Monday, May 9, 2011

How 2001 was a film game-changer I: When Opening Weekends Attack! (or How the Mummy Returns kick started the modern blockbuster!)

This is one of a handful of essays that will be dealing with the various trends that were kicked off during the 2001 calendar year, and how they still resonate today.

When 2001 started, there had been exactly one $70 million+ opening (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, with $72 million over the Fri-Sun portion of the Memorial Day 1997 weekend), and one $60 million+ opening (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, with a $64 million Fri-Sun weekend take). There had only been a handful of $50 million weekends, and they were pretty much all from the biggest of big franchise pictures. Jurassic Park ($50 million, including Thurs-night sneaks), Batman Forever ($53 million), Independence Day ($50 million), Men in Black ($51 million), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me ($54 million), Toy Story 2 ($57 million), X-Men ($54 million), Mission: Impossible 2 ($57 million), and How The Grinch Stole Christmas ($55 million). Of those nine weekends, three of them had occurred in 2000. So getting to $50 million was a reasonable objective if you were one of the biggest franchises around. But 2001 was the year when everything went nuts. Back in the day, I still talked with my father about box office with him on a somewhat regular basis. That slowed down over the years, as we found arguably more important things to talk about and he started just reading my blog. I distinctly remember the phone call to my father on Saturday morning, May 5th of 2001. The Mummy Returns had just opened with $24 million on its first Friday, and I knew right then that, in terms of box office, nothing was going to be the same.

The first warning that we were about to enter an era of opening weekend madness came in February, when Hannibal, the R-rated sequel to Silence of the Lambs (opening ten years later to the weekend) opened with an astonishing $58 million. Even without Jodie Foster reprising her Oscar-winning turn as Clarice Starling, the critically-savaged horror picture pulled off the third-biggest three-day debut in history. That was a long-awaited sequel to an all-time classic, a bit of prestige genre that was arguably the holy grail for adult moviegoers. But just three months later, as summer started in early May, we had a near miss of unthinkable proportions. By near-miss, I mean that The Mummy Returns, a moderately well-reviewed sequel to a generally-liked horror/adventure film, opened with $68.1 million in its first three days. That included a jaw-dropping $24 million on its first Friday, a record at the time. Here was an early-May curtain raiser, a sure-to-be-popular but not particularly noteworthy franchise picture that had out-grossed the Fri-Sun take of The Phantom Menace (you remember... the most anticipated movie ever?).

And just like that, the floodgates were open. No longer did you have to be a Star Wars film, a Batman picture, or a Jurassic Park adventure to reach the top heights of opening weekends. Just two weeks later, Pearl Harbor pulled in $75 million over four days, $59 million of that during the Fri-Sun portion, and pundits were actually calling it a disappointment! But that wasn't the last shock of the summer season. In mid-July, the seemingly unasked-for Jurassic Park III pulled in $50 million in the Fri-Sun portion of its five-day opening weekend. But while unexpected, it was at least reasonable considering how popular the franchise had been up to then. But the genuine change that was in the air was cemented over the next two weekends. Leading up to its late-July release, Fox was probably hoping that Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes would open big enough to cross $100 million in ten days, give or take. After all, Planet of the Apes was not exactly a sci-fi franchise on the box office level of Star Wars. And while Tim Burton was indeed a marquee filmmaker, he had only recently recovered his clout with Sleepy Hollow. Here was a $100 million franchise 're-imagining' (more on that in a later essay) helmed by a director whose biggest opening weekend outside the Batman series was said $30 million Sleepy Hollow opening.

Fox could have just as easily ended up with the $8.9 million that Mars Attacks! opened with in Christmas 1996. With a relatively bland and untested leading man (Mark Walhberg) and a watchable-but-not inspired marketing campaign, I was sure the film was going to, if not 'flop', not exactly reach blockbuster heights. After all, I personally would have had no interest in the film if not for my Tim Burton fandom, so I presumed the rest of the general moviegoers felt the same way. A three-day gross of $68.5 million proved me very wrong, again coming within $3.5 million of breaking the three-day opening weekend record. Most audiences hated the film, but it ended up with $180 million in domestic grosses and $362 million worldwide (it was also a rare case of a studio realizing their luck by not going for a sequel). Just a week later, Rush Hour 2, the apparently much-anticipated sequel to the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker sleeper hit of 1998, opened with $67 million, doubling the $33 million opening of the first picture. Like Austin Powers 2, Rush Hour 2 proved that a sequel to a popular word of mouth hit had the capacity to explode out of the gate on opening weekend, but $67 million?!

And that's just the near-record breakers. Summer 2001 also gave us The Fast and the Furious, a film that looked like a cheap drive-in knock off that ended up opening to $40 million in June of 2001. Sad confession: when I first saw the trailer, I thought it was one of those 'don't talk during the movies' fake previews that Regal Cinemas was putting out at the time. Tomb Raider pulled in $47 million in its debut just a week prior. And of course, the year came to its climax with the twin monsters that were Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (both trend setters in their own ways, but I digress...) The latter opened with a massive $47 million over Fri-Sun and $75 million over five days, which was easily the biggest December opening in history (Ocean's 11 had broken that same record just a week prior with $38 million). And of course Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone smashed the opening weekend record to pieces by grossing a colossal $90 million in the pre-Thanksgiving weekend, becoming the first film to gross over $30 million in one day (doing it Friday AND Saturday). And what's scariest about the number is how not surprising it was. Everyone expected the much-anticipated first chapter to break the 4.5 year old record set by The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

At the start of 2001, there were just eleven films that had opened to $50 million or more. There were eight such films added to that list in 2001 alone. Ten years later, I still don't know why three seemingly run-of-the-mill summer entries came within a few million of breaking the Fri-Sun opening weekend record. I still don't know why 2001 is the year when the $60 million+ opening became a plausible goal for any given summer picture. Just a year later, Spider-Man would (shockingly) break the $100 million mark and Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones would be on the defensive for merely grossing $80 million over its Fri-Sun weekend. Two years later, 2 Fast 2 Furious would open with over $50 million, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle would get slammed for merely opening with $38 million, and we'd be debating whether or not the $62 million opening weekend of Ang Lee's Hulk was a success. Last year we had debates on whether or not the $128 million opening weekend of Iron Man 2 merited praise and I was personally expressing disappointment (misguided as it may be) that Toy Story 3 'only' opened to $109 million. Maybe it was audience demographics or severe (and unnoticed) inflation, but something changed that summer of 2001.

The promise (threat?) of a film becoming a massive smash hit purely through the strength of those first few days became a genuine reality twelve years after Batman pulled it off back in 1989. We now sit here ten years later having an actual debate over whether Thor's Fri-Sun opening of $65.7 million (the 18th-biggest non-sequel/reboot debut ever) is a success or a failure. The monster opening weekends that used to make this game surprising and fun have become the new standard quo, all-too predictable and more inductive of over-saturated marketing than actual audience interest. Batman was the first of its kind in 1989, but it was the summer of 2001 that truly ushered in the era of the monster opening weekend. The mega opening weekend was now possible for pretty much any big studio genre film that had the money and know-how to market accordingly. Everyone could now have their $60 million+ opening weekend. And, as we all know, when everyone is special, no one is.

Scott Mendelson


Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

This is why I love this blog. Mendelson's memos should be: How I learn to stop worrying and love the box office.

I've never had an interest in "the numbers" but Mendelson's essay's on them are always insightful and entertaining to I keep an eye on these essays more than his reviews!

Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

This is why I love this blog. Mendelson's memos should be: How I learn to stop worrying and love the box office.

I've never had an interest in "the numbers" but Mendelson's essay's on them are always insightful and entertaining to I keep an eye on these essays more than his reviews!


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