When Lionsgate took the decision to screen the as-then unreleased Dredd 3D in July at San Diego's Comic Con International, it played to collective cheers from the attendant fans. Early word was good... in fact, better than good. This was something special. A decidedly British vision of a US dystopia a century from now; grim and bloody, it featured hypnotic visuals by an Oscar-winning cinematographer, rendering visceral violence with a surreal beauty, and combined that with action movie-making the likes of which had not seen since the excesses of Paul Verhoeven's Sci-Fi holy trinity: Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers.
By Hollywood standards, this was a modestly budgeted movie (measured against Hollywood Sci Fi, it's actually low-budget). Conversely, for a British production, the supposed $45 million production (excluding marketing) represented the biggest independently produced Brit movie of all time. Writer/producer Alex Garland and fellow staff at DNA Films spent many years in pre-production, giving centre-stage to the much-loved UK comic character (Judge Dredd has appeared in the pages of weekly comic anthology 2000AD for the past 35 years). Regardless of budget being big or small, this had clearly been a labour of love for the creative talents involved.
So, how confident must they have felt, directly following Comic Con, when those first reviews started to appear? The initial fan reaction was matched by an equally enthusiastic critical appraisal. Better yet, it seemed the American audience actually got the pitch black humour, that satirical edge so present in the pages of the source material. Tantalisingly, Karl Urban's performance of the central character was described by all as the definitive Dredd.
It looked like the sleeper hit of the year, already in the bag. Even before release, there was talk of a sequel; then, that Dredd was the first of a possible trilogy of movies penned by Garland. Hardcore Dredd-heads salivated at talk of the Dark Judges, Dredd's pilgrimage into the Cursed Earth, the Angel Gang.... all this before the movie opened at the start of September for UK audiences (two weeks later in the US). Regardless of worldwide takings, a box-office pull of $50 million in US theatres was the mooted figure to guarantee a green light for the sequel.
Word was already out - Dredd 3D was precisely what mature audiences wanted to see. Hard R-rated action. Something that didn't pander to the teen market. A concept that acted as calling card - here's just a taste of what's to come. This was going to be BIG.
Only - it wasn't.
At time of writing, it's the start of October, one month later, and the results are in. And Dredd has perfomed abysmally, both at home in the UK, then even worse in the US - falling out of the top ten movies there in only its second week. By any measure, it's a commercial wreck.
Had the film been slated by the critics or hated by the fans, this might not matter. Lousy films tank all the time, and rightly so.
But here is a movie deemed not only worthy of merit - it also offered something a little different within its own genre trappings. It should have played to a much bigger audience than it did, even if it didn't reach that magic $50 million line in the sand. And at current standing the film has barely reached a fifth of that amount it looks like a sequel is never going to happen.
When I saw Dredd 3D on that opening weekend, I left the cinema feeling I'd seen something pretty remarkable. I decided before I'd even got home that I needed to see it again. Even before the terrible box office results were calculated, though, I'd had my own concerns. Why was there only a dozen people in the same screening, or even less the next time I went back? I know a lot of people who go to the movies - yet none of them paid money to see Dredd.
So. What went wrong?
Ian Terry is a designer, writer and artist living somewhere in the leafy outskirts of North London. He'd previously worked in the games business, from humble 8-bit beginnings on to PC and console titles. Ian is the author of two novels and is currently employed as a writer for the designer menswear industry. Since the age of ten, he's been strangely preoccupied with the movies and enjoys writing about them.See more from Ian