In its tenth weekend of release, Morbius returned to 1,037 theaters. Despite playing in just 83 locations the preceding frame, Morbius had been summoned back to multiplexes based on the strength of an assortment of internet memes. Specifically, memes based on the phrase “It’s Morbin’ time!” and other similarly mocking memes had seemingly caused Sony/Columbia to believe there was genuine interest in seeing this feature on the big screen. This attempt at salvaging the title’s domestic box office haul went dismally, as Morbius grossed just $310,655 from this release and scored a meager $299 per theater.
This release was a disaster, a fittingly dismal capper on the underwhelming theatrical run of Morbius. However, a minor form of consolation can be granted to the people behind this film simply through the knowledge that they’re far from alone in what they’ve experienced. Over the years, countless theatrical releases have ended up bombing despite having seemingly struck a chord on the worldwide web. Repeatedly, Hollywood has learned the hard way that what gets turned into memes doesn’t always get turned into box office hits.
A great early example of this trend, one that emerged before the term “memes” even became commonplace, was the 2006 film Snakes on a Plane. Originally scheduled as just another late summer B-horror movie from New Line Cinema, the concept of a feature with that title starring Samuel L. Jackson got the internet’s attention. Before long, people were making all kinds of jokes about the conceptually ridiculous motion picture, particularly about what kind of dialogue Jackson would deliver in response to his slithery foes. With all this chatter, New Line Cinema was bound to pay attention to how much Snakes on a Plane was on the public’s radar.
In March 2006, five months before Snakes on a Plane would be released, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that reshoots were happening to not only bring this feature up to an R-rating but incorporate new sequences that would live up to the expectations of the internet. This piece also noted that New Line Cinema was reaching out to the virtual fanbase of this feature, including launching a contest where people were tasked with coming up with a Snakes on a Plane-themed song for a chance to have the tune featured in the movie.
All this pre-release hubbub seemed to spell an invitably massive box office haul for Snakes on a Plane. However, once it dropped into theaters, it only grossed $62 million on a $33 million budget. While far from a flop, this was not at all the kind of box office gross you’d expect from a movie that was creating so much buzz so far in advance. The problem here, as in so many cases of internet memes that can’t translate to concrete box office success, was that what the internet loves is not what the general public also adores. The concept of snakes on a plane just didn’t lure in people beyond the devoted fanbase. Plus, all the hype had been simmering for over a year, meaning that the novelty of all the buzz surrounding the movie had diminished more than a tad.
A similar situation could be found a decade later when Sony/Screen Gems attempted to turn Slender Man into a horror movie. Originating as a creepypasta in 2009, the evocative-looking figure would gain a new level of notoriety in 2012 thanks to the internet video game Slender: The Eight Pages. It’s easy to imagine why Hollywood would be attracted to the idea of making a movie out of this creepy figure since he seems to fit nicely into the slasher/supernatural horror film villain mold. Unfortunately, the Slender Man movie wouldn’t arrive until 2018, nearly a decade after the character first emerged. Once the film did arrive on the big screen, it barely made even a dent in the global box office.
What a popular in 2012 just wasn’t going to maintain a grip on pop culture by 2018, especially when the character’s image had been forever tainted by a series of tragic murders perpetrated by a pair of teen girls in 2015. This horrific tragedy caused further controversy for Slender Man and inspired questions on whether it was a good idea to not only make a horror film about this character, but one centered on teen girls. Even without these gruesome real-world events informing the public’s perception of the project, though, Slender Man was always going to struggle at the box office thanks to it riding a wave of internet popularity that had long died down.
This phenomenon even extends to the 2019 film Cats, whose first trailer unleashed a barrage of memes and jokes. The newest feature from the director of The King’s Speech was now the centerpiece for endless gags about human faces on digital felines or why cats were wielding such enormous silverware. Still, the endless avalanche of jokes seemed to put the movie on people’s radar and, combined with the iconic stature of the original musical, could, in theory, have helped propel it to enough notoriety to stand out in the Christmas 2019 box office rush. Instead, Cats utterly failed at the box office. Turns out, people on the internet were more interested in mocking the film than seeing it.
That’s the crux of what goes wrong with these and so many other movies trying to use memes as the basis for lucrative movies. It isn’t even just that there’s a gulf of difference between the general public’s interest and what internet-dwellers love. Just because somebody makes memes about something on the internet doesn’t mean they also want to watch a film about it. This isn’t the same thing as somebody liking Harry Potter books and then wanting to immerse themselves further in other interpretations of that world. Memes are a whole other ball game, one built on a person’s specific interests. They’re often about twisting recognizable iconography into something closer to your own sensibilities. In other words, they’re usually about subverting corporate-mandated expectations, not reflecting what people want from corporations.
The internet has been a major part of the way we consume pop culture for decades now, but Sony/Columbia dropping the ball and thinking people actually had a renewed interest in Morbius Because of a barrage of memes suggests Hollywood is no closer to truly understanding the internet or how it works. Perhaps in the future, there’ll be more comprehension about how this virtual domain works, but as the likes of Snakes on a Plane or Slender Man suggest, we shouldn’t get our hopes up.