No studio is immune to box-office bombs.
Look at 2013's worst. Walt Disney's Buena Vista Pictures produced The Lone Ranger and then distributed The Fifth Estate. "Awful" is too polite a word to describe the resulting losses, totaling at least $150 million by my math.
Therein lies the trouble with investing in moviemakers. I mean, if Disney can get it so wrong, how can any of us mere mortals hope to profit owning stock in the major media names? I'll have more on what makes for a good entertainment stock in a follow-up article. For now, let's review what I believe are the three conditions that most often lead to box-office disaster. Specifically:
1. Unoriginal thinking. Predictable stories that copy much of what we've seen before can go sideways in a hurry. Remakes and sequels that try too hard to capture the magic of the source material tend to fall into this category. Recent examples might include Red Dawn and Total Recall.
2. Letting gimmicks drive the story. Audiences crave good stories and sympathetic characters. Special effects, no matter how impressive, can't compensate for a bad script performed poorly. I'd count Green Lantern among recent examples.
3. Too big to succeed. Most movies earn the bulk of their box-office take in the first three weekends. Some aren't even that lucky. Thus, the bigger the budget, the greater the chance a movie will fail.
Which 2014 movies are most likely to suffer these flaws and punish their parent studios in the process? Here are my three picks.
Studio: Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures
Release date: May 16, 2014
Estimated production budget / box-office breakeven: $160 million / $320 million
Why it should lose: Creature features tend to draw niche audiences. Pacific Rim, another collaboration between Legendary and Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX.DL) Warner Bros., appears to have barely recovered its costs with a $407 million worldwide gross on a $190 million budget, Box Office Mojo reports.
Why it might win anyway: We're talking about Godzilla, people. Millions of aging geeks who remember the 1970s Japanese monster flicks could show up to see the big, green kaiju with a distinctive screech for a roar. Meanwhile, the supporting cast includes Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor Johnson from both Kick-Ass films.
Projected impact: Legendary is the principal financier and is likely to take the hit if Godzilla fails. Warner is putting more muscle behind its DC Comics properties.
Studio: Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Columbia Pictures
Release date: Feb. 12, 2014
Estimated production budget / box-office breakeven: $120 million / $240 million
Why it should lose: Action remakes can work -- 2010's The Karate Kid, for example -- but how do you replace Peter Weller, who turned a metallic-sounding "your move, creep" into a catchphrase? A 1993 sequel to the sequel (i.e., Robocop 3), in which Weller gave way to Robert John Burke, made less than $11 million on a $22 million production budget.
Why it might win anyway: The movie stacks up against a predictable mix of romance and fantasy movies on Valentine's Day weekend, including remakes of About Last Night and Endless Love. Action fans looking for something different could show up in force.
Projected impact: After a disastrous 2013 that precipitated a management shake-up at the studio, Sony would love for Robocop to be an early 2014 win. The real test doesn't come till May, though, when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 arrives in theaters.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Release date: March 28, 2014
Estimated production budget / box-office breakeven: $130 million / $260 million
Why it should lose: According to The Hollywood Reporter, test screenings with audiences didn't go as well as Paramount and studio parent Viacom (NASDAQ:VIAB) might have hoped. The movie also opens on the heels of Hunger Games wannabe Divergent and Disney's Muppets Most Wanted. Tough competition, to be sure.
Why it might win anyway: Controversy tends to draw well. Look at recent history: 2004's The Passion of the Christ grossed more than $600 million, while 2006's The Da Vinci Code topped $750 million. An impassioned response to Noah -- for or against -- could produce similar results.
Projected impact: Not much. Filmed entertainment accounts for less than a third of Viacom revenue and a minuscule 6% of pre-tax operating profit. Noah's capsizing wouldn't be the end of the world for Viacom and Paramount, which still owns the TV and movie rights to the lucrative Star Trek franchise.
Now it's your turn to weigh in. What 2014 movies do you expect to bomb? What movies are you most looking forward to? Leave a comment below to let us know what you think.
Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Walt Disney and Time Warner at the time of publication. Check out Tim's Web home and portfolio holdings, or connect with him on Google+, Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.
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