With the Venice Film Festival kicking off today with the premiere of “Birdman” (review here), and this week’s releases being “The November Man” and “As Above, So Below,” it can only mean one thing: summer is over. Labor Day is almost upon us, days are getting shorter, and Oscar season is closing in, and as such, it seems like the perfect time to look back at the summer movie season.
As far as we’re concerned, it’s been one of the better blockbuster years in recent memory: “Neighbors,” “Godzilla,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Edge Of Tomorrow,” “22 Jump Street,” “How To Train Your Dragon 2,” “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” “Lucy” and “Guardians Of The Galaxy” all proved to be good times at the movies to varying degrees, and there was more than enough in the arthouses to sate those of us who need something less explode-y during the warm months.
But what about the business end of things? It’s been the worst summer for theaters and studios in a decade, but that doesn’t mean that everyone had it so rough. As ever, certain individuals, movies and companies had a good season, just as others had disastrous ones. To wrap up the season, we’ve run down the winners and losers of the summer of 2014, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section.
No surprise given their recent run of success, but Marvel continued to rule the roost by book-ending the summer with the two biggest domestic hits of the year. The first “Captain America” is, excluding “The Incredible Hulk,” the lowest-grossing of the Marvel flicks, but sequel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” nearly doubled its predecessor’s take to cross the $700 million mark, cracking the first film’s biggest problem — appealing to international markets where the word ‘America’ in the title isn’t necessarily a boon. And though many wondered whether it was too weird to cross over to the mainstream, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is the biggest movie of the summer in the U.S. (and the biggest Marvel flick without Robert Downey Jr.), spawning a brand new franchise. So far, it’s hasn’t been a monster abroad, only matching the domestic take (perhaps a by-product of its more comedic edge, as gags don’t always translate in the same way), but it’s yet to open in some of the biggest foreign territories, including China and Japan, so expect more to come. Maybe one day Marvel will miss, but they seem bulletproof for now.
It feels like a while since we’ve had a freshly
minted movie star suddenly explode, but this summer had a big one in
the shape of Chris Pratt. The “Parks & Recreation” star, newly slimmed down and ab-tastic, probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for voicing the lead in the year’s first big smash, “The Lego Movie,” but he gets plenty of praise for “Guardians Of The Galaxy.”
The perfect mix of goofy, heroic and tender, it’s hard to see the film
working as well as it does without him. Crucially, Pratt also led the
film’s publicity train, and feels like the first male breakout from the Jennifer Lawrence school of stardom, charming everyone with replicated Eminem raps, chat show appearances and viral videos. He has that crucial element of stardom that recent hopefuls like Taylor Kitsch
have been lacking: people really like the guy. They booked him long
before ‘Guardians’ opened, but Universal has to be feeling more and
more confident about next summer’s “Jurassic World” knowing that Pratt’s in the lead role.
The specter of Roland Emmerich’s disappointing 1998 re-do, and even last year’s underperforming “Pacific Rim,” promised to haunt Legendary and Warner Bros’ “Godzilla.” With a dark, realistic tone, without a big-name cast, and with relatively unknown director Gareth Edwards,
there were safer bets this summer. But off the back of strong reviews
and a canny marketing campaign, the film stomped through theaters with
one of the biggest opening weekends of the year, and wound up crossing the $500 million mark worldwide, with Edwards landing a “Star Wars” spin-off (and
this film’s 2018-dated sequel) for his trouble. It’s worth noting that
the film didn’t have the best word of mouth, and we’d wager the blank
human leads, and the relatively little screen
time of its title character, led to that. But if both issues can be rectified for the
follow-up, the franchise could get bigger and bigger.
Spider-Man and X-Men
What’s the difference between success and failure? More often than not, it’s perception, and nothing illustrates that better this year than dueling non-Marvel Studios Marvel movies “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “X-Men: Days Of Future Past.” Released within a few weeks of each other, the films are only separated by about $35 million: ‘ASM2’ took $708 million, ‘XM:DOFP’ made $744 million. In almost anyone’s book, those numbers would be a triumph, and indeed, that’s how ‘X-Men’ has been painted: the film outgrossed the top-grossing previous X-picture by nearly $300 million, and could set the stage for 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” to be even bigger. Despite grossing only fractionally less, ‘Spider-Man 2’ has been viewed as a failure, and has seemingly caused Sony to reconsider their future plans for the franchise. In part, that’s because it was lousy, and in part because it’s the lowest-grossing movie in the franchise, taking half of what the original “Spider-Man” made domestically back in 2002, and nearly $200 million behind worldwide top-grossing Spidey picture, 2007’s “Spider-Man 3." Assuming the movies cost about the same (“X-Men” was said to be the second-most expensive picture in Fox’s history, but we’d wager ‘ASM2’ came in at a similar level), they probably made similar profits, but Sony had been bullishly predicting a billion-dollar gross, and the poisonous reaction to the film saw them fall $300 million short. Ultimately, both movies made money for their corporate overlords, but they need to work out how to make them for less, and turn a bigger profit, to really justify the whole shebang.
After a run of hits including “Bridesmaids,” “Identity Thief” and “The Heat,” some believed that the $33 million 5-day opening for Melissa McCarthy’s latest vehicle “Tammy” suggested that the actress’ star power might be on the wane. These people didn’t know what they were talking about. For one, a $33 million opening over the long Fourth of July weekend, for a badly-reviewed R-rated comedy without a high-concept premise, or really anything to be sold on other than "Melissa McCarthy’s in this,’ is exactly what makes a movie star. She has the ability to bring a healthy number of people into theaters on opening weekend regardless of the property. Maybe more importantly, the film had real legs, nearly quadrupling its opening for a total north of $80 million. The general public are a long way from being sick of Melissa McCarthy, and with “St. Vincent” and “Spy” on the way, she’s only likely to cement her stardom.
The Middlebrow Indies
It’s been a fairly disappointing year, box-office wise, for indie cinema, with few breakouts beyond “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and challenging fare struggling to catch on with audiences. But there have been exceptions, and they fall under a banner that we’d roughly call, not necessarily in a derogatory way, the Middlebrow Indies, aka movies that your parents might go see. Jon Favreau’s “Chef” was the big winner, unexpectedly and quietly racking up an impressive $30 million take, a real vindication for the actor-filmmaker’s passion project. The Keira Knightley/Mark Ruffalo musical romance “Begin Again” proved a hit, taking over $14 million in the U.S., and period drama “Belle” also crossed the crucial $10 million mark. All courted older audiences who had little else in the mainstream that appealed to them, none were especially daring, but they all connected with crowds thanks to decent notices and excellent word-of-mouth. In another era, they’d have been studio movies, but for now they rank as the big indies of the summer (and crucially, they didn’t get simultaneous VOD releases—more on that below…)
After four years away from screens, some wondered if Angelina Jolie still possessed the star power she once had. But there was little reason to doubt: Disney’s “Maleficent,” sold pretty much entirely on Jolie and her magnetic presence, was a monster hit, taking nearly $250 million domestic, and over $500 million worldwide, for a grand total of three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars, making it the second-biggest film of the year so far. Technically the film was part of Disney’s trend of rebooting fairy tale properties and making them ugly CGI-fests, but “Sleeping Beauty” name recognition came second to Jolie, who found her most iconic turn in a career full of them, and was rewarded with her biggest hit. Jolie’s choosier than ever when it comes to on-screen roles, focusing on charity work and directorial efforts like this fall’s “Unbroken,” but whenever she appears in a movie, especially in a tentpole like this, she’s a force to be reckoned with.
Canny counter-programming is the mark of a truly clever studio, and Fox ended up with a doozy this summer with “The Fault In Our Stars.” Based on the blockbuster YA novel by John Green, the built-in following of the cancer romance carried over to the big-screen. Pretty much the sole movie targeting this crowd in the summer months, it proved one of the biggest weepies in recent years, taking $125 million at home, and $250 million in total. The film was front-loaded, but that may be the by-product of the rabid fan base wanting to go opening night as much as anything else. Green’s now a hot source for adaptations (his “Paper Towns” hits screens next summer), and there’s been a fair knock-off effect too: Chloe Moretz vehicle “If I Stay” made a decent $15 million this past weekend, massively outgrossing “Sin City” and “The Giver,” among others.
Three years ago, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was the surprise of the summer, shocking even Fox, who thought they had a disappointment on their hands until the film won rave reviews and truly connected with audiences. Despite a change of directors and losing (deliberately) star James Franco, this year’s sequel, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," repeated the trick, becoming arguably the best-reviewed blockbuster of the summer (and rightly so), and comprehensively out-grossing its predecessor (with China and Japan again still to come). Thanks to Andy Serkis, outgoing director Rupert Wyatt and incoming director Matt Reeves (who’ll be returning for 2016’s threequel), Fox have one of the best-liked and most engaging franchises around on their hands.
Few stars are on better runs right now that Scarlett Johansson. The actress has had more than her fair share of critical and commercial disasters over her career—“Eight Legged Freaks,” “The Island,” “The Nanny Diaries,“ ”The Spirit” et al—but the last few years have seen her win acclaim for her performance in “Her," while taking to the blockbuster world with “The Avengers,” and she’s had a killer 2014 so far. “Under The Skin” won great reviews (if not audiences), and she had a supporting turn in indie crossover hit “Chef.” But more importantly, she bookended the summer with a pair of action hits, first as a key supporting player in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and then a solo turn in the surprise hit “Lucy.” Sold almost entirely on Johansson’s presence (and the 10% of the brain premise), Luc Besson’s film opened to over $40 million at the end of July, about the same as its production budget. It looks like it’ll even outgross films like Angelina Jolie’s “Salt,” and, though it’s only just rolling out internationally, has already taken $100 million abroad. The list of proven female action stars is a very small one, but Johansson just added herself to it.
The most derided, and most celebrated, action director in the world certainly had a pretty good summer. His fourth and supposedly final “Transformers” picture, “Age Of Extinction,” was admittedly a disappointment at home—despite the presence of Mark Wahlberg, the film took $243 million, $100 million south of the previous entry. But it was still an absolute monster abroad (especially in China, where, with $300 million, it’s the top-grossing film ever), and is the only billion-dollar movie of the year so far. Meanwhile, despite fierce competition from “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” the Bay-produced “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” proved a smash, nearing on the $150 million mark at home, and already got the green-light for a sequel. Both films were at Paramount, and pretty much saved their summer: if there was ever doubt, the director/producer has the keys to the kingdom over there.
Critically hailed, and broadly appealing enough to break out of the arthouse niche, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is one of the best-reviewed movies in living memory (with a virtually unheard of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 100% on Metacritic). With its time-lapse conceit proving an immediate hook, the film has currently taken over $16 million in the U.S., and is still going strong. The film is the second biggest hit in the history of IFC Films (though has little chance of topping their biggest, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), and is now Linklater’s third top-grossing movie ever (behind “School Of Rock” and “Bad News Bears”). The film should carry on playing for a while, but the question is if IFC can get it into the awards race, and what kind of additional legs that will provide.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Few directors have had a better 2014 than Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The pair’s animated film “The Lego Movie” proved a critical and commercial smash back in February, taking nearly $500 million worldwide (nearly twice what their previous movies each made). And only four months later, they delivered another giant hit with “22 Jump Street.” The first movie had already been a smash, but the sequel was even bigger, earning over $190 million, with some of the best legs of the summer. Add on another $100 million abroad (decent for a comedy), and you can bet that Sony is fuming that the directors essentially burnt the franchise to the ground with their closing credits. Quietly, Lord and Miller’s four movies have made over $1.2 billion in total, and you can bet that they’ll be allowed to do pretty much whatever they like from here on out.
Christian and Conservative Moviegoers
Few can argue that 2014 is the year that the churchgoing audience came out to the movies in force. Though it proved controversial, that crowd helped “Noah” to a very healthy $100 million (and another $250 million internationally), while “God’s Not Dead” took $60 million. “Heaven is for Real” did even better, with a whopping $91 million, outgrossing movies like “Hercules” and “RoboCop,” and making it the biggest non-Mel Gibson, non-‘Narnia‘ Christian movie ever. The audience even bought $59 million worth of tickets to “Son Of God,” a movie that just repackaged material from “The Bible” TV series that they all saw the year before. Expect to see lots more studios getting into the God-movie business, starting with this fall’s “Exodus: Gods And Kings."
Somewhere In Between
Once the king of summer, Tom Cruise has, outside his trademark “Mission: Impossible” franchise, struggled to find the right vehicle recently, with a string of underperformers from “Knight & Day” to “Oblivion.” Initially, “Edge Of Tomorrow” looked like it might be along those lines, opening south of $30 million and being soundly thrashed by the much cheaper “Fault In Our Stars.” It does serve as a testament to Cruise’s waning power domestically, but it wasn’t all bad. The film was generally deemed to be Cruise’s best in years, and blame was placed more on Warner Bros’ faltering, unsure marketing campaign than on the actor’s shoulders (he worked as hard as ever at promoting the picture). Accordingly, it showed better legs than expected. It’s taken some time, but it looks like it’ll eventually crawl over the $100 million mark at home. And again, it performed much better abroad, with a grand total of $364 million, making it by some distance Cruise’s top non-‘Mission: Impossible’ grosser since “War Of The Worlds” nearly a decade ago. The star could still do with thinking carefully about his next non-Ethan Hunt role, but his summer could definitely have been a lot worse.
Once a titan to rival Pixar, DreamWorks Animation has had a tough few years. Movies like "Turbo,” “Rise Of The Guardians” and this spring’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” mostly disappointed at the box office, and the company’s share price has taken a hammering as a result, with only a few bright spots like “The Croods” and “Madagascar 3” shining through the gloom. Hopes were high for this summer’s “How To Train Your Dragon 2,” as the sequel to the company’s best film, but it initially seemed as though the bad run had continued. Despite little family competition this summer, the film barely opened above its predecessor, and ended up with $172 million domestically, a full $40 million behind the original. But before the naysayers could set in too heavily, the international market came to the rescue with a $400 million haul, meaning the film came in at nearly $600 million, $100 million above the original. That’s still a way off the pace of the “Shrek” movies, and most of the output of rivals Pixar, but certainly not the disaster that some commentators initially painted it as.
On first glance, this summer showed the enduring draw of the R-rated comedy, with two of the biggest ever: the aforementioned “22 Jump Street,” and Nick Stoller’s ace Seth Rogen/Zac Efron/Rose Byrne flick “Neighbors,” which surfed stellar reviews to an impressive $150 million take, quietly outgrossing Rogen’s breakout “Knocked Up.” As mentioned, Melissa McCarthy’s “Tammy” did decently as well, at $80 million. Not everything had the same luck, though. Despite following mega-smash “Ted,” Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways To Die In The West” made just $42 million, less than 20% of its predecessor. And “Sex Tape” did even worse with $38 million, despite reteaming the stars of hit “Bad Teacher.” The latter two were pretty awful, but being awful didn’t stop “The Hangover” movies from making bank, so it’s a little puzzling as to why these have been so hit and miss this year (also worth noting was the under perfomance of Adam Sandler vehicle “Blended”—it’s PG-13, but one of a number of films that recently suggest that the sheen’s finally come off Sandler after nearly two decades). There’s a pile up of R-rated coms next year including Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig reteam “Spy,” “Ted 2,” Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” and Sacha Baron Cohen starrer “Grimsby,” so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare.
Make no mistake, everyone had kind of a shitty summer this
time around. For the first time since 2001, no summer movie cleared $300
million domestically (though “Guardians Of The Galaxy” could yet get
there), and there was only one billion-dollar movie. Box office in
general is down 25% from last summer, adding up to over a billion dollars, and it
was the worst season in general since 2008. It’s partly a question of
circumstance—big movies like “Fast & Furious 6,” “The Good
Dinosaur” and “Jupiter Ascending” moved away from their summer berths—but there’s still some unhappy faces in the studio system. And aside
from “Interstellar,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1” and the final
“The Hobbit,” the fall’s not looking like it’ll improve things all that
Those of us convinced that audiences want a break from the constant sequels, remakes and reboots are finding it harder and harder to make a case. “Edge Of Tomorrow,” the one major movie not based on a well-established property or sequelizing something else, underperformed significantly, at least domestically. The worldwide top-grosser was the third sequel to a movie about toys. And in the U.S., the most successful original movie was “Neighbors,” at number thirteen (internationally, it’s “Edge Of Tomorrow,” at twelve). Compare that to fifteen years ago, when “The Sixth Sense,” “The Matrix,” “Runaway Bride” and “The Blair Witch Project” all numbered among the biggest movies; or twenty, when only three movies in the top ten were based on pre-existing properties (“The Flintstones,” “Clear And Present Danger” and “The Mask”), and it’s easy to get depressed about the state of the industry.
There’s normally at least one big horror breakout each summer, a smart piece of counter-programming that cashes in in a big way. Last year brought a huge one, with “The Conjuring” proving to be one of the biggest films ever in the genre, and “The Purge” also becoming a sleeper hit. But either the audience or the product just wasn’t there this time around. Sequel “The Purge: Anarchy” (which is much more of action than horror anyway) was the top-grosser, with $70 million, a little more than its predecessor, but not a smash, even if it is hugely profitable. Hopes were also high for “Deliver Us From Evil,” but its mix of cop procedural and exorcism horror barely cleared $30 million. On this evidence, horror fare may be better off sticking to the quieter months, unless they have a particularly strong product to offer.
We’re big fans of his screen presence, and have always wanted him to be a movie star, and though he’s had a good run piggybacking other people’s franchises with “Fast & Furious” and “G.I. Joe,” he’s still looking for his big solo vehicle, and unfortunately, “Hercules” didn’t provide it. The Paramount picture opened with around $29 million, got its ass-kicked by “Lucy” the same weekend, dropped swiftly out of the top ten, and is unlikely to clear $75 million domestically. International numbers are better, but not by all that much, and Johnson is again in search of the film that’ll cement his stardom on his own terms. Fingers crossed that next summer’s disaster movie “San Andreas” is the one, and if not that, "Shazam" awaits as well.
Not the Adam Sandler movie, obviously, but actual adults after something a little more challenging. The few studio movies not aimed at 12-year-old boys—Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” and Tate Taylor’s “Get On Up,” coincidentally both musical biopics—didn’t perform at all. As we said, blandish indies like “Chef” and “Begin Again” did well at the specialist box office, but more challenging fare pretty much died on the vine. A24 went wide-ish with “The Rover” to disastrous effect, “Snowpiercer” failed to clear $5 million, “The Immigrant” barely took $2 million, and even a great rom-com like “Obvious Child” only managed a decent, but disappointing, $3 million. The sole real light, beyond “Boyhood” and a surprisingly good performance by Polish film “Ida,” was “A Most Wanted Man,” which has impressively managed over $14 million. But in general, the more discerning cinephile failed to put their money where their mouth was and actually turn up to more interesting fare over the last few months. But it could be that they were staying at home…
VOD Cannibalizing The Arthouse
The last few years have seen day-and-date releases for indies become virtually industry standard. Outside of the biggest arthouse pictures, the vast majority of smaller movies will now land on iTunes and VOD systems simultaneously to, or even before, their theatrical releases. This year, it’s been trumpeted more than ever, with “Snowpiercer” hitting homes only a few weeks after going theatrical, and making similar numbers on VOD as it did in cinemas. There’s little doubt that for the right movie—the kind of star-laden, middlingly-reviewed indie that are ten-a-penny at TIFF or Sundance, but have little hope of catching fire on their own—a simultaneous VOD can lead to more money being made, saving cash on marketing, and face at the box office. But did “Snowpiercer” really make more money with its quote-unquote revolutionary release than it would have by going wider (as was Harvey Weinstein’s plan was initially, before he got pissy about not getting to recut the film)? It’s worth noting that of the top ten indie grossers of the year (“Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Chef,” “Boyhood,” “Begin Again,” “America,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Belle,” “Bad Words,” “Magic In The Moonlight” and “The Railway Man”), none got simultaneous VOD releases, and will probably still make a bundle when they reach home video. Whereas a VOD picture like “The Sacrament” made literally $10,000 in theaters. We’re picking and choosing examples slightly, but we do wonder if distributors are sometimes cutting off their nose to spite their face in some of these cases.
In general, the Boy Who Lived has done a good job at becoming the Boy Who Survived The Biggest Franchise In History. Daniel Radcliffe has spent several years distancing himself from the “Harry Potter” series that made his name, and got off to a good start with sleeper horror hit “The Woman In Black,” and with good reviews for indie “Kill Your Darlings.” But despite decent notices, rom-com “What If” got slaughtered in the last few weeks. A so-so limited opening turned brutal when it failed to clear 1000 theaters in its first weekend. It could be that people weren’t ready to see Radcliffe as a romantic lead, but we suspect that distributors CBS Films couldn’t decide whether to roll it out gradually, a la “(500) Days Of Summer,” or go wide straight away, and ended it up with the worst of both worlds. The super-generic title (like the similarly underperforming “Edge Of Tomorrow,” or CBS’ “Kings Of Summer,” which they also insisted on renaming) probably didn’t help either.
Zach Braff & Kickstarter
A decade on from “Garden State,” which took a very healthy $26 million back in 2004, Zach Braff returned with follow-up “Wish I Was Here,” which bowed at Sundance before hitting theaters back in July. Even given the changed landscape, no one can be happy with the film’s haul of $3.5 million. But it’s also notable as being one of a number of movies that got early boosts, and large chunks of their budget, from Kickstarter before making it to production. Back in the spring, “Veronica Mars” made only $3 million in theaters, barely half of what it raised from fans (Braff made $3 million). And Spike Lee’s similarly crowd-funded “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” hasn’t hit theaters yet, but premiered to some pretty toxic reviews, all of which suggests that the next big name to go hat in hand to fans to raise money may face a tougher battle.
Old Action Stars
Their solo, or even team-up vehicles like “Bullet In The Head,” “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan” haven’t worked, but action veterans Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have at least had the creaky sanctuary of the “Expendables” franchise to return to. The first two films made $103 million and $85 million domestically, and nearly $300 million worldwide each. But on early evidence, one shouldn’t look for the same from the third movie, which opened domestically with $15 million, half of the previous films, and likely won’t make it to $50 million in the U.S. If international numbers are ok, it could end up making it to half the number of “Expendables 2." Blame will be put on the film leaking online weeks before release, but in reality, this is a franchise that’s already out of steam, and that needed to add something more than Frasier Crane to spice things up.
Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez
Speaking of recycling things: “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For.” Aside from a few new cast members in Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Josh Brolin, the belated follow-up to the 2005 comic-book adaptation, looked much the same. And that’s because it basically was, replicating the original, doubling down on the repulsive worldview and failing to add anything new at all. So it’s fairly gratifying that the movie must rank among the most disastrous sequels of all time, opening to a paltry $6 million, and will be lucky to clear $20 million, whereas the original took $30 million on the first weekend, before getting to nearly $80 million in total. This pretty much kills the franchise stone dead, and after similarly terrible numbers for “Shorts” and the “Machete” movies, suggests that Rodriguez might want to think about shifting gears.
Thoughts? Winners or losers we missed? Let us know beolw.