Monday, April 15, 2013

Why it may be a good thing if no films pass $1 billion in 2013...

Just a few years ago, had I written a piece entitled "There are no films guaranteed to gross $1 billion this year", you likely would have laughed and said "Of course not!".  As recently as 2010, the idea that any movie could or would gross $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales was somewhat of a pipe dream.  From 1997 to 2006, there were just two films to reach that milestone, they being Titanic  (the biggest movie of all-time with a seemingly insurmountable $1.8 billion) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the Oscar-winning chapter to what can be argued is the finest screen trilogy of our time (that's a debate for another day).  In 2006, we saw the powerhouse success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest which parlayed the unexpected popularity of the first film into an even larger haul for its sequel, breaking the domestic opening weekend record at the time ($135 million) and earning a massive $423 million in America and $642 million overseas.  In 2008, The Dark Knight pulled another "massively popular sequel to unexpectedly well-liked original" trick to the tune of $533 million in America (good for the second biggest grosser of all time in America, if only for a year) and just over $1 billion worldwide despite not playing in China due to that pesky "Chinese gangster hides Gotham mob money" subplot. 2009 saw James Cameron do that trick that James Cameron does yet again, with Avatar earning $1 billion worldwide in about seventeen days and going on to earn an eye-popping $2.7 billion.

From 1997 to 2009 there were five $1 billion grossers. Between 2010 and 2012, we added an additional ten such films.  Brought on partially by the 3D craze established by Avatar and partially by the sheer expansion of the overseas marketplace, the once fabled $1 billion grossing blockbuster became almost normal.  In 2010, we had a fantasy film that few loved and quite a few disliked (Alice in Wonderland), and the final (I hope) entry to what can be argued is the finest trilogy of our time (Toy Story 3, yes we can debate that another day too). In 2011 we had three such blockbusters, all summertime sequels released in 3D. They were Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (which earned just $240 million domestic - far lower than the previous three films), Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II, which was the culmination of a popular and awfully good eight-film fantasy epic spanning ten years.  What we saw in 2011 was the $1 billion mark being crossed by not zeitgeist defining blockbusters but merely relatively popular sequels that capitalized on the ticket price-surcharge that comes with 3D tickets.

2012 saw a somewhat shocking four new releases cross that once unthinkable goal post, plus a 3D reissue of Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace crossing that milestone as well (The Phantom Menace earned over $900 million back in 1999 when that was a big deal).  The newbies to the club were the expected successes of The Dark Knight Rises (no subplots about Chinese gangsters this time, thank you much!) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which crawled to $1 billion despite pretty much every one admitting it was a major comedown from the Lord of the Rings trilogy), plus the somewhat unexpectedly huge success of The Avengers (which earned a massive $1.5 billion, good for the biggest grossing film not helmed by James Cameron) and the completely unexpected $1 billion run of Skyfall, a series whose previous worldwide high was $599 million for Casino Royale.  The interesting news is that two of those films, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, were released strictly in 2D.  This year, there is a pretty decent chance that not a single film will gross that milestone in 2013. Well, okay, so the 3D rerelease of Jurassic Park will likely push that film's original 1993 global gross of $914 million over the goal line (Titanic 3D made $285 million overseas last year), but we're talking new releases here.

There is the possibility for surprise and the unexpected breakout.  Star Trek made just $395 million worldwide in 2009, but it's certainly possible that the 3D/IMAX-enhanced Star Trek into Darkness could 'pull a Dark Knight' and capitalize in the original's good will and massively outperform its predecessor (Batman Begins earned just $375 million back in 2005).  But that's not a guarantee. Iron Man 3 could build on the success of The Avengers and earn $1 billion the third time around, again enhanced by 3D and IMAX, but the previous two films topped out at $585 million and $623 million respectively, so that's an awfully big jump to presume.  Man of Steel is no guarantee, as Superman Returns earned $391 million back in 2006 and it's partially a question of whether or not the Zack Snyder-helmed/Christopher Nolan-produced epic can deliver an iconic Superman film and/or whether the world still needs a Superman film.  Pacific Rim is the major wildcard of the summer, an original entry that is gaining massive buzz among the geek set but. But even with that whole 3D boost thingy going for it, I'd argue that how well Guillermo Del Toro's monsters vs. robots epic does in July depends on how good or bad the summer slate up to that point is (I'll expand on that in a later essay).

The Hunger Games was huge in America ($408 million) but only earned $283 million overseas, so Catching Fire is not a likely $1 billion grosser (especially in mere 2D).  Thor: The Dark World in November will surely get a post-Avengers boost, but going from $4449 million to $1 billion without a major selling point (like a marquee villain played by a major star) is arguably impossible.  That leaves The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in mid-December.  By default it's the most likely contender because An Unexpected Journey earned $1 billion last year.  But very few people really liked the first Hobbit film, leaving the second picture in a position to actually slightly decrease in box office this time around. Looking at what's out this summer and this holiday season, there are no sure things, which I would argue is a good thing.  Because once the idea of grossing $1 billion worldwide becomes not just possible but feasible, the industry starts expecting such a thing to become commonplace and starts budgeting for it.

Disney's Oz: The Great and Powerful may not have been expected to equal the $1 billion that Disney's Alice In Wonderland earned in 2010, but at a cost of $215 million to produce and around $100 million in marketing costs, it has to make around $700 million just to break even, a total that it may not cross at this point. And there were any number of would-be blockbusters last year that basically *had* to make nearly $1 billion to break even.  Some of them pulled it off (The Dark Knight RisesThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), some of them scratched out that $600 million they needed to save face (Men In Black 3), while others crashed and burned (Battleship and John Carter).  Many of the bigger budgeted films are surefire smash hit sequels and films like Fast & Furious 6 or Iron Man 3 are relatively safe bets despite their $200 million budgets. But mega-budgeted films like The Lone Ranger are basically banking on playing like proverbial sequels.  If Disney could call the Gore Verbinski-helmed, Johnny Depp-starring western Pirates of the Caribbean 5: The Lone Ranger, they certainly would.

Even as some sense of fiscal sanity has returned to Hollywood over the last few years in terms of reasonably budgeted adult genre fare (think the $45 million spent on Argo or $13 million spent on The Call), spending on too many of the would-be tent poles presumes not just blockbuster status but near record box office triumphs.  Not every film can go the distance and up until recently only a few did.  But as what constitutes a smash hit climbed higher and higher (back in "my day", a film could open to $15 million and slowly crawl to $100 million and be massively profitable), the once fabled $1 billion global gross is now in danger of becoming commonplace to the point where it's all-but expected for the biggest films of a given year.  That's a dangerous precedent, especially as overseas audiences will eventually grow tired of 3D just as domestic audiences have mostly stopped caring about it (most such blockbusters sell more domestic 2D tickets than 3D these days). 

One or more of the 2013 releases discussed above may in fact break out accordingly.  Or maybe none of them will, and that's okay.  Hollywood can't keep budgeting would-be tent poles so that each one has to be not just a hit but a global blockbuster.  While I do not wish box office failure on anything coming out this year, I do think it would be a little healthy for the industry to not have a $1 billion earner this year.  For those with $1 billion-blockbuster withdrawal, you can hold out until 2015 at the latest.  I'm pretty sure The Avengers 2 and Star Wars: Episode VII are locks at this point.
Scott Mendelson

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