With the Labour Day weekend finally upon us, the official summer box-office season that kicked off on May 3 with Iron Man 3 is coming to a close. As we limp into September, traditionally a slow moviegoing month that bridges the gap between summer and the start of Oscar season in October, now is a good time to survey the box-office carnage of the past 4 months and see who’s left standing:
Robert Downey Jr.: After appearing as the same lead character in four summer releases since 2008, it seemed inevitable that Iron Man 3 would mark the onset of Downey fatigue, right? Wrong, apparently. Iron Man 3 has made $1.2 billion worldwide and was easily the most financially successful film of the summer. Iron Man 3’s global take is nearly double that of Iron Man 2. There stands a very real chance that Downey’s three-quel will emerge as the biggest movie of 2013. Not too shabby for a guy who was taking supporting roles in Disney remakes just two years before Iron Man. Marvel seems to recognize that Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark has become increasingly iconic, and they have rewarded their star with a lucrative deal for The Avengers 2 and 3. Curiously, Downey’s new deal with Marvel does not include plans for a stand alone Iron Man 4. Looks like Mark Wahlberg won’t get to inherit the role until 2019 at the earliest.
Vin Diesel: Vin Diesel is currently doing a very nice job of convincing the world that it is, in fact, the year 2001. Twelve years ago, Vin Diesel was coming off the successes of The Fast & The Furious and Pitch Black, and had been noted for his dramatic supporting roles in Boiler Room and Saving Private Ryan. He used his star power to launch a sure-thing new franchise at Sony Pictures and seemed destined to rule the box office for years to come. Unfortunately Xander Cage was a pop cultural dud. One Ice Cube-toplined sequel later, the franchise was finished. Diesel chose to make an overwrought Pitch Black sequel that no one was really interested in, and the Diesel-less Furious franchise steered increasingly towards irrelevance. Then in 2009, with his star on the wane, Diesel returned to the Furious franchise and enjoyed his first major success in years. Now the Furious films are hotter than ever. Fast & Furious 6 has made $786 million globally, and has zoomed past Fast Five to become the most successful installment of the franchise. The seventh film is already in production for next summer, and will include the addition of another high-profile action star. With Riddick coming out on September 6 and a major upcoming role in Marvel’s next would-be franchise, Diesel has a rare second chance to capitalize on his earlier success. Hopefully this career renaissance will give Diesel the clout to make his long-anticipated sequel to The Pacifier.
Low budget horror: The Purge has made $83 million worldwide on a reported budget of $3 million. The Conjuring has made $220 million worldwide (and climbing) on a reported budget of $20 million. Sequels to both films are in the works. These films serve as necessary reminders that Hollywood can generate a healthy profit without resorting to $200 million effects-laden extravaganzas, and that horror can be scary without gore and cheap scares. It’s only a matter of time before Ethan Hawke and Patrick Wilson team up for the Expendables of “concerned dads facing the supernatural” movies.
Women in comedy: The Heat has made $156 million domestically and proven that a) Paul Feig’s success with 2011’s Bridesmaids was no fluke and b) Melissa McCarthy is a legitimate comedic star. The Heat made substantially more domestically than The Hangover Part III, Grown Ups 2, and This Is the End, none of which had a single credible female role (Emma Watson as “herself” doesn’t count). In addition to The Heat, We’re the Millers starring Jennifer Aniston has been a late summer surprise that will have blown past $100 million domestically by Labour Day. After years of playing “the wife” and “the girlfriend”, Aniston has finally found big screen success in Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers by embracing edgier comedic roles. Studios would be wise to follow the lead of Universal and Judd Apatow and invest in R-rated female-driven comedy.
Animation: Do you know a single thing about the movie Epic? Do you know a single person who saw it? Well someone did, because it made over $250 million worldwide. Despicable Me 2 has made about $800 million globally (and climbing), and Pixar is firmly back on track with Monsters University ($686 million worldwide). Turbo, one of the less widely-touted animated releases of the summer, has still managed to eke out a $150 million worldwide gross. Disney’s Planes, which was originally developed as a straight-to-DVD release, has made $77 million worldwide (and climbing) on a reported $50 million budget. All this proves is that when kids are out of school, parents will take them to see absolutely anything for a few hours of quiet.
Sony Pictures: The lot at Sony Pictures was a proverbial boulevard of broken dreams this summer as the studio couldn’t get any of their dramatic releases to connect with a domestic audience. After Earth, White House Down and Elysium were all costly misfires (though as this author predicted in June, After Earth has fared considerably better internationally). Even The Smurfs 2 has been a disappointment following the $142 million domestic gross of the original in 2011. Fortunately Sony has a strong Fall line up including Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Captain Phillips, and The Monuments Men, the latter of which will hopefully keep George Clooney in the good graces of the power brokers over at Sony.
DC Comics: Lets come right out and say it: Man of Steel was a disappointment. Sure, the film has made about $650 million worldwide, but Superman Returns made about $400 million (without the benefit of 3D pricing) and was considered a bust. More significant is that the film doesn’t seem to have had the pop cultural resonance that Warner Bros. was surely hoping for. Prior to the film’s release, Jeff Robinov, former president of the motion pictures group at Warner Bros., predicted that Man of Steel would become the highest performer in the company’s history. As of now, the film’s domestic take stands at less than $300 million despite a reported budget of $225 million. Iron Man 3’s success was at least somewhat predictable, but did anyone think that Superman would have his cape pulled out from under him by a bunch of minions? Audiences and critics were lukewarm towards the latest reinvention of Superman, and so Warner Bros. is fixing the franchise in the only way that they know how: by adding Batman. All the current internet chatter around Batfleck is happening in relation to what is technically, you know, a Superman movie. Whether or not Affleck succeeds in the role, shoehorning Batman into the Superman franchise is a panic move that signifies the studio’s lack of confidence in their reinvention. This doesn’t bode well for the introduction of additional characters into the DC cinematic universe.
Blandly Handsome Non-Stars: Another summer, another failed franchise-starter for Ryan Reynolds. The battle of the generically handsome, wise-cracking leading men is over, and Bradley Cooper has been declared the winner. Reynolds is about 2 years away from being cast as the lead in buddy cop pilot co-starring David Schwimmer. Watch and learn, Armie Hammer, or this will be you.
Original Sci-Fi: The Purge, The Conjuring, The Heat and Now You See Movie each demonstrated that there’s a substantial audience for original summer movies, and they each had the benefit of coming with a low-to-mid budget price tag. The biggest original releases didn’t fare quite so well. Pacific Rim was defeated on its first weekend by a phoning-it-in Adam Sandler and has barely eked out a $100 million domestic gross (although the film’s exceptional performance in China and other overseas markets has kept sequel hopes alive). Elysium debuted strongly but has faded quickly at the box office, and it won’t recoup its reported $115 million budget at the domestic box office. Just because fanboys get excited about a movie doesn’t mean that a broad audience actually exists. Whatever their flaws, Pacific Rim and Elysium were credible attempts to introduce audiences to new, original cinematic visions. The underperformance of these films will only make studios less likely to take chances with original summer tent poles and more likely to double down on what’s safe, familiar, and ultimately unmemorable.
YA fiction: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones performed poorly, following on the heels of Beautiful Creatures and The Host last Spring. This tends to happen whenever studios discover a potentially lucrative trend and subsequently oversaturate the market. When The Lord of the Rings became a hit in 2001, every studio wanted the next great fantasy franchise; remember Eragon? Of course you don’t. After months of knock-offs, the 12 to 19 set will be getting the real McCoy this Fall when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire makes its bid to unseat Iron Man 3 as the biggest movie of the year. Will it be a success? Well, nothing is certain in Hollywood but…oh, who am I kidding? Some things are certain. It’s gonna be huge.
– The Sarcastic Squirrel