"The Expendables 3" was supposed to be the last big action release of the summer, just as its predecessors were in 2010 and 2012. Even though the all-star action series had been trending downward, it was still supposed to open around $24 million, in close contention for first place with reigning chart champ "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and three-week-old "Guardians of the Galaxy."
But it wasn't even close. "Expendables" lived down to its name, opening with a mere estimated $16.2 million and settling for fourth place. (Action comedy "Let's Be Cops" did exactly as well as expected, opening with in third place with an estimated $17.7 million.) "Turtles" remained on top with an estimated $28.4 million, well ahead of "Guardians" at No. 2 with an estimated $24.7 million.
What went wrong? Here are some possibilities:
Over-saturation. "Expendables" had to compete with still-strong action films "Turtles," "Guardians," "into the Storm," "Lucy," and "Hercules," as well as action-comedy newcomer "Let's Be Cops." In the game of action-movie musical chairs, "Expendables" turned out to be the one left standing.
Timing. So, why wasn't "Let's Be Cops" the one left without a seat? Because it was smart enough to open early, on Wednesday, earning an impressive $8.4 million and generating OK word-of-mouth (a B grade at CinemaScore) before the weekend even started. By the end of the weekend, "Cops" had generated enough momentum to finish with a five-day total estimated at $26.1 million.
Piracy. "Expendables" isn't the first would-be action blockbuster to be made widely available illegally online just weeks before its theatrical premiere, but it may be the first one to take a demonstrable hit from being pirated. (Other leaked movies, like "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" a few years back, still became big hits.) Of course, there's no telling how much better "Expendables" would have done over its theatrical lifetime if it hadn't leaked, but piracy seems as likely an explanation as any for why a movie with an A- grade at CinemaScore would open $8 million below expectations.
Rating. This is the first installment of the series that's rated PG-13 instead of R. It's possible that the softened rating persuaded some longtime "Expendables" fans that the new movie was watered down and therefore not worth their time.
Fading Stars. The initial "Expendables" seemed like a great idea -- put a bunch of aging action stars together and let their combined nostalgia power make up for the fact that none of them is the hitmaker he once was. Three movies in, however, the novelty has worn off. Franchise anchors Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger haven't been able to generate recent hits outside the "Expendables" banner. As for the other new big names added to this installment's cast, Harrison Ford is also past his prime as a box office draw, Mel Gibson still has a lot of personal baggage that audiences haven't forgotten, Wesley Snipes has been all but absent from the screen for a decade, and Kelsey Grammer (despite his "X-Men" credit) isn't really an action-movie actor at all. This is one case where the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts.
Turtle Power. There's apparently just no stopping Michael Bay or his rebooted reptile quartet. Even with a drop of 57 percent from last week's business, "Turtles" still earned enough for an easy victory this week and a two-week total of $117.6 million. If anything, pundits were expecting an even bigger drop (above 60 percent), so it's possible that the movie's unexpectedly high second-week finish came at the expense of "Expendables 3" and "The Giver" (this weekend's other new wide release, which was supposed to appeal to teens and young adults, but which opened in fifth place with just an estimated $12.8 million).
Even so, much about the "Expendables" failure remains an anomaly. For instance, dropping the rating to PG-13 could have attracted a new, wider audience of young viewers, but perhaps there was no way to interest anyone too young to remember the 1980s in this franchise. Some pundits were even predicting trouble for "Let's Be Cops" because of the real-life news from Ferguson, Mo.; given the worldwide attention to the turmoil there over the police shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown, it didn't seem like the best time to release a comedy about trigger-happy goons in uniform. And yet the headlines seemed to have no impact on the success of "Cops."
Then again, we're deep into the dog days of August. Maybe moviegoers are just fatigued in general with the season's offerings; after all, the total box office, which has been slumping most of the summer, was down a fourth from last week's already lackluster finish. Your calendar may say that it's five weeks until autumn, but as "Expendables" suggests, summer at the multiplex is pretty much over.