Good Summer/Bad Summer: Who Were The Victors & The Victims Of The Blockbuster Box Office This Year?

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by Oliver Lyttelton
August 12, 2013 1:27 PM
11 Comments
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Bad Summer

Original Animation

While the pre-existing animated franchises performed strongly this year, not a lot of new ones were established. "The Croods" performed very strongly back in the spring (nearly $600 million worldwide), but by the end of May, Fox's "Epic" was something of a damp squib; the adventure made only $250 million worldwide, making it by some distance the lowest grosser from "Ice Age"'s Blue Sky Studios. "Turbo," from DreamWorks, has fared equally poorly; the film opened poorly, after following close behind "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2," and there wasn't much room in the marketplace for another such animation. It's likely to be the first film since "Flushed Away" not to cross the $100 million mark in the U.S. for the studio, and will likely make less than the disastrous "Rise of the Guardians." It's not reason to panic—"Frozen" and "Lego" should both perform well over the next six months—but it's hardly a great showing.

"The Hangover" Fatigue

One of the biggest surprises was the underperformance of the third entry of "The Hangover." The previous two films had been absolute monsters, each becoming the biggest R-rated comedies up to that point, with a whopping $467 million and $586 million respectively. And make no mistake, $350 million worldwide for "The Hangover Part III" is highly profitable, even if the film somehow managed to cost over $100 million. But it was still a serious crash down to earth for the franchise, the movie making well under half what the the previous picture had domestically (and outgrossed by "Now You See Me"), and mostly being saved—unusually for a comedy, which rarely travel—by the foreign take. Todd Phillips & co. had been upfront that they considered this the last in the series, but clearly, the mostly recycled and rehashed second film had drained much of the goodwill towards the franchise.

Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp & Matt Damon

Ten years ago, even five years ago, these four were pretty much atop the stardom treehouse—Smith had an unbeatable run of box office hits, Cruise hadn't yet alienated fans with his 'quirky' behavior, Depp had just been revived and made bigger than ever thanks to the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," and Damon was suddenly an action star thanks to "The Bourne Identity." They've had their ups and downs in the intervening years, but none had a great time over the last few months. Cruise came off the best—an April release for 'Oblivion" meant it got to nearly $300 million (it likely would have been crushed had it gone later), and the film was actually one of the better movies of the summer. But it was still the actor's third film in a row not to cross $100 million domestically, and the backers of his next sci-fi picture "Edge Of Tomorrow" have to be a little nervous at this point.  Smith's vehicle, the M. Night Shyamalan-directed "After Earth," fared even worse domestically, barely clearing $60 million, though international box office (particularly in China) again came to the rescue, taking it to a more respectable $240 million worldwide. But coming off a long absence, pre "Men In Black 3," it shows that the Smith brand's been a little tarnished, and the star could do with picking his next move carefully. Meanwhile, "The Lone Ranger" was a disaster all around, and with "The Tourist" and "Dark Shadows" still fresh in the memory, certainly calls into question the Depp brand. It'll be more interesting to see how "Pirates 5" performs in a few years—have we reached a general fatigue with the actor's showboating? Whatever the answer is, next year's "Transcendence" was probably a good choice. Finally, Damon vehicle "Elysium" only just opened this weekend, and has the benefit of being one of the summer's last movies, so there's a slim chance it could be redeemed by the international box office. But there's no denying that it's opening is a disappointment—given that it opened nearly $7 million less than "District 9," it gives the impression that audiences would rather see a movie with no stars than one with Damon (that's unfair, but still). It's been a long while since Damon had a real hit, so a return to the "Bourne" series becomes more feasible all the time. 

Channing Tatum & Ryan Reynolds

It's not just the old guard of stars who had a rough few months: two bright hopefuls from the last year had a pretty rough time of it, too. Ryan Reynolds has been tipped for seemingly forever, but after a pretty good year with "The Proposal" in 2009, the actor had a rough time in 2011 when both "Green Lantern" and "The Change-Up" flopped. But 2011 was a triumph compared to this summer, when "Turbo" and "R.I.P.D" tanked on the same weekend. The former wasn't such a problem—animated films barely count, and it's not like he was getting the credit when "The Croods" was a hit earlier in the year. But "R.I.P.D" was a bruiser, and if Reynolds leads another tentpole, it'll be after a Colin Farrell-esque spell in the indie wilderness. Tatum was on a hotter streak, with several big hits in 2012. But while *spoiler* his fearless cameo in sleeper hit "This Is The End" was good fun *end spoiler*, the Tatum train was briefly derailed when "White House Down" underperformed. The film was essentially sunk when spoiler picture "Olympus Has Fallen" proved to be a hit a few months earlier, so Tatum won't be blamed too badly, and he has more indie cred with "Foxcatcher" and a near-sure-fire thing with "22 Jump Street" on the way. But a lot will ride on the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending" next year; it could be the next "Matrix," or could be the next "Speed Racer."

3D

We feel like we say this every year, but audiences seem to actively reject 3D more and more each year. In the aftermath of "Avatar," audiences were flocking to dimensionalized screenings of blockbusters, where available, with a 3D audience share of somewhere between 70 and 80 percent being common. But in 2013, the bottom has fallen out: almost no blockbuster sold more than 50% of its tickets to 3D screenings—"World War Z" managed only 34%, and "The Great Gatsby" 33%. Animation proved even worse, despite 3D screenings pre-dating the "Avatar" boom. "Monsters University" managed the worst audience share for 3D movies up to that point in its opening weekend, with 31%, a record that was smashed two weeks later when "Despicable Me 2" managed a dismal 27%. It seems to suggest that the novelty is officially wearing off, and that audiences, fed up of paying the surcharges (particularly, it seems, on family outings) are actively seeking out 2D screenings. It can't be a huge coincidence that 3D has been so rotten in most of this summer's movies ("Pacific Rim" was perhaps the only film we saw that managed to be a decent conversion job, with "Iron Man 3" and "World War Z" proving to be particularly dismal in 3D), but the rot has clearly set in long ago domestically. Still, the boom internationally continues, especially in China and other Asian territories, and as long as that continues, don't expect the trend to disappear any time soon.

Bloat

Perhaps a creative note more than a financial one, but 2013 was the year of the bloated blockbuster. Running times were almost always over two hours, with "The Lone Ranger" breaking the bank at 150 minutes, and perhaps more importantly, the films felt overstuffed, with extraneous characters (Hello, Rebecca Hall in "Iron Man 3"! Hi, Matthew Fox in "World War Z"! Nice to see you, Paul Walker in "Fast & Furious 6"!), over-extended subplots, and uneven storytelling prevalent. Some of these films were successful, some less so, but almost all felt bloated and in need of paring down. We blame "The Lord of the Rings" to some extent—the three-hour run times of that franchise became increasingly standard over the last decade. It's also to some degree a generational thing—the shorter attention spans of Generation X replaced by the reared-on-long-form-TV-boxsets expectations of millennials. But if a summer movie clocked in at 90 minutes next year, we would not be upset.

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11 Comments

  • cineman | August 26, 2013 6:45 AMReply

    Nice to see mention of blockbuster bloat. Would be really good to see some stripped down, lean and cool storytelling again. The bloat suggests some writers/directors/execs have forgotten how to do this, or never learnt properly in the first place.

  • Vidiot | August 20, 2013 5:35 AMReply

    "Crucially, it was also a lot cheaper than most animated pictures, with a production budget of around $75 million, which makes it apparently the most profitable film in the history of Universal."
    Nope: AMERICAN GRAFFITI (to name one) cost about $800K and made about $110,000,000, which is more than a 100:1 ratio. DESPICABLE ME made ten times its budget, which is great... but not as big as George Lucas' 1973 blockbuster.

  • Gobbledygook | August 13, 2013 3:09 PMReply

    Fair article Oliver, although I would have to differ of your assessment of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon having a bad summer. "Oblivion" did well overseas: enough to make it break even (and considering it was never supposed to be a potential franchise, Universal were happy with this result). Though perhaps it would have cleared well over $300 million had it been released at a different time of year (March? November?). WB isn't worried about "Edge Of Tomorrow"; if they were it wouldn't be opening in the middle of next summer. It has a more original and interesting concept than "Oblivion" that will appeal to a broader audience. Tom IS the money.

    Damon, outside of Bourne, never really opens a movie above $30 million. Consider that "Elysium" is an original film, opening in the middle of a period of deep audience blockbuster fatigue. Could it have opened any higher out of the summer? Not by much. Flick only cost $115m anyway; with international dollar it will break even. Damon is somewhat bankable.

  • Mark | August 13, 2013 5:51 AMReply

    Good to see that Star Trek Into Darkness wasn't mentioned once. A movie that deserves to be completely forgotten.

  • JAB | August 12, 2013 10:35 PMReply

    "Destruction fatigue" is a really good way of putting what is beginning to really ail me about a genre of movies I typically love. I loved "Man Of Steel" but would I'd liketo see a cut of the movie that is actually shorter --less mayhem.
    "Pacific Rim" definitely suffered from...DF? It's attempts at humor were howlingly bad. Those 2 actors as scientists came out of the JarJar Binks acting academy.
    "Europa Report" is this year's "Moon". It proves that a small budget needn't sacrifice a sense of wonder, fine casting & real suspense. Don't let the "found footage" gimic turn you off (as it almost did me). This is very smart, often moving & totally cool sc-fi film.
    Will see "Elysium" soon & looking forward to "Gravity".

  • JAB | August 12, 2013 10:35 PMReply

    "Destruction fatigue" is a really good way of putting what is beginning to really ail me about a genre of movies I typically love. I loved "Man Of Steel" but would I'd liketo see a cut of the movie that is actually shorter --less mayhem.
    "Pacific Rim" definitely suffered from...DF? It's attempts at humor were howlingly bad. Those 2 actors as scientists came out of the JarJar Binks acting academy.
    "Europa Report" is this year's "Moon". It proves that a small budget needn't sacrifice a sense of wonder, fine casting & real suspense. Don't let the "found footage" gimic turn you off (as it almost did me). This is very smart, often moving & totally cool sc-fi film.
    Will see "Elysium" soon & looking forward to "Gravity".

  • JAB | August 12, 2013 10:35 PMReply

    "Destruction fatigue" is a really good way of putting what is beginning to really ail me about a genre of movies I typically love. I loved "Man Of Steel" but would I'd liketo see a cut of the movie that is actually shorter --less mayhem.
    "Pacific Rim" definitely suffered from...DF? It's attempts at humor were howlingly bad. Those 2 actors as scientists came out of the JarJar Binks acting academy.
    "Europa Report" is this year's "Moon". It proves that a small budget needn't sacrifice a sense of wonder, fine casting & real suspense. Don't let the "found footage" gimic turn you off (as it almost did me). This is very smart, often moving & totally cool sc-fi film.
    Will see "Elysium" soon & looking forward to "Gravity".

  • Donella | August 12, 2013 9:24 PMReply

    I'd say this is a fair write-up Oliver. I'd add that Ryan Reynolds has skated by by holding the coattails of veteran costars such as Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, and Denzel Washington and participating in ensembles such as Smokin Aces and Adventureland.

  • Skywater | August 12, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    No problem with long movies if it's good.

  • daniel | August 12, 2013 2:33 PMReply

    The international boom in 3d will almost certainly carry the technology through till the advent of glasses-free 3d, which is looking to make it's debut in the next couple of years. Whether haters of 3d admit it or not, the real problem is simply the hassle of wearing glasses; once the experience is just as normal feeling as 2d, I believe it will be largely preferable for audiences. In order for the medium to fully succeed, it has to be forgotten. Due to the price hikes and the hardware the audience has to wear, 3d puts itself in the position to be actively judged, even as you watch it, and it's distracting. It needs to become an utterly passive, integrated experience, the same way that color film did. If you look at the early color pictures, they are basically saturation porn, because people responded to the novelty; same with the phase of 3d we are in. Almost all complaints break down into a) I hate the glasses b) it's too in your face, or c) its so subtle, what's the point. The last two of which remind me of the Woody Allen line about the women at the Catskill resort: "the food at this place is terrible. And such small portions!"

  • Skywater | August 12, 2013 3:14 PM

    The issues i have with it in my corner of the world is pricing, it's ridiculous, as well as the movie not being projected properly, too dark or some ghosting effect. Sucks paying that much for a subpar viewing experience. I've come to the conclusion the best shot i have of enjoying a movie is to see in 2d. I can see all the colour, and if the movie sucks, then atleast i didnt just spend so much on it.

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