As a year, 2016 is an auld acquaintance that we’d rather be forgot. However, as another familiar trope reminds us, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Here’s my assessment of the year Hollywood coped with change as the industry’s economic underpinnings continued to buckle and sway.
And for the TL;DR among us: Those who are able to innovate and adapt thrive. Others face decline.
Disney is the studio winner by a mile not only in domestic market share ($2.7 billion, 25.3 percent), but its stable of global moneymakers took the studio to more than $7 billion worldwide. Four of the five most profitable movies of the year came from Disney: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (Lucasfilm), “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (Marvel), “Zootopia” (Disney Animation), and “The Jungle Book” (Disney). And blockbusters “Finding Dory” (Pixar), “Moana” (Disney Animation), and “Doctor Strange” (Marvel) weren’t far behind.
All of this is a testament to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s 2009 $15 billion gamble, when he took the reins from Michael Eisner and bought companies that did what Disney wanted to do, but better. The Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm labels have more than paid off with a slate of smart, quality, commercial pictures that satisfy wide swaths of audiences all over the world. Disney is the envy of its peers.
And while Disney’s cable channel ESPN is under duress, at least they can brag about year-end critics’ fave and Oscar shortlist documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which they commissioned Ezra Edelman to tackle at four hours — and then allowed him to double in length, broken into five uneven parts. While some filmmakers complain that the non-fiction feature is fodder for Emmys, not Oscars, the fact is most Oscar contenders are backed by either cable or television providers or Netflix, and only play theaters to qualify for the Oscar.
Strong women lead a fray of movies. That doesn’t mean they were behind the camera. But opposing superheroes Batman and Superman were outshone by Wonder Woman in “Dawn of Justice,” maybe because former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot was shiny and new (Patty Jenkins directs the 2017 DC standalone “Wonder Woman”).
Strong women lead animated features “Zootopia,” “Moana,” “The Red Turtle,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Trolls,” and “Sing.” Both Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones were athletic and androgynous “Star Wars” heroines in “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One,” while following her casting controversy, Tilda Swinton carried off the most riveting and powerful character in “Doctor Strange.”
Emily Blunt ably frontlined Universal’s otherwise deeply mediocre “The Girl on the Train” ($170 million worldwide), winning a SAG nomination for her alcoholic suburban voyeur. Blake Lively rocked low-budget Sony thriller “The Shallows” as a doctor surfing in a bikini who figures out how to survive a shark attack ($118 million worldwide). Margot Robbie also had a good year, stealing “Suicide Squad” as Harley Quinn, holding her own as Jane in “The Legend of Tarzan,” and co-starring with Tina Fey in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”
Courtesy of Disney
Whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations of Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy to turn Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One” into the year’s number-one blockbuster (leaning on writer-director Tony Gilroy and his editor brother John Gilroy to finish the film), she achieved that goal. Iger must be pleased.
With the “Hunger Games” series behind them, producer Nina Jacobson and her partner Brad Simpson took their accrued movie smarts to FX, where “The People v. O.J. Simpson” rocked the Primetime Emmys with nine wins, including Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clarke, peeling back what the high-profile L.A. prosecutor really faced in the public eye. For many of Hollywood’s best and brightest, television beckons. Jacobson and Simpson are deep in prep for the next season of “American Crime Story,” set during Hurricane Katrina.
For the most part, studio movies tend to be flat-footed with their female protagonists, with the notable exception of Paul Feig, who ran with the $144 million Columbia gave him to make his “Ghostbusters” reboot starring his “Bridesmaids” duo Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. But sadly, the raucous comedy ran into the crosshairs of gender prejudice. The FX-packed movie turned out no better or worse than the 1984 original, but met social media blowback and mixed reviews. The comedy wound up grossing just $229 million worldwide — a disappointment in relation to cost.
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Despite charismatic stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, Columbia and director Morten Tyldum did a poor job of managing the delicate gender dynamics of “Passengers.” On the upside, they may have created a new genre: The ethically challenged space romance.
Happily, in an all-too-rare occurrence, this year more women are competing for five Best Actress Oscar slots than their male counterparts. Amy Adams (“Arrival”), Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), and Emma Stone (“La La Land”) are all giving Oscar perennial Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) a run for her money.
Given the high box office totals generated by animated films in 2016, it’s not surprising that Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s co-directed “Kung Fu Panda” ($518 million worldwide) was the highest-grossing film directed by a woman. (Nelson plans to make her live-action directorial debut next year with 20th Century Fox’s young-adult adaptation, “Darkest Minds.”)
On the live-action side, Sharon Maguire’s romantic comedy sequel “Bridget Jones’s Baby” fared better overseas than domestic, hitting $206 million worldwide, followed by Jodie Foster’s tense Wall Street drama “Money Monster,” starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts ($93.5 million worldwide), and Mexican director Patricia Riggen’s Christian film “Miracles from Heaven” ($74 million worldwide), starring Jennifer Garner.
But several other films directed or targeted at women failed to lift off at the box office, either due to faulty marketing or distribution, or because they were badly received by critics (who, three years after this 2013 study, are still about 73 percent male). Disney took Mira Nair’s well-reviewed “Queen of Katwe” to the Toronto Film Festival, but was unable to build enough awareness or want-to-see for the true story (starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o) of a young chess prodigy who breaks out of the Uganda slums.
Other underachievers include Rebecca Miller’s fifth film, “Maggie’s Plan,” a well-reviewed charming romantic triangle of New York academics (Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore), which Sony Pictures Classics released ($3.3 million domestic). And while rising studio STX scored with raunchy comedy “Bad Moms” ($118 million worldwide), its James L. Brooks-produced “Edge of Seventeen” broke out rookie writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig and confirmed Hailee Steinfeld’s stardom, but topped out at $14.3 million domestic.