I have a love-hate relationship with the weekly box office results that are published every Monday morning. When a movie like Transformers tops the list, racking up a weekend profit in the $80 – 100 million dollar range, I’m immediately depressed as I know I’ll have to sit through similar dreck in the near future. (For the record, Transformers 4 is due in theaters June 27th, 2014) Equally daunting is when I see a low number for a film that has the audacity to try to separate itself from the pack by trying something original. And yet, I also find the numbers fascinating as it provides some insight as to what trends will emerge and which will slink off to die in the film industry.
This summer has been one of the most interesting in recent memory as never have there been such boom or bust results where the studio’s big gambles were concerned. By and large, the mega-budget products have failed to generate the huge dividends that have been expected of them. Iron Man 3 ($407 million), Fast and Furious 6 ($237 million), Monsters University ($256 million) and Despicable Me 2 ($312 million) all met or exceeded expectations – meaning, of course that sequels to these sequels are now in the works – while Man of Steel ($287 million) and World War Z ($193 million) did well enough to kickstart new franchises for their respective studios.
Along with these solid hits, there were a few surprises along the way, as some films with small budgets, relatively speaking, exceeded studio expectations and proved that you don’t always need to have giant robots, superheroes or explosions to get an audience’s attention. The Heat returned $143 million on an investment of $43 million, This is the End and The Conjuring will top the $100 million mark on budgets of $32 and $20 million respectively while the most impressive return of the year so far was brought in by The Purge which has pulled in $64 million on a $3 millions budget.
As for the movies that failed to meet expectations, there have been more than a few casualties to analyze and wonder not so much why they didn’t click with audiences but who thought these films were good ideas to begin with. White House Down took in $71 million on a $150 million outlay, Pacific Rim will top out at $95 million against a $190 investment, the loser with the highest profile, The Lone Ranger will end up in the $90 range after an expenditure of $215 million, After Earth underperformed to the tune of $60 million against a cost of $130 million, while R.I.P.D. limped to a $30 million gross after an expense of $130 million.
However, what has become a key part of the movie game is the money brought in from overseas markets. Whereas in the past, the domestic gross was the arbiter of a movie’s success or failure, the final fate of the film isn’t determined until the fat lady sings and in this case, that would be tallies from the Far East and Europe. While After Earth was less performed less than impressively here, it has pulled in $175 million in overseas box office. The Hangover Part III struggled to get past the $100 million mark here but brought in $247 million in foreign markets. And while Fox’s animated feature Epic failed to impress in the States with a take of $106 million, it brought in another $147 million in overseas venues.
Will any of this change Hollywood’s all-or-nothing mentality? No, the studios simply aren’t built to invest on a smaller scale for what, more times than not is a modest return. The success of films like The Conjuring and The Purge are the exception, not the rule and multi-billion dollar corporations don’t grow with a string of moderate hits. No amount of Lone Rangers or After Earths are going to dissuade them from putting down a $215 million dollar bet against a potential $1 billion return despite the fact that products like The Avengers or Avatar are like catching lightening in a bottle. But don't bother telling studio heads that - they just know they have the next big thing in production as we speak.