a King Arthur reimagining based on a script by Trainspotting writer John Hodge.
Since the Arthur & Lancelot debacle, Warner Bros. had been distracted by a new pitch by writer Joby Harold, who had envisioned turning King Arthur into a six-film ‘shared universe’ franchise, with separate movies for Arthur, Lancelot and additional characters, who would all eventually come together in their own shared movie.
Ritchie jumped on board, but Warner Bros. reportedly began drifting further and further away from Harold’s fantastical vision for the franchise. Instead they began to fold in elements from other King Arthur scripts that had previously been in development (David Dobkin gets a “Story by” credit on the finished film), creating a strange Frankenstein’s Monster-style screenplay that is reportedly very difficult to follow.
“Just sticking with the plot soaks up every ounce of concentration you have,” our critic Robbie Collin declared.
Charlie Hunnam was the first name to sign on the dotted line, after being personally chased for the part by Ritchie, but Warner Bros. had problems securing additional talent. Idris Elba dropped out of negotiations to play a “wise mentor to Arthur”, only to be replaced by Djimon Hounsou, who has been playing second fiddle to interchangeable white men for the better part of his career.
Elizabeth Olsen also backed out of the female lead role, replaced by relative French unknown Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey.
Production on the film began in 2014, with Warner Bros. scheduling it for summer 2016. But following disastrous test screenings, the film was pushed to February 2017 to accommodate reshoots. Then that release date was further scrapped, King Arthur finally hitting cinemas last weekend in the USA. It’ll hit UK shores this Friday, awkwardly after a week of negative press related to its dismal opening weekend in the US.
Despite earning barely 10% of its budget in its opening days and even underperforming in China, the usual last-ditch hope to turn US flops into international hits, reaction from those who actually went to see King Arthur appears to be positive.
It currently holds an A- CinemaScore from audiences (compiled via exit polling at selected US screenings) while, just a few weeks ago, Warner Bros. proudly boasted that they were increasing the amount of free preview screenings for the film after 150 participating cinemas recorded sell-outs.
But, in hindsight, it looks like all those eager fans who saw the film for free may have been the only people who would have been willing to actually pay for it.
King Arthur’s box office performance has already been an important lesson for major Hollywood players, however, who have decided to ease back on spending extortionate amounts of money on long-in-the-tooth existing properties and instead focus on diverse, low-budget, low-risk original ideas, like the critically-adored, staggeringly successful Get Out. Only joking, of course they haven’t.
“Old [intellectual property] is the most valuable s--- in the world,” an anonymous producer told Deadline. “Sure, God bless original stuff, but these classic brands are timeless.”
Mirroring the long development process of King Arthur, rival studios are currently developing a total of seven different versions of Robin Hood, despite the flopping of Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood in 2010. As for Guy Ritchie, he’s already started work on his next project: a live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin.