Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Action Film Becomes King of the Box Office: Actual Numbers

It seems generally understood that the action movie took off in the '80s, and, while going through some changes (becoming less often R-rated and more often PG-13-rated, setting aside the cops and commandos to focus on fantasy and science fiction themes), captured a bigger and bigger share of the box office until it reached its predominant position today.

Still, this is something people seem to take as a given without generally checking it for themselves, and so I decided to do just that, looking at the ten highest-grossing films of every year from 1980 to the present, as listed by that ever-handy database,

Of course, this was a trickier endeavor than it might sound. I had to decide, after all, just what to count as an action film. In my particular count I strove to leave aside action-comedies where the accent is on comedy (Stakeout, Kindergarten Cop), sports dramas (the Rocky series), and suspense thrillers (Witness, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct), war films (Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor), historical epics (Titanic) and fantasy and science fiction movies (Harry Potter) that may contain action but strike me as not really being put together as action films. I also left out animated films of all types even when they might have qualified (The Incredibles) to focus solely on live-action features. Some "subjectivity" was unavoidably involved in determining whether or not films made the cut even so. (I included Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the count for 2005. Some, in my place, probably would not.) Still, I generally let myself be guided by BoxOfficeMojo when in doubt, and I suspect that, especially toward the latter part of the period, I undercounted rather than overcounted, and in the process understated just how much the market had shifted in the direction of action films (and to be frank, thought that the safer side to err on).

Ultimately I concluded that 2.2 such films a year were average in the '80s (1980--1989), 3.6 in '90s (1990-1999), 4.8 in the '00s (2000-2009), and 5.4 for the current decade so far (2010-2016). Moreover, discarding the unusual year of 2010 (just 2 action movies), a half dozen action films in the top ten have been the the norm for the last period (2011-2016). This amounts not just to a clear majority of the most-seen movies, but close to triple the proportion seen in the '80s.

Moreover, the upward trend was steady through the whole period. It does not seem insignificant that, while 2 a year were average for the '80s, 1989 was the first year in which the three top spots were all claimed by action movies (Batman, Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon #1, #2 and #3 respectively). Nor that no year after 1988 had fewer than two such movies in the top ten, and only 3 of the 28 years that followed (1991, 1992 and 2010) had under three. Indeed, during the 2000-2009 period, not one year had less than four movies of the type in its top ten, and after 2010, not one year had under six.

Especially considering that I probably undercounted rather than overcounted, there is no denying the magnitude of that shift by this measure. And while at the moment I have not taken an equally comprehensive approach to the top 20 (which would provide an even fuller picture), my impression is that it would reinforce this assessment, rather than undermine it. If in 1980 we look at the top 20, we still see just one action movie--Empire Strikes Back. But if we do the same in 2016 we add to the six films in the top ten Doctor Strange, Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond and X-Men: Apocalypse, four more films (even while we leave out such films as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Kung Fu Panda 3).

Anyone who cares to can check my counting below and see if they come up with anything much different.

The Data
1980-1989: 22 films (2.2 a year).
1980-top 10 films, only 1 action movie-Empire Strikes Back.
1981-2: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II.
1982-2: Star Trek 2 and 48 HRS.
1983-3: Return of the Jedi, Octopussy, Sudden Impact.
1984-3: Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Star Trek 3.
1985-2: Rambo 2, Jewel of the Nile.
1986-2: Top Gun, Aliens.
1987-3: Beverly Hills Cop 2, Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables.
1988-1: Die Hard.
1989-3: Batman, Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon 2 (all in the top 3 slots, the first time this ever happened).

1990-1999: 36 films (3.6 a year).
1990-4: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hunt for Red October, Total Recall, Die Hard 2.
1991-2: Terminator 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
1992-2: Batman 2, Lethal Weapon 3.
1993-4: Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger.
1994-3: True Lies, Clear and Present Danger, Speed.
1995-5: Batman 3, Goldeneye, Die Hard 3, Apollo 13, Jumanji.
1996-4: ID, Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock.
1997-5: Men in Black, The Lost World, Air Force One, Star Wars (Episode IV reissue), Tomorrow Never Dies.
1998-4: Armageddon, Rush Hour, Deep Impact, Godzilla.
1999-3: Star Wars: Episode I, The Matrix, The Mummy.

2000-2009: 48 films (4.8 a year).
2000-4: Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, A Perfect Storm, X-Men.
2001-5: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) 1, Rush Hour 2, Mummy, Jurassic 3, The Planet of the Apes.
2002-4: Spiderman, Star Wars: Episode II, LOTR 2, Men In Black 2.
2003-6:  LOTR 3, The Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix 2, X-Men 2, Terminator 3, The Matrix 3.
2004-4: Spiderman 2, The Day After Tomorrow, The Bourne Supremacy, National Treasure.
2005-5: Star Wars: Episode III, The War of the Worlds, King Kong, Batman Begins, Mr and Mrs. Smith.
2006-4: Pirates of the Caribbean 2, X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Casino Royale.
2007-7: Spiderman 3, The Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, National Treasure 2, The Bourne Ultimatum, I Am Legend Legend, 300.
2008-5: The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, Hancock, Quantum of Solace.
2009-4: Avatar, Transformers 2, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes.

2010-2016: 38 films (5.4 a year).
2010-2: Iron Man 2, Inception.
2011-6: Transformers 3, Pirates 4, Fast Five, MI 4, Sherlock 2, Thor.
2012-6: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, Skyfall, Hobbit 1, Spiderman.
2013-6: Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Hobbit 2, Fast 6, Oz the Great and Powerful.
2014-6: Hunger Games 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America 2, Hobbit 3, Transformers 4, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
2015-6: Star Wars, Jurassic, Avengers 2, Furious 7, Hunger Games 4, Spectre.
2016-6: Rogue One, Captain America III, Jungle Book, Deadpool, Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad.

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