Sizzling season shatters long-held beliefs

This summer has confirmed a few truisms about the box office: Big, noisy action films make money, Will Smith and Pixar are invincible and some “surefire” titles are bound to fail (“Speed Racer,” “The Love Guru” and “Meet Dave” all sounded good on paper, but they were met with anything but love at the box office).

But otherwise, the summer has killed a lot of long-held beliefs about how the B.O. works. The following are examples of “conventional wisdom” touted by studio honchos that have turned out to be totally wrong.

Summer films fade faster than a tan.

With two, and sometimes, three big films opening each weekend, distribs complain that their films — particularly tentpoles — have no breathing room. That’s not the case this summer.

All sorts of films have showed remarkable staying power, including “Iron Man,” “Mamma Mia!” “Get Smart,” “Hancock” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Family pics tend to have sturdy legs, but this year’s crop are particularly muscular, with “Kung Fu Panda,” “Wall-E” and 3-D action-adventure “Journey to the Center of the Earth” playing longer and stronger than some of their predecessors.

And while superhero tentpole “The Dark Knight’s” bow was record-setting, the film’s remarkable performance is due to its longevity: Four weeks at No. 1, and counting.

Summer films are targeted only at teenage boys.

Fanboys accounted for much of the strength of “Revenge of the Sith,” “Spider-Man 3″ and “Transformers.” Adults were much more iffy, and summers were top-loaded with male-skewing popcorn pics.

This summer, there’s been a wider variety of films offering up all sorts of onscreen heroes, for all different demos. The season featured a 65-year-old action hero (Harrison Ford), 40-plus romantic heroines (Sarah Jessica Parker, Meryl Streep) and Ben Kingsley, 64, who appeared in no fewer than five films this season (romancing Mary Kate Olsen and Penelope Cruz along the way).

Adult filmgoers have to wait until autumn.

Summer used to be a good time for indie counter-programming, but seasonal hits like “March of the Penguins” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” seem like distant memories. Studios’ niche divisions and indies mostly sat out the summer, continuing a long drought for those areas.

Instead, “serious” filmgoers embraced films from the major studios, like “Dark Knight,” “Wall-E,” “Iron Man” and “Hancock,” following the boffo success of last summer’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ratatouille.” Foreign filmmakers (Guillermo del Toro, Timur Bekmambetov) and indie faves (Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau) are working in the tentpole genre.

Another reason is the sea change in the specialty and indie world. Festival acquisitions aren’t paying off the way they used to, meaning fewer films coming out of studio specialty arms.

The new “Hulk” is bound to overshadow its predecessor.

Before “The Incredible Hulk” bowed, Marvel Studios and Universal insisted it was a much-needed reinvention, not a sequel to the 2003 “Hulk.” After the film opened, the press carried breathless stories saying the new one got better reviews, and that fans liked it much better. Best of all, it would do bigger business at the box office.

All interesting theories, all wrong.

The earlier film earned $245 million worldwide; the latter got $250 million. Website rottentomatoes.com recorded 61% positive reviews for the ’03 version, 67% for this year’s.

In truth, maybe the world didn’t need another “Hulk,” but maybe Marvel did. Marvel is intent on being more independent, securing a healthy line of credit that it used to finance both “Iron Man” and “Incredible Hulk.” The 2003 “Hulk” was co-produced and co-financed by U and Marvel, meaning the studio took the lead. Although U still retains the film license to the character, Marvel got much better terms this time.

Females alone can’t open a movie to big B.O. numbers.

Think again. This summer’s “Sex and the City” opened to a boffo $57 million in late May on its way to grossing $151.8 million domestically, almost entirely on the strength of women. Females of all ages acted like fanboys in organizing outings to theaters with their girlfriends. Repeat viewings also were the norm, another hallmark of the big male-skewing films.

Sequels will match or surpass the originals, no matter the season.

Last summer’s glut of three-quels and sequels saw them come within range of their predecessors’ huge grosses. The “Harry Potter” movies are generally released around year-end holiday, but sometimes go out in the summer. In either season, the “Potter” pics have all been successful.

Disney took a hit this summer with sequel “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.” The studio released the first “Narnia” pic in December, to boffo results. It slowly and steadily grew its domestic gross to $291.7 million and another $453.1 million overseas. “Prince Caspian” cumed $141 million in North America and $254 million internationally. Many films would be happy with those tallies, but they’re pale compared to the first one.

Some box office observers say “Narnia” might be better suited for a December playdate. But the pic’s performance may not have been just a seasonal issue. Disney sold the second “Narnia” as a different pic, one that was more dark and featured more action. The third “Narnia” is set to open in May 2010.

It’s easy to handicap the summer.

Heading into summer 2007, studio execs and the media fretted that the glut of sequels would cannibalize each other. By the time the summer was over — bringing record-breaking grosses of $4.16 billion — everyone said of course it was a strong summer, since titles like “Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Shrek the Third” were virtually pre-sold.

As this summer got under way, some fretted that 2008 didn’t have enough sequels. As it turns out, summer box office revenues are even with that of 2007. That means theater owners and Hollywood could see their second consecutive record-breaking summer.

There were twists and turns that no one predicted. Who would have bet that “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” would not have the summer’s biggest opening, or that “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” would outgross it?

Bottom line: It’s fun to handicap and fun to be surprised, but success at the box office can be determined by a confluence of mysterious factors — the economy, the mood of the world and even, shockingly, the quality of the films.

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.

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