This past weekend, two pricey fantasy epics hit movie screens in the form of Warner Bros.' swords-and-sandal sequel "Wrath Of The Titans" and Relativity's comic fairy tale "Mirror Mirror." And while their audiences were, in theory, different (with Tarsem's Snow White picture skewing much younger), neither fared as well as hoped, "Wrath of the Titans" ending up with barely half of the original film's opening weekend, around $35 million, while "Mirror Mirror" failed to clear the $20 million mark, despite the presence of Julia Roberts.
In part, it's because they were following on the second weekend of colossal smash "The Hunger Games," which topped the box office with another $65 million or so. But it's all indicative of something that's becoming increasingly common: big movies opening on the same date, leading to at least one, and sometimes both, of the films disappointing financially. Counter-programming, of course, can work wonders sometimes (we imagine that was Relativity's plan here), but ultimately, there are simply more tentpoles being made than audiences who will see them, and it's seeing a lot of people lose a lot of money.
With that in mind, we've looked ahead to the summer months for what look the five key head-to-head openings of the summer: films that, for the most part, are chasing the same audiences on the same weekend, and will more than likely see at least one of the openers bruised and blooded. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.
May 11: "Dark Shadows" vs. "The Dictator"
In The Red Corner: Tim Burton's garish revamp of the 1960s Gothic vampire soap, starring megastar Johnny Depp.
In The Blue Corner: The latest vehicle for "Borat" star Sacha Baron Cohen, in which he plays a despot stripped of his money and power and forced to work in a New York health store.
Who Will Win? One would be forgiven for thinking that this would be a no-brainer: the last time Burton and Depp worked together on "Alice in Wonderland," it made a billion dollars, whereas Baron Cohen's last headline gig, "Bruno," underwhelmed. But the comic spin of "Dark Shadows" puts the films squarely head-to-head, and WB's marketing campaign for the film has been slow off the blocks, an indication that they're not quite sure how to sell an odd mix of genres that comes across more like "Death Becomes Her" than anything they've done before. After all, "Sweeney Todd" barely cleared $50m in the U.S. In contrast, Paramount's campaign for "The Dictator" has been strong, and the film looks closer to "Borat" than to "Bruno" (even if it looks far weaker than either). We'd still likely give "Dark Shadows" the edge on opening weekend, but given they're both hot on the heels of "The Avengers," which opens the week before, this likely isn't going to be pretty for anyone.
May 18: "Battleship" vs. "What To Expect When You're Expecting"
In The Red Corner: "Hancock" helmer Peter Berg brings the board-game to the big-screen with a "Transformers"-style makeover, and a cast including Taylor Kitsch, Rihanna and Liam Neeson.
In The Blue Corner: An all-star ensemble including Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Anna Kendrick and Chris Rock take a comedic look at the pregnancy manual.
Who Will Win? Unlike some of these other big weekends, these two couldn't be aiming for more different audiences, but that doesn't mean they won't be in competition, and we think we could well end up seeing an upset. "Battleship" has been something of a running joke for a few years now, and despite a recent trailer essentially made up of nothing but explosions, it still looks like a dicey financial prospect. 'What To Expect…' meanwhile, is firmly in the "He's Just Not That Into You"/"Valentine's Day" wheelhouse, and in a summer season without a lot of counter-programming aimed at women, has a distinct advantage being slotted in the same frame that made "Bridesmaids" such a massive hit last year. That being said, "Battleship" will likely have momentum from its early international opening, and "New Year's Eve" showed that the all-star rom-com formula can fall flat. Even so, we think 'What To Expect' has a very good chance at an upset here.
June 15: "Rock Of Ages" vs. "That's My Boy"
In The Red Corner: Big-screen version of the heavy-metal power-ballad Broadway smash with an all-star cast including Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
In the Blue Corner: Adam Sandler teams with SNL star Andy Samberg for… well, an Adam Sandler movie, but one with a rare R-rating that suggests it'll be an Adam Sandler movie but with boobs and swearing.
Who Will Win? Sandler is about as reliable a comedy name as you could ask for, box-office wise, but he's looking a little more fallible here; his last film, "Jack & Jill," made significantly less than usual, and the last time he went R-rated with "Funny People," it barely grossed $50 million. With his target audience of 13-year-old boys unable to attend, can he survive?Particularly when he's up against "Rock Of Ages"? Musicals in the height of summer are rare, but director Adam Shankman had one of the last big hits with "Hairspray," and this could do even better, given its ransacking of classic rock favorites, and the presence of Tom Cruise, his box office mojo firmly back in place. While it might end up skewing a little older, it should have a broader appeal in general, falling as it does somewhere between "Glee" and "Mamma Mia," and carrying a teen-friendly rating. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but it looks like Sandler might get handed a rare box-office ass-kicking.
June 22: "Brave" vs. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"
In The Red Corner: The latest from animation giants Pixar, about a feisty Scottish princess and her encounter with a witch.
In The Blue Corner: Revisionist historical actioner from producer Tim Burton and "Wanted" director Timur Bekmambetov, which sees the great president's secret life as an undead-slayer exposed.
Who Will Win? Unlike the summer's other animated match-ups ("Prometheus" and "Madagascar 3," "Ted" and "Ice Age 4"), there's more thematic cross-over between Bekmambetov's film and Pixar's. "Brave" seems to lean more action-adventure heavy than the studio's usual work, but also has a female lead, which may turn off younger boys. Pixar's track-record means they bring in plenty of unaccompanied adults, but might that crowd be tempted towards something more in their comfort zone, especially with the company's last film, "Cars 2," disappointing critically, and proving to be one of their lowest domestic grossers in years? That being said, even with Burton's name attached, 'Lincoln' still has to deal with an unknown cast and the kind of silly title that, like "Snakes On A Plane" and "Hot Tub Time Machine," might bring it attention without converting to ticket sales. Ultimately, only a fool would bet against Pixar: even if 'Lincoln' is a hit, it'll likely take well under what "Brave" makes.
August 3: "The Bourne Legacy" vs. "Total Recall"
In The Red Corner: Universal's smash-hit spy franchise gets a new hero in the shape of Jeremy Renner, who'll face off against Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz.
In The Blue Corner: Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi actioner gets a CGI-heavy makeover, with Colin Farrell in the lead and "Live Free and Die Hard" helmer Len Wiseman in charge.
Who'll Win Out? Certainly to be the toughest battle of the summer, as the LA Times pointed out, this sees a proven hit series that's fronted by a new lead defending its territory from a brand-name remake that's gotten a new spin undoubtedly inspired by the 'Bourne' franchise. As PG-13 actioners, they're chasing the exact same demographic, but one would probably give 'Bourne' the upper hand, just on the basis of the previous films' successes. That being said, will audiences be as happy to embrace a change of lead in the same way they always have with the Bond movies? Jeremy Renner is still untested as a box office draw, and the film doesn't have the same visual effects bells-and-whistles as its competitor. That being said, Colin Farrell has rarely brought in crowds as the lead of a tentpole like "Total Recall," and a feeling of redundancy hangs heavy over the whole affair. 'Bourne' should walk away with this, and we still wouldn't be surprised to see "Total Recall" blink and move later in the year, even at this late stage.