As I mentioned last week, the success of Guillermo del Toro's large-scale monsters vs. robots action tale Pacific Rim is at least partially predicated on how well-received the previous two months of summer films happen to be. This summer will mark the ten year anniversary of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. As most of you know, the Disney pirate adventure was a surprise of sorts, both in terms of its unexpected quality and its huge financial success. The film was a proverbial dark horse of summer 2003, a film based on pirates (box office poison!) starring Johnny Depp (usually box office poison way back when) and based on a theme park ride. On paper, the $130 million film was seemingly a recipe for disaster. But two things happened that summer. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was very good and a large portion of the May/June summer releases were not. As such, by early July, summer movie audiences were primed for a would-be tent-pole that actually delivered the goods. Gore Verbinski's pirate adventure was the one we were waiting for, and audiences responded accordingly with a $73 million five-day opening and a $303 million final domestic total.
It's a somewhat unique phenomena. You have one film that basically capitalized on the somewhat underwhelming slate of movies that preceded it, allowing it to be presented as the proverbial 'one you've been waiting for.' In terms of mainstream opinion, it delivered crowd-pleasing thrills and unexpected quality in a summer where The Matrix Reloaded (a film I believe is massively underrated, but that's for another day), Hollywood Homicide, Daddy Daycare, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and Ang Lee's Hulk did not.
This is not dissimilar to what happened in summer 2007. Even factoring it massive financial success due to audience goodwill and old-school front-loading, audience disappointment with Spider-Man 3 ($151 million opening/$336 million total), Shrek the Third ($121 million opening/$322 million total), and (ironically) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ($156 million Fri-Mon opening, $309 million total), along with a relatively unmemorable June, gave way to the unexpectedly crowd-pleasing Transformers. Minority opinion aside (I was among the only ones who didn't like that film back in summer 2007, to the point where I saw it twice just to see what I was missing), Michael Bay's robot-smashing epic delivered the blockbuster goods in a way that had thus-far mostly been missing in the various big movies of summer 2007. Cue the $155 million six-day debut and $319 million domestic total.
Chris Nolan's Inception, also a mid-July release, capitalized on the same trend, truly becoming the lone diamond in the rough during one of the absolute worst summers in modern history. Seriously, summer 2010 was such a wasteland of mediocrity and disappointment (Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The Last Airbender, The A-Team, etc.) that the Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith Karate Kid remake felt like an honest-to-goodness Oscar bait picture merely because it was very good. Enter mid-July, and, aside from the then-standard Pixar triumph, audiences were literally starved for a genuinely good "big" summer movie. Chris Nolan's twisty mind-bending heist picture delivered and audiences responded, with a $62 million debut starting a rather leggy run that ended with $292 million domestic.
But this idea actually backfired in summer 2011, when Paramount basically sold J.J. Abrams's Super 8 as the diamond in the rough, an original genre picture rooted in character in a sea of sequels and franchise properties. But, while the film did solid business ($35 million opening/$127 million finish), it failed to capitalize on the trend discussed here because well, it opened in mid June, the films that kicked off summer 2011 were surprisingly solid (Fast Five, Thor, Bridesmaids, Kung Fu Panda 2, and X-Men: First Class were all arguably better than anticipated), and Super 8 just wasn't very good. If you want to be the breath of fresh air, you have to hope that the rest of the air is suitably toxic and that you really do smell better.
So yes, I'd argue that the domestic success of Warner Bros' Pacific Rim is arguably rooted somewhat in how the summer season shapes up prior to its July 12th release date. But the ingredients are similar: A non-sequel from a visionary filmmaker that promises to absolutely deliver the goods. But the seemingly huge monsters vs. robots fable will partially depend on how well received the first half of summer is. If Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, Man of Steel, and The Lone Ranger mostly deliver on an audience-pleasing level, then Pacific Rim is just another large-scale would-be blockbuster. But if Iron Man 3 isn't an improvement on Iron Man 2, if Star Trek Into Darkness is a slave to the now-cliche dark sequel template, if Fast & Furious peaked at Fast Five, if Man of Steel plays closer to Green Lantern than Batman Begins, and if The Lone Ranger is more Prince of Persia than Pirates of the Caribbean, *and* if Pacific Rim is as good as we've been hearing... well you know how this story ends.
Obviously that's a lot of "if"s. And I'd imagine most film fans don't necessarily want to sacrifice the artistic quality of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek 2 so that Pacific Rim can be the biggest possible hit. But I'd argue that Pacific Rim's best chance of success comes if it becomes the de-facto Inception of summer 2013, which requires a certain amount of failure on the part of its summer movie predecessors We'll know soon enough.