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Big budgets go down in flames

Experts say costs, timeworn stories recipe for a bomb

The return of Arnold Schwarzenegger! A teen romance from the creator of “Twilight”! Will and Jaden Smith in a massive sci-fi spectacle! As movie concepts go, these must have sounded like surefire ways to start printing money.

So ... what happened?

The year is only half over, and already we’ve seen a string of major duds. “Gangster Squad,” a costume drama starring Sean Penn and Emma Stone, had an almost Oscar-like glow but wound up freezing in January. Jennifer Lopez and Jason Statham courted the action/romance crowd with “Parker,” but shot themselves in the foot. And while we were still marveling at the implosion of “After Earth,” along came the belly flop of “The Lone Ranger.”

Who or what is to blame for these major letdowns? We asked a handful of movie-industry observers to help us do a postmortem on 10 of this year’s most high-profile duds. The recurring problems were unoriginal stories and underwhelming stars, but the larger issue seems to be a combination of increasingly inflated production budgets and a mercilessly crowded marketplace.

“Movies are having a hard time holding,” says Todd Cunningham, news editor at TheWrap.com. “There’s just blockbuster after blockbuster. If you don’t connect with your audience on your first go-round, you’re not going to.”

Recent box office bombs:

‘The Last Stand’ (Jan. 18)

The pitch: Schwarzenegger tackles his first starring role in a decade as a small-town sheriff battling an international drug lord.

What happened: Despite a sizable fan base for “The Expendables” movies, audiences barely noticed this dead-of-winter release.

Who’s hurting: All vintage action stars, says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “What they’re finding out is that they can’t transition from doing a franchise movie and then doing an original movie.”

Bottom line: $37.1 million (all are recent worldwide figures according to BoxOfficeMojo.com)

‘Parker’ (Jan. 25)

The pitch: Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez team up as a thief and a real-estate agent in this action romcom. Based on a novel by veteran crime writer Donald E. Westlake.

What happened: Statham’s violent antihero and Lopez’s bubbly office girl made for a weirdly noxious mix.

Who’s hurting: Statham. “He’s always stuck in this range of between $10 to $15 million openings,” Contrino says, “and ‘Parker’ did less than that.”

Bottom line: $17.6 million

‘Beautiful Creatures’ (Feb. 14)

The pitch: In a small Southern town, an average teenage boy falls for the witchy new girl in school. Based on a young-adult novel and starring newcomer Alice Englert.

What happened: This adaptation didn’t come with the built-in fan base of “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games,” says Andrew Stewart, box office reporter at Variety. “There wasn’t the same kind of heat behind the source material.”

Who’s hurting: Other young-adult franchises with less-than-rabid followings.

Bottom line: $60 million

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ (March 1)

The pitch: The old fairy tale gets the “Lord of the Rings” treatment with an action-fantasy vibe and elaborate CGI.

What happened: It wasn’t an ultraviolent twist (like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”) or a pure kids movie, and it never found its audience. An A-list star, rather than little-known Nicholas Hoult, might have helped.

Who’s hurting: Budgeted at $195 million, “Jack” has made some money. But it’s a slight ding for director Bryan Singer, who’s accustomed to an “X-Men” level of success.

Bottom line: $197 million

‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ (March 15)

The pitch: Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi don campy costumes and kooky wigs as old-school Las Vegas magicians, while Jim Carrey plays their crazed nemesis.

What happened: “Competition, crummy marketing, bad reviews – you could check a couple of boxes,” Cunningham says. “And none of this addresses the idea that it was a really bad movie.”

Who’s hurting: Carrey, especially given the pre-release damage he’s done to his upcoming film “Kick-Ass 2” by disavowing it.

Bottom line: $22.5 million

‘The Host’ (March 29)

The pitch: Amid an alien invasion, one human girl (Saoirse Ronan) must choose between two suitors (Max Irons and Jake Abel). Based on a novel by “Twilight” sensation Stephenie Meyer.

What happened: A serious case of supernatural-teen-love-triangle fatigue.

Who’s hurting: “Stephenie Meyer is not Stephen King,” Contrino says. “People aren’t going to line up for anything she does just based on her name.”

Bottom line: $48 million

‘After Earth’ (May 31)

The pitch: Box-office megastar Will Smith plays father to real son Jaden (2010’s “The Karate Kid”) in a sci-fi adventure set on an abandoned Earth.

What happened: Produced by Will Smith and based on his story idea, “After Earth” ended up looking like a vanity project for 15-year-old Jaden, who proved unable to carry a $130 million movie. Whiffs of Scientology – Will has been a donor, and the movie features a possibly Hubbardian volcano – didn’t help.

Who’s hurting: Director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Last Airbender”), whose name is becoming synonymous with “bomb.”

Bottom line: $199 million, but only $59 million in the United States

‘The Internship’ (June 7)

The pitch: Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play unemployed salesmen who finagle a tryout at the hip, young, high-tech company Google.

What happened: Not a total disaster, but a poor showing from two major comedy stars. One theory: This PG-13 comedy wasn’t raunchy enough for older fans, while its aging leads didn’t pull in younger viewers.

Who’s hurting: Vaughn. He’s had several successes (“Four Christmases,” “The Break-Up”), but could use another home-run hit like “Wedding Crashers.”

Bottom line: $63 million

‘White House Down’ (June 28)

The pitch: A Secret Service reject (Channing Tatum) must protect the president (Jamie Foxx) from armed attackers. Surely audiences won’t remember the virtually identical “Olympus Has Fallen,” released three months earlier?

What happened: “I don’t think they envisioned ‘Olympus’ doing as well as it did,” says Cunningham. That movie took in a healthy $160.9 million worldwide, leaving little for this repeat.

Who’s hurting: Someone at Sony/Columbia has some explaining to do.

Bottom line: $69 million

‘The Lone Ranger’ (July 3)

The pitch: An amped-up version of the old series, with Armie Hammer in the title role and Johnny Depp wearing weird makeup as Tonto. Directed by Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”).

What happened: Near-universal opprobrium from critics.

Who’s hurting: “Things are very iffy,” Stewart says. Westerns rarely appeal to either Americans or foreign audiences, but Depp’s megastardom could still sell it overseas. “Domestically, it’s going to flop.”

Bottom line: $148 million, including $88 million in the United States

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