Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Gigantic-Sized 2008 Summer Movie Wrap-Up: All In One Edition

(but mainly because I need a break from writing about politics)

And so it ends, as summer always does, with a whimper... Let us take a breather from convention and politics coverage and return to what this site is supposed to be about... uh... movies.

As we read our now hilariously inaccurate Entertainment Weekly Fall Movie Preview (as predicted, Australia just moved to Thanksgiving weekend), let us take a few moments to remember the summer that has now passed. Fair warning, this one will likely be long and random.

Biggest EVERYTHING and MORE! of the summer (also never happier to be wrong award):
The Dark Knight
Critical Grade: A-
The biggest opening weekend, the biggest opening day, the fastest grossing movie to $100 million, $200 million, $250 million and so on till the $500 million mark that it will break by Sunday. A stunningly positive 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and serious Oscar buzz for Health Ledger, director Chris Nolan, and the picture itself. Results like these are why people make big budget movies. This was the absolute best case scenario in every way.

Props to Warner Bros for giving $185 million to Chris Nolan and company, with no apparent strings attached. Mazel tov to everyone involved for making a terrifically entertaining and intelligent crime epic that actually had relevant discourse and genuine drama to go along with its fine acting and superhero theatrics (who would have thought that Gary Oldman would become the poster boy for weathered nobility and decency, even against Morgan Freeman?). And super-kudos for Warner Bros for going with a dark, scary, and definitively adult advertising campaign, which blunted the potential for another Batman Returns-type backlash. The result - the second highest grossing film of all time, the highest grossing film of this decade, and a somewhat plausible contender for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

See folks, this is what happens when you make tent pole movies that are tasty and nutritious. I wimped out at the end in regards to predicting a record setting opening weekend. I have never been happier to be wrong about that kind of thing. And make no mistake, no one saw this coming. No one saw $500 million. No one saw over $1 billion worldwide (it's already at $874 million). No one saw five weekends at number one (again, more a product of the mediocre late July/early August slate). Few saw Batman taking his place again at the top of the box office heap, retaking the opening and short-term earning records that this franchise more or less invented nineteen years ago. It may be overrated in that it's not the best movie ever made, but make no mistake, this was the perfect storm of success. And, make no mistake, Health Ledger's demise in January helped... a lot.

Giant Smash Hit that somehow was considered a disappointment:
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Critical grade: B
It made $315 million at the domestic box office and $780 million globally, on a budget of $180 million. Yet, as correctly predicted, the overpowering sneak attack of Iron Man took much of the thunder away from the alleged summer champion. Still, as I've stated elsewhere, it was never going to do Phantom Menace numbers, and let's take a second to list some movies that Indy 4 made more money than (not adjusted for inflation) -

Indiana Jones 1, 2, 3, Harry Potter 2, 3, 4, 5, Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi, Pirates Of The Caribbean 1 and 3, Independence Day, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring.

Regardless of whether the movie lived up to critical expectations, a box office smash is a box office smash.

Most high-profile flop of the summer:
Speed Racer
Critical Grade: A-
It breaks my heart as this was the most fun I had at the movies all summer. But it cost as much as $200 million all-told, and it barely made $85 million globally. And, with Warner Bros' bonehead decision to release a substandard Blu Ray, they've threatened their best chance to recoup their investment. Basically the critics just couldn't look past the shiny visuals and the fast cars, and half of them were still bitter over the Matrix sequels. Warner never figured out how to sell this one, as it looked too cheesy for teens but too intense for kids (wrong on both counts). And parents were probably worried that the film would give their kids an epileptic seizure. They missed out on one of the best family films in years, a heartwarming action film with terrific performances by John Goodman, Matthew Fox, and Susan Sarandon.

Iron Man
Critical Grade: C+
A surprising critical smash (overrated in my opinion, but I digress) that used its summer kick-off slot to completely steal the press from Indiana Jones and send Marvel stock skyrocketing. Scoring a shade over $100 million over 3.5 days, it scored the second biggest opening weekend and second opening day ever for a non-sequel. This was a B-list comic character that performed like an A-lister. Most B-list Marvel character movies (Ghost Rider, Daredevil, etc) are lucky to do $120 million. This one did $317 million. It's the highest grossing comic book movie not starring a bat or a spider, by almost $100 million (the next highest is X-Men: The Last Stand at $235 million).

Along with The Dark Knight, Iron Man is the movie that most people will remember when they think back on this summer with fondness. Once again, the early May jump-start movie stole the thunder from the mid-May monster. Don't be surprised if Robert Downey Jr. scores an Oscar nomination (and maybe wins a Golden Globe) for his wonderful star turn. Like Johnny Depp's nominated work in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl, this was a terrific movie star performance that made a film feel much better than it actually was (I like Pirates better than Iron Man, but again I digress).

More Of The Same (ie - 2+2 = 3+1 award):
The Incredible Hulk
Critical Grade: C-
In 2003, Universal attempted to make a franchise out of The Hulk comic book series. The $130 million film was poorly received by audiences and critics alike, taking in a mere $132 million in the US and $245 million worldwide following a huge $62 million opening weekend. So, five years later, Marvel spends its own money, $160 million, to reboot the franchise, going with a shorter, lighter, more brain dead and action packed Hulk movie. At the behest of Marvel (against the wishes of the director and star), it was a far less character driven and less insightful version of the not-so jolly giant. The result? A total gross of $134 million domestic and $243 million worldwide following a $55 million opening weekend. GENIUS! Hulk MAD! Marvel STUPID!

Critics are wrong and critics don't matter:
Critical Grade: B
Despite a wrongheaded critical drubbing ("Oh no! It's not exactly the movie that the trailer promised... it has story twists and surprises in the third act!!"), Hancock was a smash hit anyway. Will Smith's low key and emotionally compelling super hero deconstruction, which may or may not have been a metaphor for America's reputation abroad and its role on a global stage, opened to a mammoth $63 million three-day and $105 million five day total over the Fourth Of July weekend. Aided by surprisingly decent word of mouth, and a wonderful dramatic turn by Jason Bateman, the troubled production made $227 million to became his fourth highest-grossing movie, his second consecutive $200 million+ film, and a possible franchise. In a summer when most of the years top grossers got decent reviews, it needed to be remembered that most summers are filled with big hits that critics hate and audiences like. In this rare case, the audiences were smarter than the critics. Just remember that Will Smith movies normally make between $140-180 million, so don't sound the alarm bells when he returns back to Earth after the flukes that were Hancock and I Am Legend.

Holy moly, people with XX chromosomes go to the movies too!
Sex And The City
Critical Grade: NA (waiting for the extended-edition Blu Ray)

Predicted by few but me, Sex And The City rode a wave of hype to a $57 million opening weekend, predicated on a huge $27 million opening day. For the next two weeks or so after that opening Friday, the film seemed to be a one-weekend if not one-day wonder, registering huge drops. Then, the drops leveled and the film crawled its way to $152 million. A dynamic number that the pundits should have seen coming.

If there's a train coming, and you're just a car, get the hell out of the way!
Hellboy II
Critical Grade: B+
The most tragic consequence of The Dark Knight's crushing debut was the absolute destruction of the imaginative and absorbing Hellboy II, which had debuted to $35 million the weekend before. Alas, direct competition crushed this charming sequel and caused a 71% second weekend drop that the film never recovered from (it didn't help that The Dark Knight was so beloved by fans that they went back several times). Granted, this property was acquired by Universal apparently so they could advertise a four-film package of action franchises to stockholders early in the year. This $85 million sequel (to an original that grossed $66 million in the US) limped to $75 million and barely topped $100 million worldwide.

It did break one of the cardinal rules of franchises (never spend more on your sequel than the original made in the US), but this genuine improvement on the original deserved better. Ironically, Universal sold the film far better than Sony and was a much bigger fan of the property (those NBC crossover ads were charming). The only (inexplicable) mistake they made was debuting it seven days before the insanely anticipated Batman sequel (Paramount made a similar botch when it released Star Trek Nemesis five days before The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers back in Christmas 2002). Here's hoping it finds a solid afterlife on DVD/BluRay.

What? People DIDN'T love the original enough to line up for a sequel?
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Critical Grade: NA

Arguably the one under performer that surprised everyone, including me. But I should have seen it coming, because it was a perfect example of the 'Tomb Raider rule'. Simply, if people don't like or don't love the financially successful original film all that much, then they won't show up for a sequel even if it's better (producers of Superman Returns, take note!). While The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe made a stunning $290 million at the end of 2005, no one really loved the movie, and part of its success was predicated on things that couldn't be repeated (the hard pitch to evangelicals, the inaccurate press regarding King Kong's alleged under performance). Also, for long fantasy epics like this, Christmas really is the place to go (Harry Potter is the exception because it's Harry Potter).

It didn't bomb by any stretch of the imagination, but the $142 million US total for this allegedly superior sequel was underwhelming (less than half of the original's take) and the $200 million budget didn't do any favors. As is often the case for fantasy epics (see Golden Compass), overseas saved the day, earning $237 million for a worldwide take of $378 million. Speaking of which, The Golden Compass somehow brought down New Line despite making only $6 million less than Narnia 2 and costing $20 million less. If Warner Bros is smart, they'll make a film out of 'The Subtle Knife', keeping the budget below $150 million and releasing it overseas first to drum up positive press. Same thing here... Narnia is not a dead franchise as long as they trim the budget and release it over Christmas or Thanksgiving instead of in the middle of May.

Hey, how about that, good cartoons make a lot of money?!
Wall-E and Kung Ku Panda
Critical Grades: B and B+
Both well-reviewed cartoon titans opened with about $60 million and both ended up with a little over $210 million. Wall-E won the domestic battle with $217 million vs Kung Fu Panda's $212 million, but Dreamworks' family action film has made over $577 million globally vs Wall-E's $288 million (has the overseas roll out for Wall-E not quite begun?). Ironically, both solid cartoons surpassed the obscenely good Ratatouille ($205 million), but both fell short of the craptastic Cars ($244 million). Kung Fu Panda just the extra push for its surprising quality, while Wall-E had to overcome controversy about its alleged hard-liberal ideology (actually, it's the same message as every Pixar movie - surviving in safety vs living in danger). Both will have long healthy lives on DVD/BluRay.

In a weird way, Pixar and Dreamworks seem to be developing an odd niche. Pixar is making artier, more challenging adult fare (Ratatouille, Wall-E, The Incredibles), while Dreamworks is making more all-ages just for fun animated entertainment that is often just plain good (Kung Fu Panda, Over The Hedge). On one hand, Disney is relying less on obvious celebrity voices (see the glorious Meet The Robinsons, which on top of being my favorite film of 2007 had no major celebrities), while Dreamworks is using celebs to the hilt but forcing them to give completely wonderful dramatic performances (Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte in Over The Hedge, Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane in Kung Fu Panda). As long as they avoid too many artistic misses like Shrek The Third and Chicken Little, this is a win for everyone.

One night in mid-July:

Guy 1: "Dude, The Dark Knight is sold out!"
Guy 2: "That f--in sucks, man, guys night out is ruined! What should we do?"
Guy 3: "Oh, wait, there are still tickets for Mama Mia! Rock on!"
Guy 1: "Hell to the yes! I love ABBA and that chick for Veronica Mars and Big Love is a total hottie!"
Guy 1: "Awesome! I totally know all the words to 'Dancing Queen'. Although if I cry during 'Slipping Through My Fingers', you guys can't make fun of me, ok?"
Guy 3: "Don't worry bro, you totally held my hand when I cried at the end of The Notebook, I owe you one."
Guy 2: "Ok, let's do it man, before it sells out too and we have to see Space Chimps."

Counter Programming is your friend.
Mama Mia!
Critical Grade: B
Mazel tov to Universal to the best counter programming I've seen in a long time. This one pulled in almost $30 million against the opening weekend of The Dark Knight. And it actually had slightly better legs than Hairspray (which I vastly preferred) and now has $131 million and it's still in the top ten (it's at a towering $338 million overseas so far). The critics were unduly harsh to Pierce Brosnan (he sounds fine on an audio clip, he was just filmed too much in closeup which rendered his exaggerated mouth movements more than a little goofy), but Meryl Streep could pull another default Oscar nomination if the slate is week this year.

They came and went, made their money and left no footprint...
Wanted and Get Smart
Critical Grade: D and C+
Both cost about $80 million and both ended up with about $130 million. One was an unfathomably lousy knock off of The Matrix and Fight Club, and it was deceptively marketed to boot (let's market it as an Angelina Jolie girl-power action film, never mind that Jolie barely gets any action and the film has a nasty misogynist bent). The other one was harmless fluff that coasted on the charisma of its all-star cast, and it's marketing was relatively accurate (it's got lots of stars and slick production values, it's got a few chuckles and family friendly action). Both performed to expectations, although Wanted's $50 million opening was a surprise. Wanted did $258 million globally while Get Smart did $202 million. Both will be forgotten in the dustbins of history.

The Simpsons Movie is to Sex And The City as McCale's Navy is to...
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
Critical Grade: C+
Even at a cost of only $30 million, this was an abject tank for Fox and an outright embarrassment. This one opened to only $10 million and crawled its way to $20 million before succumbing to the black oil cancer that is word of mouth and lack of interest. Yes, Fox made more money on Space Chimps (that one rode out its punchline status to a cool $30 million). They waited too long and didn't do anything that looked better than a mediocre episode. They should have spent a little more money, made it a little more grand, and they should have gotten an R-rating. That would have gotten casual fans interested. Of course, having a better plot and more easter eggs for the fans would have helped too (of course, it's hard to have surprise guest stars when nearly every supporting character was killed off by the time the series ended). This was by far the most shocking mega-flop of the year.

No one cares, so neither do I
Meet Dave
Critical Grade: NA
With a completely aimless ad campaign and a somewhat confusing title, this $60 million Eddie Murphy family sci-fi comedy was close to Pluto Nash in more ways then one. I still love this image though. $24 million worldwide... no wonder Murphy is allegedly desperate enough to do Beverly Hills Cop IV. Why he just doesn't go the Dreamgirls route and take supporting roles in quality productions, I don't know. But then, I've been saying the same thing about Harrison Ford for years.

Run for your lives! Adam Sandler is making a good movie!!
Don't Mess With The Zohan
Critical Grade: NA
Adam Sandler's core fan base seemed to have deserted him, as it often does when he tries to make an interesting or good movie. It's bad enough that they flee in terror when Sandler tries to stretch with Punch Drunk Love (never have I heard of more friends walking out of the theater), Spanglish, or Reign Over Me. I'm not saying those movies are good (the latter two are pretty lousy, but Sandler gives fine performances in both), but there is something dispiriting when your fans seem to smell the attempted quality a mile away. Even when he's in broad comedy mode, his lone flop was Little Nicky which was easily the most offbeat and ambitious comedy he has made. Yet, again, this summer we have Don't Mess With The Zohan, an allegedly not-that-bad comedy that has real ambition to deal with the Israel/Palestine crisis using broad comedy. While it opened to a Sandler-standard $40 million, it quickly plummeted and will barely reach the $100 million mark. It's at $99.8 million now and is still on 193 screens and pulling in about $25,000 per day. Needless to say, the second it crosses the century mark, it's gone from theaters.

Usually Sandler comedies open to about $40 million, drop like a stone in the second weekend, and then hold steady for about a month as they become the safe second-choice in the weeks that follow. Maybe it was the competition, maybe it was that alleged 'stench of quality', but Sandler fans did not show up for this one, making it his lowest grossing mainstream comedy since Little Nicky. To be fair, despite the $90 million budget and $130 million global take, the film will likely thrive on DVD/BluRay (I for one will be catching it, and I usually loathe the broad Sandler stuff). But it's an odd pattern when the more ambitious the project is, the less Sandler fans show up.

"Will They Ever Trust Us Again" Awards
The Love Guru and The Happening
Critical Grades: NA and C

One was an out and out flop, one was actually a decent hit that was much stronger overseas than it was domestically. Both were critical flops that did serious, probably permanent damage to the auteuers that wrote and directed them.

The Love Guru was a $60 million comeback vehicle for Mike Myers who had been absent from the live-action arena since the horrifyingly bad Cat In The Hat somehow conned its way to a $38 million opening and $100 million final in November of 2003. The previews looked ghastly, the buzz was poisonous, and the eventual reviews confirmed the worst. In a surprising case of viewers not taking the bait, the film opened to a mediocre $14 million. Had the film been better (or had it been not so hard PG-13 smarmy that it couldn't have been sold as a family film), that wouldn't have equaled a $35 million final gross. But it did and Paramount took a major bath on this one (global total was a pathetic $38 million). Artistic freedom issues aside, Paramount should have seen the writing on the wall and edited this down to a PG and marketed it as a family comedy starring the guy from Shrek and Austin Powers. Since Mike Myers hasn't made a good live-action film since the genuine classic Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, eleven-years ago, it's a true mystery where he'll go from here. I've had arguments with friends about whether The Love Guru's disappointment was a result of Myers' humor not being relevant in an Apatow-comedy world, but I'm sure had the film not been an alleged monstrosity, it would have been competitive.

The Happening was a more complicated situation. The film too was riding a wave of bad buzz, most of it concerning the alleged ego of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. I wrote in defense of M. Night on a few occasions, but the film turned out to be pretty lousy (Mark Wahlberg gives the worst performance of his career and proves without doubt that Donnie is a better actor). Using the buzz of M. Night's first R-rating, the $60 million Fox film opened to $30 million, but quickly collapsed and ending up with $64 million. Overseas numbers were shockingly potent, and the film ended up with a global take of $152 million. Ironically, despite it's horrible reputation, The Happening was Fox's most successful summer film, both in total box office and in likely profitability. But, while the film was a solid money maker, M. Night has burned audiences three times in a row (I like The Village, but I'm in the minority). He has some serious damage control to attend to, and I can only hope that Avatar: The Last Air Bender (a period fantasy adventure based on a critically acclaimed Nickelodeon cartoon) can do the trick.

Brendan Fraser is box office GOLD!
The Mummy: Curse Of The Dragon Emperor and Journey T0 The Center Of The Earth 3D
Critical Grades: D+ and NA
Name any other film star this summer who toplined two films at near the $100 million mark in under a month? Both of these films are close enough ($98 million and $95 million respectively) that they'll get there in a week or so. Both were big hits in relation to cost, if not quite expectation. Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3D was a surprise smash, riding a $21 million opening to a total that will be five-times it's opening (these days, anything over 3x is called legs). Using its 3D gimmick as a selling point ('only in theaters', one could assume), the film was the family-friendly 'second choice of the latter half of the summer, registering small drops each weekend. It's overseas numbers are weak (just $22 million so far), but this $45 million experiment from New Line/Warner Bros will profit just from domestic box office. It's a good thing too, since I'd imagine that the video business will be limited if they can't figure out a way to replicate the 3D experience on DVD or at least Blu Ray.

Yes, The Mummy: Curse Of The Dragon Emperor was an abomination of everything that was fun and exciting about the first two films (ironically, the wonderfully daffy Fraser was the only thing worth watching), but the $145 million production is doing gangbusters overseas, with a current global total of $295 million (it's done $98 million here and $196 million overseas). Even with a change in director, a change in leading ladies (Maria Bello, you are no Rachel Weisz), and the omission of fan-favorite Oded Fehr, the terrible third film still opened to $40 million and will reach at least $110 million before it scurries to DVD/BluRay in shame. Point being, Brendan Fraiser is a star in that he makes already attractive properties look a little better. He can't open on his own, but put him in something that looks appealing, and he's a real asset.

Note to studios - stop opening on Wednesday!
Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2, The Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder
Critical Grades: NA, C+, and C-
In all three cases, the August Wednesday openings, lazily hyped as the hip new strategy, caused either a crucial draining of pent-up demand for Sisterhood and Pineapple Express) before the important Fri-Sun portion of the weekend (had Pineapple Express opened on Friday, it would have easily been number 01 and taken the crown from The Dark Knight a week earlier), or they caused the press to libel Tropic Thunder as a disappointment due to soft a Wednesday gross, which really meant that people wanted to see it at their convenience rather than right away.

The Pineapple Express collapsed pretty quickly, mainly because, despite my love for David Gorden Green, it just wasn't that good. Sisterhood 2 pretty much followed the same pattern, earning a total of $42 million (a mere $3 million more than the original). Tropic Thunder (despite also not being nearly as smart or clever as it thinks it is) has held on, staying number one for three weekends (like The Dark Knight's four-weekend run, that says more about the competition) and nearing the $100 million mark. The foreign run has (I assume) only just begun with a mere $2 million overseas. Expect decent overseas business to cushion the budget for this $92 million war comedy. Considering the hype and extra expense, it's somewhat ironic that Tropic Thunder is basically performing like Dodgeball (a funnier movie, in my opinion).

And there you have it... yes there were other movies (can't learn much from Mirrors or Space Chimps), but these were the big ones in ways both good and bad. Expect studios to wrongly learn the following lessons:

- It's a fluke when female-driven films do well.
- The reason The Dark Knight was successful was that it was DARK, so let's make all comics films super-grim, even if its Elongated Man or Fantastic Four 3.
- The Dark Knight was dark and gloomy at a PG-13, so let's never make another R-rated comic book film, even if it's The Punisher or Sleeper.
- The Dark Knight was successful because Warner Bros. cracked down on piracy, partially by all but stripped-searched audience members at critics screenings, keeping a copy of the film from leaking online for a full 36 hours.
- Speed Racer was terrible and Wanted was terrific. for a full 36 hours, and
- Every Marvel property is GOLD, so let's spend $150 million on a movie for each of them, including Ant Man and Thor, then spend $500 million on an Avengers movie!
- All of those successful R-rated comedies (Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express) made less than the PG-13 Get Smart, so let's make all comedies PG-13.
- Robert Downey Jr, Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, and Shia Lebeouf can open any property completely on their own to $30 million.
- Angelina Jolie can open anything other than action films (not that it's an unimpressive credential).
- Movie 'X' was a hit because people wanted a distraction from these grim times.
- Movie 'X' is symbolic about who is going to win the election in November.
- Next summer should be just as successful as this summer, otherwise it means that people just don't want to go to the movies and we're in a slump.

And the lesson that Hollywood hopefully will not learn:

- "Hey, let's kill Hugh Jackman, Shia Lebeouf, or Tom Hanks in late February. That will earn us tons of free publicity and make our film a cultural event." Lebeouf is the most likely. If he ODs on cocaine right before the Oscars, you read it here first.

Scott Mendelson

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