Thursday, September 8, 2011

2011 Summer Movie Review part III: General thoughts and lessons learned.

 This will not be a blow-by-blow of Summer 2011 but more like free association regarding the just-ended summer.  First and foremost, summer 2011 was a terrific success for two reasons.  A) Most of the movies were pretty good.  B) The most obscenely crowded summer season in recent history, one that I wondered aloud would doom the industry, did not in fact crash and burn.  Most of the movies, thanks to record overseas grosses, made at least as much as they needed to in order to break even or make a tidy profit.  Up until the very end of August, there were actually very few out-and-out flops.  The biggest whiffs of the summer are arguably Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens, and Conan the Barbarian.  And all three films would have been mere disappointments had they not cost so much.  Green Lantern was a $200 million picture that looked like it cost maybe $100 million.  Cowboys and Aliens was a $165 million film that looked like it cost only a bit more than True Grit ($40 million).  And Conan the Barbarian... well, I haven't seen that one yet.  But I cannot imagine why Lionsgate (or whomever funded the picture) thought there was enough of a yearning for the return of Conan to justify $90 million.  The lesson  this summer is the same one it is every summer: it's the movies, stupid, and those movies shouldn't cost more than they are worth.

Among the more promising trends of the summer was the flooding of R-rated comedies into the marketplace.  Bridesmaids got most of the press, for reasons I'll get to later, but we had a nearly non-stop deluge of such fare.  I've speculated that R-rated comedies are more logical in today's marketplace, both because comedies are cheaper than comic book action films and because the verbal vulgarity can theoretically be altered depending on national standards in a given overseas market.  Bridesmaids was the first, best, and second-highest grossing of this list, opening with $26 million and ending up with a whopping $168 million domestic and $281 million (thus far) worldwide.  Domestically, that made it the biggest-grossing Judd Apatow-related film ever, the tenth-biggest grosser to never be number 01 at the weekend box office, the seventeenth-biggest R-rated grosser of all-time, and the seventh-biggest R-rated comedy of all-time.

The biggest-grossing of the pack was of course The Hangover part II.  We critics carped about the bland rehash of the first film, but audiences apparently just wanted more of the same.  Following a $137 million five-day debut, the film ended up with $254 million domestic and $581 million worldwide.  That's about $120 million more than the first one worldwide but (to the extent that it matters) $23 million less than The Hangover domestically.  It ended its run (domestically) as the fourth-biggest R-rated film ever and the second-highest R-rated comedy of all-time.  It also, in just two films, became the second-biggest R-rated franchise of all-time, behind only The Matrix trilogy.  The other R-rated comedies of note varied in quality and box office success, but there were enough of them that did well to likely continue this trend.  Horrible Bosses ended up with $115 million thanks to an appealing concept and a group of 'weak alone but strong together' stars (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, etc).  Bad Teacher proved that in the right concept, the movie star is alive and well, as Cameron Diaz powered this one to nearly $100 million (it may yet get there) all-by herself.

The other promising trend of summer 2011, which ties in with the comedies, is the strong numbers posted by female-fronted pictures.  Bridesmaids got most of the press on this account, as it 'proved' that funny women could front a comedy that wasn't technically a romantic comedy (although it contained the best romantic subplot of any film this year).  Bad Teacher was Cameron Diaz's triumph through-and-through, while Horrible Bosses owes at least some of its success to a campaign centered on Jennifer Aniston playing against type as basically a rapist.  We can discuss the female-on-male rape comedy double standard, as well as the equating 'man-eater' with sexual predator thing another time, but it was a big part of that film's successful marketing strategy.  And the summer closed out with The Help, which was (shock of shocks) a period drama centering around the lives of several women that is on the outside track to out-gross all of the super hero films that were supposed to rule summer 2011.  It sits at $125 million in one month with drops of no more than 27% per weekend).  Even if it's peaked, it is already the seventh-highest grossing drama released during the summer season.  It's the fourth if you don't count action-driven dramas like Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, and Gladiator, and first if you also discount special-effects intensive films like Forrest Gump, The Perfect Storm, and Apollo 13.  Point being, women do go to the movies, and there is a real audience for female-driven films that aren't specifically romantic comedies.

Also on track to best $180 million and thus pass Thor (the year's highest-grossing comic book adaptation) is Rise of the Planet of the Apes (now at $163 million) which came more-or-less out of nowhere to revive the franchise and get grown ups back into the theater.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a textbook example of how to 'do it right'.  Fox spent just $95 million and let Rupert Wyatt make a character-driven science fiction fable in 2D that had just enough action to fill up the TV spots.  After a terrific $54 million opening weekend, older audiences responded to the quality and Fox ended up with $348 million and counting worldwide gross plus a long-gestating franchise reborn.  At $163 million domestic, it's the sixth-biggest grosser ever released in August and Fox's biggest grosser since the one-two punch of Avatar ($760 million) and Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 ($217 million) in December 2009.  But the important thing is that budget.  If the film had cost $200 million, Fox would be sweating instead of celebrating.  But at 'just' $95 million, it's one of the few big-budget genre films that doesn't need overseas numbers to be profitable.

In a summer that was supposed to be dominated by comic book heroes, summer 2011 taught us a very important lesson about ceilings.  Mainly, unless you're Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, or Iron Man, $180 million is as good as it's going to get for you and you may need 3D-ticket price bumps to get there.  Thor is at $180 million and Captain America ($172 million) should be there soon, and both films benefited from the '3D bump'.  Adjusted for said 3D price-increase, both films grossed about on par with the various $135-155 million comic adaptations such as Fantastic Four, Hulk, and the first X-Men.  Thor is no small victory, as it's domestically the sixth-biggest non-sequel/reboot comic book adventure ever, with a big $448 million worldwide take to boot.  But as Hollywood continues to consider which 'lower-tier' superheros to adapt, one mus not presume that every new comic book adaptation is going to be the next Iron Man.

I'd argue that Iron Man's success was a fluke, a perfect storm of the right star, a stellar marketing campaign, the all-powerful summer kick-off date, and a certain real-world plausibility that was appealing to more than just the comic fans.  The numbers posted by Thor and Captain America should be treated as 'the new normal' and comic book films should be budgeted accordingly.  X-Men: First Class was arguably the best in the franchise, but it still did the usual 'X-Men crash' after its comparatively low $54 million opening weekend.  Lesson - Wolverine is a BIG part of why casual audiences like the X-Men universe.  Still, with $146 million domestic and $350 million worldwide, Fox earns credit for rolling the dice and reviving yet-another imperiled franchise.  The notoriously micromanaging 20th Century Fox seems to have turned over a new leaf post-Avatar and their seemingly hands-off approach allowed Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goodman to craft one of the best comic book films in history.

On the other hand, the famously talent-friendly Warner Bros seems to have become insanely meddling in the wake of Watchmen. That new-found apparent micromanaging that marred Terminator: Salvation, Edge of Darkness, and Clash of the Titans was painfully apparent in one of their biggest hits and their biggest miss.  The Hangover part II felt like two different films, with the first half promising a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now variation on the formula while the second half reverted back to no-harm, no-foul comedy that seemed even tamer than the first picture.  But their biggest flop, Green Lantern, also showed signs of post-production tinkering, with a fluctuating running time ("It's 117 minutes!  No wait, it's 105 minutes!"), a barely coherent second act, and what felt like huge chunks missing from the story.  This is a clear case where quality (or perception of quality) mattered, as the film opened with a reasonable $53 million but absolutely collapsed and ended up with just $116 million domestic and $215 million worldwide (thus far).  Even if the worldwide numbers pick up a little steam, the film caused an obscene $200 million, some of that due to re-edits, reshoots, and a needless 3D conversion that slowed down the effects process (to be fair, it was a pretty terrific 3D conversion, but at what cost?).  The two biggest-profile flops of the summer were victims of the same lesson - Don't spend Return of the King-money on Fellowship of the Ring.

Cowboys and Aliens
was an unknown property which starred Daniel Craig, who aside from his two 007 films is relatively hit-less.  The film looked bad, it WAS bad (lifeless, dull, without any sense of purpose or relevancy), and there was no reason the film should have cost $160 million.  At $90 million, the Jon Favreau sci-fi/western mash-up would have been a disappointment with $150 million worldwide thus far.  But at $160 million, it was yet-another disaster for Universal, the one studio that's made a genuine effort to try out somewhat original properties and concepts (although the $209 million domestic/$606 million worldwide gross of the shockingly good Fast Five smoothed helped things over).  Cowboys and Aliens was merely a vicious blow to Jon Favreau, but Green Lantern may have threatened the entire DC Comics franchise, which was to take the place of the Harry Potter saga as Warner Bros's main tentpole cash-cow.  And Ryan Reynolds unfairly went down with the ship, ripped apart by the media because his first real box office test opened with 'just' $53 million (because Ryan Gosling as Hal Jordan would have certainly opened with $75 million, right?).  The blame for Green Lantern's failure lies with the movie itself.  Even as someone who kinda liked it, it just wasn't expansive enough to justify its cost, or different enough to separate it from its genre in a time when the best comic book adaptations where genre films (crime dramas, 60s spy capers, 40s World War II adventures, etc) first and comic book movies second. And I still believe in Martin Campbell, but it's probably best if he stays away from green screens for the near future.

Ironically, three of the would-be prestige pictures were (in my opinion) among the lesser fare of summer 2011.  Super 8 sold itself is a true piece of original, character-driven quality, only to get slightly nicked when it ended up being painfully mediocre in a summer filled with surprisingly good films.  The film grossed $126 million domestic and $249 million worldwide, which means its still a big hit if you believe the $50 million budget and a pretty solid hit if you don't.  Stupid, Crazy Love was arguably the stupidest major movie released this year, but critics and audiences bought into its prestigious cast and ignored its moronic and deeply creepy 'romantic messaging'.   Midnight In Paris became the biggest-grossing Woody Allen movie of all time, which was both perplexing (it's a lousy, contrived romantic comedy with a couple fun reels set in 1920s Paris) and refreshing (Sony Classics took a risk going wide early in the run). The Smurfs did fine domestically, but is turning into a $500 million monster worldwide, in another case, like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($240 million here, $1 billion worldwide!), of America not being completely to blame for lousy movies becoming hits.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II rode the series finale wave to $1.3 billion in worldwide grosses and $375 million domestic, both records for the franchise and the former making it the third-highest grossing film of all-time worldwide. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was a noticeable improvement over its predecessor, but the film still ended up $50 million below Revenge of the Fallen's $400 million domestic haul, even as the third film used its genuinely fantastic 3D work to power past $1 billion worldwide.

The two big animated films slightly disappointed domestically but caught fire overseas.  Cars 2 may be the first Pixar film to not reach $200 million since 1998, but it's powering towards $550 million worldwide.  Kunf Fu Panda 2 (my favorite film of the year... you read that right!) was written off as a domestic disappointment to the point where Dreamworks stock dropped after its opening weekend.  But while the film 'only' grossed $165 million domestically, it has earned a mammoth $650 million worldwide, more than any other Dreamworks cartoon other than the three Shrek sequels and more than any Disney/Pixar cartoon other than Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, and Up. Toss in the last two Ice Age movies, and Kung Fu Panda 2 is the tenth-biggest animated film of all-time worldwide, and it will soon surpass Ice Age: The Meltdown's $655 million to become ninth.  Some flop...

Yes there were some disappointments.  Priest couldn't justify its $60 million budget with its $77 million worldwide take, even if it turned out to be a better-then-expected horror variation on The Searchers (it was surely a better western than Cowboys and Aliens).  The Change-Up was somewhat underrated without being 'good', but its main crime was costing $50 million in a summer of relatively cheap comedies.  Glee: The 3D Concert Movie barely made $10 million, but it was basically a $8 million advertisement for the DVD release.  Truth be told, most of the 'flops' this summer were relatively cheap (One Day, Winnie the Pooh, Fright Night, etc), with only a handful of truly expensive money losers.  While others may compare each weekend to the weekend of last year, or the total grosses of all the movies, at the end of the day, most of the movies released in summer 2011 made at least as much as they needed to.

This was a summer about survival, where one insanely budgeted franchise picture squared off against another week after week.  Between April 29th and August 5th, there were eleven $50 million openings in just fifteen weeks.  Of those ten openings, eight of them were $60 million or more, four of them were $80 million or more, two of them were $95 million or more, and one (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II) was a massive and record-breaking $169 million.  Point being, all of these movies needed to open huge to justify their costs and most of them did. There was indeed plenty of movie-going dollars to be spread around, so that the mega movies opened huge while most of the smaller movies did not get lost in the shuffle.  Equally impressive was the sheer amount, perhaps due to the end of the lingering effects of the 2007 WGA strike, of genuinely high-quality studio fare (not even counting the popular films that I didn't enjoy such as Midnight In Paris).  For those reasons, summer 2011 stands as one of the best movie-going summer seasons in modern history.  I challenge 2012 to do better...

Scott Mendelson                                 

Note - for The Moments That Mattered and The Summer of 3D, click accordingly.                              


ACOD said...

I was surprised at the complete audience indifference towards Winnie the Pooh. What's your takeaway regarding that picture? Marketing? Traditional animation? skewed too young? The summer was probably a bad time to release this, I would have found an open spot for a children's film somewhere in the fall or winter.
IMDB has the budget at 30 million. My first thought was that Winnie was a borderline direct to DVD project (Cinderella 2 &3).

taranaich said...

"But I cannot imagine why Lionsgate (or whomever funded the picture) thought there was enough of a yearning for the return of Conan to justify $90 million. "

I would've said exactly the same thing for Planet of the Apes, even though unlike Conan, it doesn't have a long-running award-winning comic from Dark Horse, an acclaimed online game which is still running where many others have shut down their servers, an RPG book series with dozens of supplements, or a series of 80-year-old stories that are popular enough to get multiple re-releases by multiple publishers, all within the past 5 years. Conan has been successful in every media it's attempted since its rebirth in the early 2000s: books, video games, role-playing games, board games, comics. I'd even say Planet of the Apes was a much harder sell than Conan. The crucial difference is that those were high-quality products and promoted well, resulting in those products doing well: a poor-quality product that is promoted poorly is going to fail.

If Conan was a good film, that would easily justify its $70 million budget (the $90 million is inflated, a popular Millennium ploy to make the film look like a bigger deal), much as Planet of the Apes justified its budget. If the marketing was good enough, that would get more people interested, since they don't care about brand loyalty so much as they care about a good time at the cinema to justify their hard-earned cash. But the film was a dud, word of mouth was negative, and the marketing was atrocious. It was a tremendous failure, all the worse because Conan has succeeded elsewhere.

Bibbyroo said...

You talk about some of the big misses this summer, what about 'Mars Needs Moms". I thought that one was one of the biggest flops of the year, certainly loosing more money that cowboys and aliens, right?

Scott Mendelson said...

Mars Needs Moms (cost $150m, worldwide gross - $39m) is among the 10 or 20 biggest money losers of all time, but it came out in March. So it's not a summer release. It's also a very bad, highly misguided movie.

Scott Mendelson said...

Part of it is the fact that Lionsgate just doesn't have the domestic marketing strength or overseas muscle to justify such a mammoth budget. Fox is gold overseas (Mr. Popper's Penguins is looking at $175m worldwide), and the Planet of the Apes series has a history of massive mainstream business. Conan the Barbarian is a cult property (I don't mean that as an insult, I rather love the Playstation 3 game from a couple years back) from a smaller studio, so it should have been budgeted as such.

Scott Mendelson said...

I think Winnie the Pooh was basically a favor to John Lasseter, both in his love of the character and his commitment to keeping 2D hand-drawn animation alive. Disney never meant it as a major theatrical release, otherwise they likely would have waited until early fall or January of next year. As it is, I'm just glad that Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall finally got the critical adoration that they deserved for Meet the Robinsons.


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