Did Piracy and/or a PG-13 Rating Doom ‘The Expendables 3’?

Was online "availability" and a anti-hard "R" stance the real reasons this third film in the action franchise failed?

As the final tallies were coming in and the titles were being ranked, tongues all over Tinseltown were in full blown wagging mode over the news that the latest installment in Sylvester Stallone’s post-millennial career reboot, The Expendables, had wound up in a very disappointing fourth place.

Not first. That still belongs to those horrid Michael Bay produced Ninja Turtles. Not second, as the great Guardians of the Galaxy holds that spot. Not even third, with the poorly timed Let’s Be Cops defying the situation in Ferguson, Missouri to rustle up enough ticket sales to take said position.

No, Expendables 3 came in behind all three, even with a bevy of former superstar power and an established franchise in its back pocket. For pundits, the commercial culprit here is one of two possibilities. Either Stallone’s personal desire to dial down the violence and achieve a PG-13 rating (over the previous two installments’ “R”) backfired horrifically, or that the online availability of a bootleg DVD quality copy of the film three weeks ago stunted the potential viewership.

When it opened, the first Expendables made $34.8 million during its opening weekend. The Expendables 2 banked a decent $28.5. Part Three, however, ended up with a dismal $16.2, barely half of what the first movie made.

With such numbers comes the inevitable “wha’appen?” and outside a minor third factor (the all important foreign market), the answer seems cloudy and unclear. With 66 percent of the audience well beyond the age of torrents and downloads (according to tracking), it couldn’t have been the premature “release”. Similarly, said viewership (concretely set at “over 25”) are indeed old enough to tolerate a bit of bloodshed.

Going back to the international audience for a moment, The Expendables 3, while dying domestically, can still save itself overseas. Part One earned $171 million of its $274 million in foreign markets. Part Two took in $300 million worldwide, with only $85 million coming from the US.

So all is not lost. Then again, nothing is really explained. Granted, with $52 million in sales going to a pair of adolescent-oriented smash hits (Guardians of the Galaxy is over $400 million from around the globe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is trailing with $185 million), there wasn’t enough disposable teen (and pre-teen) income to go around. Also, anyone old enough to remember when Stallone et. al. were action hero heavyweights are not part of this proposed demo.

In fact, Rambo arrived 32 years ago, meaning that it’s the children of this former fanbase that Stallone was striving for. Add in a novice director behind the lens, a less than star-studded cast (for every Harrison Ford and Wesley Snipes, there’s a “who?” and a “huh?”), and a no longer novel core premise and it’s not hard to explain away the failure.

Still, every week, Hollywood releases an equally hobbled effort and few are trying to the discover the source of its struggles. In other words, sometimes, bad is just bad. But The Expendables 3 is not awful. Sure, it’s derivative and unnecessary, but the action sequences pop with a kind of frenetic verve and there’s an awful lot of building implosion bang for your buck.

There’s a significant lack of outright fun, the filmmaking trying too hard to make something serious out of Stallone’s worry wart weariness. There’s also the second act misstep of his character “firing” the original Expendables to recruit a quintet of no-name replacements (well, there is Kellan Lutz, and that girl from the MMA).

Piracy and PG-13 are getting all the blame, but without much concrete evidence. There’s lots of conjecture, though. Over at Variety, there was this quote: “This is really a clear situation where this had an impact,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst of BoxOffice.com. “It’s hard to measure, but the ripple effect, not only of the downloads, but of the word-of-mouth that spread as a result, can be seen in the soft opening.”

Over at Forbes, critic Scott Mendelson lamented that, with two solidly performing PG-13 films already in the marketplace — Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — adding yet another was simply silly. Had it stayed with an “R” it would have catered to the crowd it was drawing. Dropping down a rating meant that the viewer who came in ready for some onscreen carnage walked away very disappointed, and made sure to tell his or her friends about it.

The answer may be a perfect storm of all of these factors. Ford and Snipes are no replacements for Willis, Van Damme, or Norris, and Mel Gibson’s scenery chewing is given very short shrift here. Certainly, some who would spend their $8 to $20 on a night out at the movies may have been inspired to, instead, bootleg the film and there were probably an equal number of potential viewers who saw the blood-draining MPAA label and figured they’d wait for the “Unrated” Blu-ray to be released. As returns for both Bullet in the Head and Escape Plan showed, Stallone is no longer a singular box office draw, and the less than stellar reviews (35 percent and holding over at Rotten Tomatoes) might have dissuaded those who still take critics seriously.

On the other hand, Mendleson may have tagged the real reason without recognizing it. “Franchise fatigue” is probably the main reason The Expendables 3 failed. The first film had the novelty. The second stretched the boundaries while delivering a wealth of fan-mandated faces. What, exactly did part three have to offer except Gibson in full blown Machete Kills mode and some unknown upstarts? In fact, it bears repeating that the group of young Expendable-substitutes in the film get more time than Mad Max, Snipes, and Schwarzenegger combined. Heck, even a non-action Kelsey Grammer is given more to do.

In fact, what’s clear is that The Expendables 3 is indeed a victim of everything against it. Bootlegging bit off a little. PG-13 a few more. The lackluster cast, the sameness factor, franchise fatigue — they all stepped in and offered up their bottom line limiting effects.

Of course, we will never know how the film would have played had someone not made it available online and Stallone stayed with a hard “R” bloodbath. Neither of those tweaks could correct the other elements at work, however. While rumors of a Part Four have already begun, the truth is, without the twisting of many international turnstiles, the “Expendables” might itself been dispensable, especially on the domestic front.