24 July 2014

Summer at the Box-Office - The Hot List

The summer used to start later and last longer, but as we move into the forthcoming weekend, it’s obvious that the 2014 season has entered its twilight phase. Marvel still has “Guardians of the Galaxy” (a solid hope, especially given promising word of mouth), the ever dependable “Expendables” are at it again in a few weeks and before any of that Dwayne Johnson muscles up even more than usual for a new take on “Hercules”. Each of these features has the potential to enter the green, but not one looks enticing enough to pull 2014 out of a slump. Ticket sales and box-office are down from last year, and whilst studios will be relieved 2014 has yielded few “Lone Ranger” or “R.I.P.D”-esque catastrophes, the fundamental dip in  cash accumulated still bleats loudest. So what’s happened? Simply put, fewer people are making their way to see anything. The biggest film of the summer “Transformers: Age of Extinction” – despite strong global numbers – will doubtlessly finish its run with the lowest domestic gross of the now laboured franchise. “Godzilla” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” both posted healthy totals, but neither quite rose to the heights prognosticators initially foresaw. The rapturously reviewed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is shaping up along the same lines. In many ways 2014 has been the summer of the almost smash, films threatening to break the coveted $600 million or even $1 billion barriers, but ultimately falling short. In the following piece I’ll take a look at some of this summer’s releases, focusing on the pictures that have managed to deliver for their backers.

Neighbours (Also known as “Bad Neighbours”)
Budget – $18 Million
Worldwide Total - $254 Million

“Neighbours was a huge hit for Universal and the benchmark against which to assess comedy credentials in 2014. The low $18 million budget proved an invaluable asset, but even then “Neighbours” far surpassed expectation, registering both colossal domestic and foreign impressions. It bolsters the high Seth Rogen’s been enjoying since “This is the End”, but it’s a much needed triumph for Zac Efron, who’s been surfing between flops for a number of years now.

What went right? - As I say, a budget that low is only going to pay dividends. Similarly Rogen’s as hot now as he’s ever been. But Universal and the film-makers deserve credit for crafting a raucous comedy with laugh value, the studio heaving the film out to festivals (the flick played well at SXSW) and pounding on the marketing bell to gain attention. It worked. Efron has played douchey as recently as this year’s weak “That Awkward Moment”, but where that feature crumbled, “Neighbours” emitted an encouraging rally-cry of decent dick-jokes. The early May release date is always a plus too, with the novelty of the summer only starting to flower. 

Budget - $160 Million
Worldwide Total - $492 Million

“Godzilla” is definitely a victory, but perhaps not to the extent initially envisioned. Early word was impeccable, but on release the film’s restraint drew mixed reactions. I personally found the feature a miscast slog, with occasional moments of worthy spectacle. Director Gareth Edwards’ dryer grasp of the material probably turned enough people off to make $600 Million an impossible stretch, but the king of the monsters still had enough star-power to treble his budget handsomely.

What went right? - The power of marketing has got to be central here. The trailers, the posters and the viral touches were exquisitely mounted, with “Godzilla” promoting a true feeling of awe and artistry. You could argue that whoever arranged the promotional content instigated more sensory excitement than Edwards’ himself. Again the early May window is a help, dodging the fatigue later summer fare has to contend with, but one must not overlook the pop cultural significance of the titular behemoth. He still packs enough clout to fill theatres. Heck, one of the key criticisms levelled against the feature was the lack of Godzilla across the opening 80 minutes. He may not quite have hit the high end of Warner’s expectations, but the scaly bastard clearly still gets business done. Expect him back sooner rather than later. 

Budget - $180 Million
Worldwide Total - $702 Million

“Maleficent” is the only massive movie of the summer that’s truly exceeded predictions. I haven’t actually seen the Joe Roth produced fairy-tale, but the numbers speak for themselves. Everything about the concept seemed bogus to me; embracing the hackneyed Disney reinvention angle, employing the production designer behind Burton’s abominable “Alice in Wonderland” at the helm and utilising a star who hasn’t had a hit since 2010’s “Salt” (yup, I’d forgotten that flick exited too). Rumours of a troubled shoot also leaked, with the budget swelling to nearly $200 Million. That’s a recipe for a total flop, right? Wrong. And I honestly can’t work out why. Critics weren’t even particularly impressed, the film amassing an unenviable 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I guess audiences liked it.

What went right? – I suppose the hyper-real Burton aesthetic still incurs some wonderment, or maybe the high-concept switcheroo at the film’s heart spiked a level of intrigue. Perhaps Jolie still is one of the world’s most coveted movie stars. Whatever the reason, “Maleficent” has commanded a strong financial standing. Probably the only film present in this article that defies expectation and pop cultural logic simultaneously. The singular X-factor I can attribute to the film is the preponderance of functional female characters, a rarity in any other tent pole. “Godzilla” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” are indicators that even mature blockbusters aren't overtly preoccupied with female input or exploiting the talents of exceptional actresses. This complaint can’t be aimed at “Maleficent”, and so maybe some of the success can be attributed to this worthy, gender conscious development. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Budget: $200 Million
Worldwide Total: $736 Million

Deep down in the darkest recesses of my being, I suspected this might be the “X-Men” film to finally trouble the billion dollar club. I also think deep down in the darkest recesses of their being, Fox were hoping the same thing. Alas, with $736 million it wasn’t to be, but those digits still register the time-travelling spectacular as a huge earner. Maybe the mutants just aren’t cut out for the same fiscal lustre as The Avengers, but if they continue to perform like this, then I don’t see them dissolving anytime soon.

What went right? - Just yesterday the 2000 series opener “X-Men” popped up on TV, and I decided to watch it for a bit.  It’s amazing to observe how much this series has grown, moving from a thematically ambitious pilot episode style kick-off, to the sheer breadth and scope evidenced in “Days of Future Past”. I know 14 years is a long time, but the leap in stylistic craft between the movies is insane. The one constant through the evolution has been a sterling cast, and to this day they remain the most important thing about the saga. Stalwarts like Jackman, McKellan and Stewart remain absolute draws, and new additions like Fassbender, McAvoy and so–hot-right-now Jennifer Lawrence have proved useful in fleshing out further detail and allure within the complex stories of prejudice and hate at the project’s core. Seeing these ideas progress and watching the actors improve with each vehicle is a rewarding experience for an audience, and definitely contributes to the success of this well received extension. Perhaps the reason the X-Men have struggled to hit the heights of other Marvel properties is they actually pre-date the superhero boom -which kind of took-off sometime around 2005/06 - reducing audience attachment to their once socially shunned universe. “Days of Future Past” is both the highest earning and best reviewed entry, so maybe 2016’s “Apocalypse” will be the film that allows these mutants to turn legendary, as opposed to merely celebratory coin. 

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Budget: $210 Million
Worldwide Gross: $893 Million (still gaining notable traction on a weekly basis)

“Age of Extinction” is an interesting case. It might still manage a worldwide cum of $1 Billion, but it’s almost certainly going to end as the slowest domestic performer of the franchise. Even 2007’s opening chapter cleared $300 million in the States. This fourth slice of Hasbro-tinged pie is now sitting at $229 Million, almost a full month after debuting in the charts. With a property this front-loaded, it’s hard to envisage the film managing to hit the lofty bar hung by its predecessors. At least in the USA. Internationally the picture has been a roaring success, behind only the ridiculously lucrative 2011 entry “Dark of the Moon”. So what can we take from this? Either international audiences adore Mark Wahlberg, or the American market is actually beginning to tire of the series. There’s a strong likelihood this will be Bay’s last dalliance with the robots in disguise (although placing a bet would be risky, he’s been saying similar things since 2009), which could lead to a fresher take on the material, but my gut would suggest it’s the material itself which audiences are now exhausted by. The first movie had a certain level of charm that none of the subsequent entries have tried to replicate with much conviction. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, fuck off Michael Bay. There’s a chance audiences are realising Bay has no interest in honouring the Spielbergian essence of the 2007 flick. It just took them 7-years to figure it out.

What went right? - The film is still a sizable money-maker for Paramount, and could viably become the year’s biggest earner. The domestic drop is an issue, but the international market is still gunning for Bay’s specific brand of nonsense. Critically “Age of Extinction” has been drubbed; in fact it statistically reads as the poorest reviewed Transformers splurge to date. That’s a little unfair, especially in the wake of the infamously horrible “Revenge of the Fallen”. I don’t think critical notices inform public attendance hugely when it comes to Bay’s oeuvre, but perhaps now audiences are beginning to register what was obvious to journalists 5 years ago. These films are toy commercials. Still, “Age of Extinction” proves that whilst waning, appetite for gargantuan and inappropriately sexual advertisements hasn’t vanished yet. “Age of Extinction” is a certifiable hit, but most of that owes to global box-office. For once, American audiences seem to have tired of explosion laden tripe first. 

Also Hits – There have been some other impressive success stories this summer. 22 Jump Street (WW - $270 Mill) has far surpassed the receipts posted by its predecessor in 2012, without the usual budget hike that accompanies such progress. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum continued to exhibit scintillating chemistry, the film stretching its post-modern agenda almost to breaking point, with pleasingly self-aware results. Anybody who has enjoyed the feature and its uproarious closing credits knows that this is likely the last “Jump Street” for messrs Hill and Tatum, or directorial duo Lord & Miller for that matter, but with numbers like these don’t expect the brand to die on its feet quite yet.

The Fault in Our Stars (WW - $250 Mill) might yet be the season’s most profitable wide-release, the heartfelt YA fiction adaptation recuperating its tight budget almost twenty times over. Fans and critics were kind to the admittedly well executed melodrama, but I don’t think the movie’s brio will override the otherwise erratic YA fiction subgenre. John Green’s source book has a unique place in the hearts of young adult readers; but Fox deserve plaudits for pouncing on the material and treating it with integrity. I’m not sure every misfire (“Vampire Academy” or even the only mildly profitable “Divergent”) bore the same potential, but few have been as respectful and character oriented as Josh Boone’s accessible romance.

I suppose The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (WW - $700 Mill) also just about sneaks into the hit category, carting up a sturdy worldwide take.  However much like “Age of Extinction”, the film’s domestic gross was 25% down on the 2012 original, and reviews were harsher. Just this week the third entry was delayed by a whopping 2-years, making me suspect Sony now have less faith in the character than they did 4 months ago. Still, Peter Parker comfortably made his sizable $230 Million budget back, even if audience enthusiasm for his dork tuned hero shtick is fading. On the indie end of the spectrum, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (WW- $5 Million) recently opened to the second highest screen average of the year. The unique, experimental and critically adored insight into youth seems to have piqued even mainstream curiosity, and should become a favourite when it expands over the coming weeks. Fox will hope Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (WW- $257 Million) eventually positions itself on the upper-tier of the summer’s financial standings, although with a bulky $170 million budget we’ll need more than the two weeks of business it’s undergone to arrive at a final word. However, if it adopts the slow-burn appeal of the earlier “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (which surprised analysts by crossing $400 Mill in 2011), the sequel could conquer $500 million. 

So that's it for the hot-list of 2014. There are other potential candidates (the aforementioned "Guardians of the Galaxy" being the most probable contender), but the films listed feel like the most important currently. In the coming days I'll publish a cold-list (for lack of a cleverer descriptor), and analyse the chances of 2014's final summer jaunts. Money y'all. 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014 


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