Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Is Trek a Dying Enterprise? (UPDATED)

by SandWyrm

With the recent brouhaha over Axanar, I got to wondering how the Trek franchise is actually doing from a financial standpoint. I mean... The 2009 reboot supposedly revitalized the franchise in a big way, right? Or is the truth, after looking at the historical budgets and gross returns, more disturbing?

Let's start off with an inflation-adjusted table of each Trek movie in the series, and how they performed relative to their budgets.

See the bottom of the post for the world-wide numbers, as these are only the US numbers.

What we see is that Trek 2009 was the most expensive movie since The Motionless Picture back in 1979. But hey, look at that gross profit! It's over five and a half times what they made on the Hippies-In-Space Insurrection installment, and a damn sight better than the choking loss they took on Nemesis.

If we sort the table by Gross Profit...

...We see that the reboot came in 5th overall, right after the Search for Spock. Hmmnnn... The Search For Spock? I'm one of the rare people who love that movie, but 5th place is only just a bit higher than average. You'd think it would be 2nd or 3rd at least.

Charting this shows a nice uptick, but look at Into Darkness. It's got a huge falloff compared to the Reboot in terms of Gross Profit. In fact the only two films with less Gross Profit are Insurrection and Nemesis.


The budget chart shows the answer. It made less, but also cost more to make. In fact since The Wrath of Khan, Trek budgets have been steadily marching up, with the lone exception of Nemesis.

So now we get to the meat of my concern: How are Trek movies doing in relation to the cost of their budgets? What is the return on investment that Paramount has been getting for their money?

And there it is. Ever since Khan, the return on investment for Trek movies has been steadily trending downward. If you look at the last two charts, you can't help but notice that as the budgets rise, the return on investment keeps falling.

How does this tie into Axanar? Here's my theory...

Paramount has almost surely been looking at this cost/performance data far longer than I have. At some point they decided to reduce the budget of their 10th film and see what effect that had on the ROI.

Unfortunately, that movie had a horrible story, too much gratuitous CGI, and the film before it had already poisoned the well. So like The Final Frontier it dipped in ROI relative to the overall trend; becoming the first Trek movie to ever post a loss.

So Paramount panicked.

Instead of cutting the budget again they doubled it, and added more ACTION to the storyline from a director that really wanted to be making Star Wars movies instead (before he actually got to). The result was a nice uptick in gross profit, but only a modest rise in ROI. In those terms it actually came in 9th AFTER Shatner's mostly horrible (except for one scene) The Final Frontier.

But hey! They're making money again, and an upward trend is nothing to sneeze at, right? So they raised the budget again, hired the same director, and... We got Into Darkness. The worst grossing Trek film aside from Insurrection and Nemesis. It did manage to take in just over twice the gross profit of Insurrection, but it's ROI was only a pathetic 2.6% better.

So Paramount is panicking... Again. They see this as a resumption of the trend line that led to the failure of Nemesis.

Star Trek Beyond is coming out this summer, with a modest budget that's not quite $25M less than the 2009 Reboot, and it has an established action director at the helm. But when the trailer premiered... Yeah, not good. A pathetic number of views, and the dislikes actually outnumbered the likes for some time. "Trek & The Furious" became its unofficial nickname.

So now they're shit scared that the movie will bomb, and they don't know what they'll do afterwards if it does. Given the trends, this movie bombing could make the franchise unsustainable for Paramount. Clearly they're spending too much on these movies and not focusing on the characters and stories fans care about, but they don't know how to fight the trend.

And then Axanar pops up on their radar, producing the best Trek anyone's seen in over a decade on an insanely small budget that makes Wrath of Khan's look like Avatar's in comparison. It doesn't matter that it's mostly been paid for already by Kickstarter donations. If it makes Beyond look like more of a turd to fans, and helps it bomb, then Axanar must be stopped at all costs.



Hubcap Dave made a good point about domestic versus world-wide numbers, and when I checked my sources I had indeed (and by mistake) only used US box office numbers.

So here's the new table, which includes both:

Now Hubcap echoes a lot of commenters I've seen, and I had assumed that he was right in saying that the early Trek films didn't do a whole lot of business overseas. The presumption being that the two newest films had finally cracked open that market. Which, if you take the pessimistic view, is because they've excised a good deal of the philosophical attributes that define the spirit of Trek.

But low and behold, the inflation-adjusted numbers don't bear that out. Let's take a look...

Adjusted for inflation, the 2009 Reboot beat out the Motionless Picture in both US and WW ticket sales. But Into Darkness moves up a spot in the WW numbers to 3rd place, pushing down The Voyage Home. Looked at this way, both movies still did absolutely fantastic compared to Nemesis.

For US profits, the picture looks much more dim, as I said before. Though with WW sales added in, the Reboot shoots up to #2, and Into Darkness takes #3. A vast improvement!

But when we look at the ROI numbers, all that happens it that both movies move up a place, displacing The Final Frontier. They're raking in vastly more cash, but they cost a hell of a lot more to make too.

So while Trek is a little healthier than I thought at first, the world-wide numbers only push up the points on the trend-line a little. The downward ROI trend is still there, and Paramount very badly wants it to go up for Beyond. Another First Contact to Insurrection-like drop could easily make Paramount's ROI on that film very slim indeed. Which is likely why they cut the budget.

And Beyond wouldn't necessarily even have to be a bad movie to do poorly. 

Personally, I find Nemesis to be a much better film than Insurrection, but I didn't see Nemesis in the theater because of how utterly god-awful Insurrection was. A very similar risk may face Beyond from the disgust so many fans have for Into Darkness. Beyond may deserve more of a chance than it gets simply from the shadow cast on it.


  1. Yeah I think I'm probly with you. I'd love to see axanar come out but Im feeling quite anxious now!

  2. Well, just my opinion of course, but from what I've seen of the Axanar stuff... It looks WAY better than any of the "professional" Trek movies... Shame it seems unlikely to ever be finished or seen...

  3. Interesting post, but you're missing an important piece of the puzzle: international revenue. In the last ten years or so, the international market has become much more important (and lucrative) to the film studios. Moreover, pretty much all the Trek films prior to the 2009 reboot did not do that much business overseas. The reboot fared a little better, but Into Darkness really busted open the international market by having its international gross exceed domestic. Therefore, I don't think it's quite as dead as you may imagine.

    1. Mindless action and pointless CG translate well. If people in foreign markets want to see a good movie they go see something in their native langue.

      Trek is an American institution. So much of it's message is tied up in American exceptional-ism and political ideal. If Paramount can only make a Star Trek movie that only works in foreign markets, they are doing something very very wrong.

    2. I'm not going to debate the quality of the new movies because A)that's not my point, B) I don't have all day. The point being made in the blog post is that Trek doesn't make as much money as it used to. I'm simply pointing out that he's not showing all the money being made by the film, and that the film market itself has changed over time.

    3. I went back and checked the numbers. Into Darkness only did slightly better internationally vs domestic (51% of total gross). Compare that to recent international successes like the Fast and Furious series. Those see 70%+ of their ticked sales from foreign markets. While it's an improvement for the franchise, it could more have to do with the overall rise in foreign movie attendance.

      A Star Trek movie that did well in the US would still do better than one that did OK internationally.

    4. Well look at that! I thought I was using the world-wide numbers, but it turns out they were only for the US.

      I've updated the post with comparisons between the US and WW Gross, Profits, and ROIs. The short version is that while the last movies did very well in gross and profit, they only moved up one place in ROI. The Final Frontier is right below them.

    5. Oh, and The Motion Picture's world-wide gross exceeded domestic too. It's still #1 in world-wide profit, and a very healthy #4 in ROI. Whereas the Reboot and Darkness are #8 and #9 in ROI.

    6. Just curious, where did you get your worldwide data from? I can't cite a specific source, but from what I reacll, TMP only did about $40 million unadjusted overseas.

    7. My point isn't that Trek isn't making is not making money, it is. But the investment to make that money keeps climbing higher and higher. It's an unsustainable trend that Paramount needs to figure out how to get out of.

      I think that the fan-community productions' successes point to a way out of Paramount's ROI trap, if they decided to embrace them instead of hiding behind their lawyers. In many ways, the less you spend on Trek, the better.

    8. All of the numbers in my comparisons are inflation-adjusted.

      They don't list the inflation-adjusted worldwide box office, but I reverse-calculated the rate from their other numbers and applied it to the world-wide grosses.

      Just as with GW numbers, adjusting for inflation reveals a lot of truths that are hidden otherwise.

  4. "A dying enterprise", huh, I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.

    Anyway, I have a bit a hope for XIII. Simon Pegg wrote the script. He's as big of a Trek nerd as anyone and a really good writer. There's a chance the story might bring back some of Trek's wonder and social commentary. One can hope at least.

    The trailer looked garbage though. I agree that Paramount is very insecure about Trek. Which, honestly, most people are. As much as hipster nerdism is in vogue, liking Trek is that thing that makes you a sincere nerd.

    I would also like to add that the best Trek movie in the last 15 years was Master and Commander: Far Side of the world. Just replace the Suprise with the Enterprise, the Archeron with a Romulan War Bird, Aubrey with Kirk, and Marturin with Spock/Bones.

    1. That's not surprising, as Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as "Horatio Hornblower in Space". If you love Master & Commander, I heartily recommend the Hornblower novels. I think they're even in the public domain.

      My favorite story is when he gets his first command, a just-captured French cargo ship, and it ends up sinking because it had been holed below the water line, and was carrying a cargo of rice.

      It basically explodes out from under him in slow motion. :)


out dang bot!

Recent Favorites

All-Time Favorites