Monday, January 20, 2014

The American Box Office, 2013: Three Observations

The title of this post says it all--these are just three observations I had about the American box office this past year.

1. Hollywood Has Overestimated Nostalgia For The '80s Action Film--But Not The Nostalgia For The Essence Of Those Films.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone flopped separately (in Last Stand and Bullet to the Head) before going on to flop together (in Escape Plan). The same went for A Good Day to Die Hard, the critically and commercially weakest performer in the series, and one might add, the Bruce Willis starrer Red 2. Only lower budgets, and the surprising strength of overseas earnings (reaching up to 80 percent of the total gross), made the difference between financial loss and modest success in the best of cases.1

Interestingly, this has happened as something of the spirit of the paramilitary films of that era resurged in recent years, most obviously in a string of recent hits prominently featuring the U.S. Navy SEALs in action abroad--like Act of Valor, Zero Dark Thirty, Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor--a stark contrast with Hollywood's previous ambivalent, often critical movies about terrorism and the Middle East (Syriana, Lions for Lambs, Green Zone, etc.).2 Something of this same spirit is evident, too, in the success of Olympus Has Fallen (one of two "Die Hard in the White House" movies this past year), the G.I. Joe movies (based on the kiddie version of '80s action film), and the Iron Man film series, the protagonist of which, more than most comic book heroes, plays the Lone American Warrior fighting the Foreign Enemy.

This is unsurprising given the parallels between the present and the post-Vietnam era, when the U.S. also suffered frustration in overseas military operations, increased economic pain and sharpened anxieties about national decline, and rightist populism ran strong. Hollywood's continuing to produce more films of this type, and audiences' continuing to attend them, will be equally unsurprising.

2. Marvel's Gamble on The Avengers Continued to Pay Off at Theaters.
Marvel's establishment of three superhero franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) as a basis for launching The Avengers payed off big in 2012 with the biggest hit at the American and world box offices since Avatar. However, its direct earnings are not the only measure of its influence, the film's success apparently having succeeded in boosting the performance of the associated superhero franchises. While Iron Man 2 left a bad taste in the mouths of even confirmed fans, Iron Man 3 made a staggering $400 million in the United States, helped by enthusiasm for the 2012 film. Thor: The Dark World similarly saw a marked improvement on the gross of the first film, taking in over $200 million, a more than 30 percent rise.3

One can expect that Captain America: Winter Soldier, due out this April, will also get a helpful bump. Even were that not to be the case, it would still be safe to say that the complex of Avengers-connected films represent the largest ever commercial success for the superhero film genre, which (financially, if in no other way) is still going from strength to strength over a decade after the first X-Men film, with no end in sight.

3. Hardcore Science Fiction (and Fantasy) Remains a Risky Proposition.
We are constantly told that science fiction is king of the box office. And of course, films about superheroes (Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, Wolverine), family-friendly animated comedic fantasies (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, Frozen, The Croods), zombies (World War Z), the continued mining of beloved older cinematic phenomena (Oz the Great and Powerful, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and a certain post-apocalyptic young adult adventure drama (Catching Fire) indisputably remained at the very top in 2013.

Nonetheless, the boosters forget an important corollary to the rule, namely that the requisite big budgets and the fickleness of audiences toward the genre has consistently made hardcore science fiction falling outside these categories--thoroughly futuristic movies, space-set movies--a high-risk endeavor for would-be filmmakers. This past year was no exception to the rule, the responses to Oblivion, After Earth, Pacific Rim, Elysium, the third Riddick film and Ender's Game were on the whole underwhelming, while the response to Star Trek: Into Darkness was likewise something of a disappointment by the standards of blockbuster sequels.4

Additionally, while those other genres were less intensively mined this year, the same has been the case with movies like the fairy tale-based Jack the Giant Slayer, the historical fantasy 47 Ronin, and the Western The Lone Ranger (the biggest flop of the year), which underlined the hesitation of American audiences to follow Hollywood to other eras and faraway lands.

In short, unless they have a really compelling reason to do so (like a solid connection to one of those rare properties that has previously proven a strong exception to this rule, or the light touch of a Disney cartoon), U.S. moviegoers strongly prefer to find their adventure in the contemporary world, and particularly in contemporary America--with just a little science fiction or fantasy tossed in.

1. Escape Plan did much better overseas, particularly in China, where it grossed a solid $40 million (as compared with the $25 million it picked up in the States), raising the global take to $130 million--quite acceptable because of the film's $50 million budget. The fifth Die Hard movie also managed a $300 million global gross, again tolerable in light of its $92 million budget.
2. While the Navy SEALs have long been well known to the American public, such intense interest in the unit may be unprecedented in recent American history--a thing analogous, perhaps, to the British cult of the SAS John Newsinger analyzed in Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture.
3. And of course, each film saw a comparable boost overseas. Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion globally, about twice what its predecessors did, and not much less than The Avengers; while the second Thor film took in over $630 million worldwide, a 40 percent improvement over the first film's performance.
4. Of course, Pacific Rim and Star Trek 2 were saved by strong foreign grosses. Meanwhile Gravity, the sole unqualified success among this lot, was the least like a Big Summer Blockbuster in concept and style, and also the least likely to provide a basis for replicable success.

Do Our Science Fiction Movies Hate Science?
The '80s Action Movie
My Posts on the Film Industry
The 2013 Summer Movie Season in Review
A Summer Box Office Update: The Would-Be Blockbusters
New This Week: Star Trek: Into Darkness

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