Year-end lists are a matter of taste and can say more about the writer than the subject. Annual box office summaries are statistics-based and often miss the bigger stories at hand.
So in an attempt at something different, we are going to cite 12 films of note (eight studio releases, four from specialized companies) not as hits or misses, but what they mean for future productions.
The Lion King (Disney)
The film that showed the strength of the overwhelmingly dominant studio was this technically updated remake of their 1994 animated smash. Both versions grossed over $400 million domestic: adjusted, 1994 would be $805 million and #20 all time; 2019 was $544 million and a bit more than double that overseas.
But what really makes this smash stand out is it came in the face of mediocre reviews and social media scorn questioning why a new version was necessary.
That damn-the-torpedoes success (it should end up #2 for the year, domestic and foreign) sends the message that the public has a mind of its own. And unlike early disappointments in rebooting previous successes (Disney with “Dumbo,” expensive reimaginings of “Terminator” and “Men in Black”), the veneer of something new worked: the public didn’t want something original. That formula will be sought out for replication.
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Ford v Ferrari (20th Century Fox)
We don’t yet know how new owner Disney will regard the results ($200 million so far worldwide) for this very un-Disney like project. Other Fox-produced inherited films fell far below this James Mangold original film aimed at smart adults. The movie edged into likely profit and earned accolades, sending a message to the franchise/sequel-oriented overlords that a film like this can work.
Knives Out (Lionsgate)
The odds against this midsize Thanksgiving release outgrossing “Cats,” “Richard Jewell,” and Lionsgate’s own “Bombshell” Christmas week were so long as to be nearly inconceivable. It now projects to over $130 million domestic, and more than $300 million total, sending multiple messages.
It reinforces that movie comedies are rebounding (see also ”The Upside,” ”Good Boys”), that Lionsgate is great at creating original titles with sequel potential (“Angel Has Fallen,” “John Wick”).
But biggest of all is that Rian Johnson, after scoring a huge but (to some) unsatisfying experience with ”The Last Jedi,” succeeded with a more personal project similar to his earlier films. Disney might be co-opting many up-and-coming directors, but this proves you can go home again. (See also the upbeat response to Taika Waititi’s specialized “Jojo Rabbit.”)
Jordan Peele followed his sleeper hit “Get Out” with “Us,” and scored nearly identical worldwide results (about $255 million, both about 2/3 domestic, 1/3 foreign.) A new brand is born, with Blumhouse Prods. getting credit for developing him as a creative force and nurturing him with a second personal-vision project.
We are now seeing something similar with Greta Gerwig and “Little Women” building on her “Lady Bird” acclaim. In a year when veterans like Tarantino and Scorsese roared back after less-successful efforts, the growth of these two artists, within the theatrical studio model, is a huge story.
Shazam! (Warner Bros.)
This D.C. Comics character is the #18 domestic release of the year, with $140 million ($365 million worldwide), on a $100 million budget. No stars of note, from a Swedish director already on to his third big hit (earlier ones were horror).
Its financials are almost identical to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And the latter likely had far higher talent profit-sharing deals that will reduce its profit.
“Shazam” is a bread-and-butter commercial New Line movie released by Warner Bros., made with some smarts, producer insight, and no guarantee that a franchise would ensue. This is the kind of success that is vital for any studio, and is potentially more risky than a Tarantino film with top-drawer stars and prestige value.
Richard Jewell (Warner Bros.)
Warners struggled with dramas throughout the fall — “Motherless Brooklyn,” “The Kitchen,” “The Goldfinch,” “The Good Liar” — but the shocking failure of Clint Eastwood’s latest is the standout disappointment. The best reviewed of the group, thought to have awards potential (including three acting categories), and coming on the heels of his $100 million “The Mule,” even with prime Christmas placement this won’t do much more than $20 million. Individual factors played in — fictionalized plot details, the lack of a name lead — but it is part of a bigger picture. Most years, Warners leads in total number of theatrical releases. It is hard to see new studio chief Toby Emmerich maintaining this — especially with the upcoming launch of streaming platform HBO Max in May.
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Sony)
Hardly the biggest Marvel success this year, but it is the biggest non-Disney 2019 release domestic and foreign (it ranks even higher overall). It was the best in the franchise since 2007 (adjusted) on a $160 million budget — lower than Disney’s top sequels. Most impressive was its more than four times multiple, from a decent opening. That’s rare in the Marvel world, and for a later film in any franchise. This seemed to come in part because the Sony end of the Marvel world has the capacity for surprise and fun that some of the Disney releases, huge as they are, lack.
At the very least, that an alternative template to the Disney Marvel model works is an important statement coming out of 2019.
This hit may have saved a company. STX has been a decent mid-level budget producer since its 2015 founding, but financial-backer turmoil put them at risk this summer. The $104 million success for this empowerment drama set in the world of strippers made sure the company lives another day.
The film also featured one of several female-directed films that were successful with the mass public — a number that should only grow in 2020.
Downton Abbey (Focus)
This feature-length addendum to the PBS series grossed nearly $100 million domestically. Like another Focus success, “Harriet,” it went wide from the start. That will be noted by Disney (which now oversees Fox Searchlight). Is this a way for studios to concentrate on top franchise titles, and turn a wider array of projects to their side units? “Downton” became Focus’ second-biggest hit, with nothing at this level since “Brokeback Mountain” 14 years ago.
Uncut Gems (A24)
So much to note in the Safdie Bros.’ anything-but-safe multiplex release. Adam Sandler took a chance, and saw his reputation soar (along with his chances of an Oscar nomination). It also bolstered A24 in a year when Neon threatened its position as the go-to specialized distributor for edgy specialized films that target younger audiences.
Transit (Music Box)
Films like “Roma,” “Shoplifters,” “Cold War,” Parasite,” and “Pain and Glory” suggest a turnaround for the long-troubled specialized foreign-language market, but hits are the exceptions.
German director Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” topped $3 million in 2015, and “Transit” got terrific reviews. However, it couldn’t gross much more than $800,000. Similarly “Birds of Passage” from the Colombian directors of “Embrace of the Serpent” saw praise and a prime release from The Orchard, only to gross a little over $500,000. Focus got the Spanish “Everybody Knows” to $2.7 million, but it had Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and a name director. Beyond those mentioned here, not a single arthouse subtitled film reached $1 million.
Late Night (Amazon)
Sundance looms, followed by the number of top deals that didn’t pan out. “Blinded By the Light” (Warner Bros.) and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” (Amazon) joined “Late Night” as rapturously received films that scored big deals in Park City, then opened to minimal response.
“Late Night” failed right after the SXSW-premiered “Booksmart” opened wide to good reviews and box-office brickbats. Amazon acquired “Late Night” for$13 million; after marketing, it may have lost $40 million — but it’s available forever on Amazon Prime.
Shortly after, Amazon began a series of announcements of other titles headed to Prime after token theatrical releases. This is the company that earlier proclaimed itself the anti-Netflix by holding to theatrical windows.