Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The box office legacy of Jurassic Park, 20 years later...

It would be all too easy to detail the ways in which Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park was a game changer in the realm of summer blockbusters and major-studio releases in general.  Its June 1993 release shattered a number of box office records and kicked off the glorious second act of Steven Spielberg's illustrious career.  But the story is more complicated than that.  Jurassic Park was a movie precisely of its time.  In some ways it did lead the charge in terms of how films were made and released.  In other ways, quite frankly, it was one of the last of its kind.  Jurassic Park is perhaps a defining example of the perfect combination of newfangled and old-school blockbuster film-making.  It represented both a preview of what was to come and the last gasp of traditional mainstream movie-making in one glorious concoction.


First if not foremost, it was a pioneering film in terms of the quickly emerging realm of computer generated effects.  Although, like Terminator 2: Judgment Day two summers before and Independence Day three summers after, the vast majority of its special effects were practical in nature, the film was considered a shining example of just what "CGI" could do.  Now, thanks to advances in computer generated imagery, there was the strong potential for the idea that filmmakers could literately create anything onscreen and create it in such a way that audiences could believe their eyes if but for a moment.  Obviously not every use of CGI resulted in such dynamic effects work, and arguably computer-generated effects work became a crutch almost as quickly as it became a revelation.  But for those who saw the film in its initial theatrical run in summer 1993, it did feel like the industry was on the cusp of making the impossible very very real.  Also of note was Universal's secretive marketing campaign, refusing to reveal its best scenes or its biggest effects shots in the previews or television spots.  Last year Disney's The Avengers released a clip of one of its biggest action scenes online with director's commentary days before the film's theatrical release.  The idea that audiences walked into Jurassic Park mostly unaware of its quality is one that resonates in the current age of long-lead review embargoes and spoilers included as marketing tools.

The film was also a triumph of concept over star power, as it represented the appeal of the idea versus the movie star.  Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum were not 'open a movie' with their face on the poster' movie stars, not before Jurassic Park and not after.  Pretty much every other smash hit in summer 1993 (along with one expected smash that ended up flopping) was a pure star vehicle.  Cliffhanger, Sleepless In Seattle, The Firm, In the Line of Fire, and The Fugitive were old-school star-driven genre films (we can debate how much it mattered that The Fugitive was based on a popular 1960's  television series, but that's for another day).  Even the unexpected flop, Last Action Hero, was sold purely on the alleged strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger post-T2.  Even after the success of Star Wars in 1977, the vast majority of blockbusters were at least partially about star power, be it Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, Tom Cruise in Top Gun, or Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (token exception - Home Alone).  The mega blockbusters that followed in Jurassic Park's wake alternated between high concepts that had genuine star power at  the helm (Tom Hank's Forrest Gump) and concept-driven ideas (Independence Day).  Movie stars still had their place in the new blockbuster era, at least for a period of time, but Jurassic Park cemented the idea that you could have a massively successful movie without any actual movie stars.

In terms of the film's box office, Jurassic Park was truly a hybrid of the old and the new.  It broke the opening weekend record with $50 million over its first Fri-Sun period (including Thursday sneak previews, natch), but dropped just 10% in its second weekend with another $38 million.  It was truly a mega blockbuster in the age of the massive saturation-level opening weekend, a phenomena kicked off by Batman four years earlier.  But while Batman opened with $42 million and stalled out in a matter of months with "just" $251 million in America (good for the fifth-highest grosser of all time at that moment), Jurassic Park had legs akin to the original Star Wars films and the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and Home Alone ($17 million opening, $285 million finish).  The dinosaur smash played in theaters for over a full year.  It was still on 100 screens in October of 1994 when the film finally was released on VHS home video.  It was arguably the last blockbuster to take advantage of the dying second-run theatrical market.  It was the last vestige, along with (to a much lesser extent), Titanic and The Sixth Sense, of the idea that a hit film could play in theaters for months and months on end.  Today, the biggest blockbusters make a third of their money on opening weekend and are considered leggy if they are still in theaters after two months.

Spielberg's dinosaur thriller remains a hybrid of another sort, the uneasy balancing act of an expected hit and an unexpected mega-smash.  If Batman was the first preordained blockbuster that wasn't a sequel to a previous hit film, Jurassic Park was a preordained hit that become an all-time box office champion.  Steven Spielberg was coming off of the critical and (relative) commercial disappointment of Hook, and he hadn't had a non-sequel smash hit since E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.  Everybody 'in the know' was expecting Jurassic Park to be one of the, if not *the* biggest film of summer 1993 if not the whole calendar year, but no one was expecting it to become the monster that it became.  In the end, the film earned $357 million in America, good for the second-highest grossing film of all-time behind E.T. ($399 million at the time, including re-releases)  and $914 million worldwide, stealing E.T.'s global crown (the director of E.T. must have been furious).  Today we have what can only be called the preordained blockbuster, with every summer bringing a series of big-budget spectacles that we are basically told ahead of time that we will flock to in massive numbers, creating ever-larger opening weekends and ever-larger global earnings (even as the budgets grow so high as to make those massive global grosses absolutely necessary).  Sometimes a movie outperforms its expectations, such as The Dark Knight, Avatar, or The Avengers.  But there is little surprise when it comes to what films will be monster smashes in today's film marketplace.

Speaking of that $914 million global gross, Jurassic Park was the first non-sequel mega-blockbuster to vastly out-gross its domestic box office overseas.  Star Wars, E.T., Batman, and pretty much any other blockbuster you can think of all earned more money in America than in foreign markets.  Jurassic Park earned 61% of its money overseas.  This was a true trendsetter, a major crowd-pleaser than didn't necessarily require keen understanding of the English language and primed to take advantage of the emerging overseas film market.  This trend would grow for the next eight years, with action films like Die Hard With a Vengeance and GoldenEye earning around 70% of their roughly $350 million global grosses overseas.  And obviously Titanic earned $1.2 billion of its $1.8 billion overseas (that's 66% by the way).  The scale finally tipped in 2001, with massive global blockbusters Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone setting the trend that has now led to foreign grosses arguably becoming of greater importance to Hollywood than domestic grosses.  We now live in a Hollywood where cornering the Chinese market is more important than cornering the American one and where films like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters gets a sequel even though it barely made its budget back in America ($55 million here, $216 million global).

In the end, Jurassic Park and its box office successes 20 years ago represented things to be admired about the modern movie-going experience as well as premonitions of the doom to come.  It was an insanely leggy blockbuster right on the cusp of an era of massive front-loading.  A year earlier Batman Returns stunned the industry by dropping 48% in its second weekend, while in 1996 no one batted an eye when Mission: Impossible grossed 41% of is $181 million total in its first six days.  Jurassic Park was a practical-effects thriller flavored with CGI right at the moment when CGI took over the industry.  It helped foster the notion that a film could vastly outperform its American box office haul via foreign markets as well as the idea that you didn't need movie stars to do that.  Jurassic Park opened twenty years ago this June and left its rivals in the proverbial dust.  20 years later, it's remarkable to look back and realize how much of what it represented is history as ancient as its prehistoric title characters.

Scott Mendelson

4 comments:

Cheshirecat101 said...

Great review. I got to say, I really enjoyed this movie. I was nervous going in that it wouldn't honor Sam Raimi's masterpiece, but thankfully it played plenty of homage to the original. While part of me does miss the humor, I don't mind that much since I got plenty of action and gore.

I finally got around to reviewing this movie on my own novice, review-blog. I could always use an experienced critic's opinion to help me fine-tune my reviews. Check it out if you get the time.

http://horrormoviemedication.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-evil-dead-no-more-messing-round-we.html#evil

Kelly said...

Exactly, Jurasic Park is one of it's kind. And it truly defines what a block buster movie should be. Until now, we are still playing it in our home theater because the kids love it so much. Thanks http://kzaudiovideo.com/ for setting up our home theater.

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