By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 27, 2014 at 3:22PM
With the Venice Film Festival kicking off today with the premiere of “Birdman” (review here), and this week’s releases being “The November Man” and “As Above, So Below,” it can only mean one thing: summer is over. Labor Day is almost upon us, days are getting shorter, and Oscar season is closing in, and as such, it seems like the perfect time to look back at the summer movie season.
As far as we’re concerned, it’s been one of the better blockbuster years in recent memory: “Neighbors,” “Godzilla,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Edge Of Tomorrow,” “22 Jump Street,” “How To Train Your Dragon 2,” “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” “Lucy” and “Guardians Of The Galaxy” all proved to be good times at the movies to varying degrees, and there was more than enough in the arthouses to sate those of us who need something less explode-y during the warm months.
But what about the business end of things? It’s been the worst summer for theaters and studios in a decade, but that doesn’t mean that everyone had it so rough. As ever, certain individuals, movies and companies had a good season, just as others had disastrous ones. To wrap up the season, we’ve run down the winners and losers of the summer of 2014, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section.
No surprise given their recent run of success, but Marvel continued to rule the roost by book-ending the summer with the two biggest domestic hits of the year. The first “Captain America” is, excluding “The Incredible Hulk,” the lowest-grossing of the Marvel flicks, but sequel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” nearly doubled its predecessor's take to cross the $700 million mark, cracking the first film’s biggest problem — appealing to international markets where the word ‘America’ in the title isn’t necessarily a boon. And though many wondered whether it was too weird to cross over to the mainstream, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is the biggest movie of the summer in the U.S. (and the biggest Marvel flick without Robert Downey Jr.), spawning a brand new franchise. So far, it’s hasn't been a monster abroad, only matching the domestic take (perhaps a by-product of its more comedic edge, as gags don’t always translate in the same way), but it’s yet to open in some of the biggest foreign territories, including China and Japan, so expect more to come. Maybe one day Marvel will miss, but they seem bulletproof for now.
It feels like a while since we’ve had a freshly minted movie star suddenly explode, but this summer had a big one in the shape of Chris Pratt. The “Parks & Recreation” star, newly slimmed down and ab-tastic, probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for voicing the lead in the year’s first big smash, “The Lego Movie,” but he gets plenty of praise for “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” The perfect mix of goofy, heroic and tender, it’s hard to see the film working as well as it does without him. Crucially, Pratt also led the film’s publicity train, and feels like the first male breakout from the Jennifer Lawrence school of stardom, charming everyone with replicated Eminem raps, chat show appearances and viral videos. He has that crucial element of stardom that recent hopefuls like Taylor Kitsch have been lacking: people really like the guy. They booked him long before ‘Guardians’ opened, but Universal has to be feeling more and more confident about next summer’s “Jurassic World” knowing that Pratt’s in the lead role.
The specter of Roland Emmerich’s disappointing 1998 re-do, and even last year’s underperforming “Pacific Rim,” promised to haunt Legendary and Warner Bros’ “Godzilla.” With a dark, realistic tone, without a big-name cast, and with relatively unknown director Gareth Edwards, there were safer bets this summer. But off the back of strong reviews and a canny marketing campaign, the film stomped through theaters with one of the biggest opening weekends of the year, and wound up crossing the $500 million mark worldwide, with Edwards landing a “Star Wars” spin-off (and this film’s 2018-dated sequel) for his trouble. It’s worth noting that the film didn’t have the best word of mouth, and we'd wager the blank human leads, and the relatively little screen time of its title character, led to that. But if both issues can be rectified for the follow-up, the franchise could get bigger and bigger.
Spider-Man and X-Men
What’s the difference between success and failure? More often than not, it’s perception, and nothing illustrates that better this year than dueling non-Marvel Studios Marvel movies “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “X-Men: Days Of Future Past.” Released within a few weeks of each other, the films are only separated by about $35 million: 'ASM2' took $708 million, 'XM:DOFP' made $744 million. In almost anyone’s book, those numbers would be a triumph, and indeed, that’s how 'X-Men' has been painted: the film outgrossed the top-grossing previous X-picture by nearly $300 million, and could set the stage for 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” to be even bigger. Despite grossing only fractionally less, 'Spider-Man 2' has been viewed as a failure, and has seemingly caused Sony to reconsider their future plans for the franchise. In part, that’s because it was lousy, and in part because it’s the lowest-grossing movie in the franchise, taking half of what the original “Spider-Man” made domestically back in 2002, and nearly $200 million behind worldwide top-grossing Spidey picture, 2007's “Spider-Man 3." Assuming the movies cost about the same (“X-Men” was said to be the second-most expensive picture in Fox’s history, but we’d wager 'ASM2' came in at a similar level), they probably made similar profits, but Sony had been bullishly predicting a billion-dollar gross, and the poisonous reaction to the film saw them fall $300 million short. Ultimately, both movies made money for their corporate overlords, but they need to work out how to make them for less, and turn a bigger profit, to really justify the whole shebang.
After a run of hits including “Bridesmaids,” “Identity Thief” and “The Heat,” some believed that the $33 million 5-day opening for Melissa McCarthy’s latest vehicle “Tammy” suggested that the actress’ star power might be on the wane. These people didn’t know what they were talking about. For one, a $33 million opening over the long Fourth of July weekend, for a badly-reviewed R-rated comedy without a high-concept premise, or really anything to be sold on other than "Melissa McCarthy’s in this,’ is exactly what makes a movie star. She has the ability to bring a healthy number of people into theaters on opening weekend regardless of the property. Maybe more importantly, the film had real legs, nearly quadrupling its opening for a total north of $80 million. The general public are a long way from being sick of Melissa McCarthy, and with “St. Vincent” and “Spy” on the way, she’s only likely to cement her stardom.
The Middlebrow Indies
It’s been a fairly disappointing year, box-office wise, for indie cinema, with few breakouts beyond “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and challenging fare struggling to catch on with audiences. But there have been exceptions, and they fall under a banner that we’d roughly call, not necessarily in a derogatory way, the Middlebrow Indies, aka movies that your parents might go see. Jon Favreau’s “Chef” was the big winner, unexpectedly and quietly racking up an impressive $30 million take, a real vindication for the actor-filmmaker’s passion project. The Keira Knightley/Mark Ruffalo musical romance “Begin Again” proved a hit, taking over $14 million in the U.S., and period drama “Belle” also crossed the crucial $10 million mark. All courted older audiences who had little else in the mainstream that appealed to them, none were especially daring, but they all connected with crowds thanks to decent notices and excellent word-of-mouth. In another era, they’d have been studio movies, but for now they rank as the big indies of the summer (and crucially, they didn’t get simultaneous VOD releases—more on that below...)
After four years away from screens, some wondered if Angelina Jolie still possessed the star power she once had. But there was little reason to doubt: Disney’s “Maleficent,” sold pretty much entirely on Jolie and her magnetic presence, was a monster hit, taking nearly $250 million domestic, and over $500 million worldwide, for a grand total of three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars, making it the second-biggest film of the year so far. Technically the film was part of Disney’s trend of rebooting fairy tale properties and making them ugly CGI-fests, but “Sleeping Beauty” name recognition came second to Jolie, who found her most iconic turn in a career full of them, and was rewarded with her biggest hit. Jolie’s choosier than ever when it comes to on-screen roles, focusing on charity work and directorial efforts like this fall’s “Unbroken,” but whenever she appears in a movie, especially in a tentpole like this, she’s a force to be reckoned with.