Moviegoers flocked to see Bradley Cooper defend the American Way and Dakota Johnson test out the spicier chapters of the Kama Sutra last winter in two of the unlikeliest blockbusters to come out of Hollywood in years. “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” weren’t the only films to loom large at the box office during the first quarter of 2015, but the surprises of the last few months have left studios grappling with new and unfamiliar paradigms.
Here are five takeaways on what worked — and what fell flat.
Stop Rebooting “Taken”
Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills don’t extend to every film: He proved he can still draw a crowd when “Taken 3” opened to a muscular $39.2 million, but the actor’s “Run All Night” fell flat with just $21 million in its first three weeks. And the audience doesn’t want just any action hero, either: Sean Penn’s attempt to assume the mantle with “The Gunman” shot blanks.
Comic Book Movies Aren’t the Only Blockbusters
“American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” redefined what a studio blockbuster looks like, proving that moviegoers aren’t just interested in costumed vigilantes. In fact, “American Sniper” became the highest grossing domestic release of 2014, the first time an adult drama has pulled that off since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” The secret of their success: Appealing to red-state crowds and girls’-night-out groups, both of which are too often ignored by Hollywood’s executive suite. Moreover, “American Sniper’s” $59 million budget and “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” $40 million pricetag are a fraction of the cost of a typical comicbook film, resulting in some heroic profit margins.
Studios have traditionally steered clear of R-rated fare, believing them to have limited commercial appeal. Yet while “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “American Sniper” broke out in a big way, there were too many blood-soaked films pitched at people of voting age: Witness “The Gunman,” “Run All Night,” “Blackhat” and “Focus.” And while some films like “Chappie” and “Mortdecai” played better with younger viewers, too much gore and too many F-bombs branded them with an R rating, preventing them from reaching their target audience. Lionsgate got the message — it will release a PG-13 version of “Mortdecai” when it hits home entertainment.
Give “Kingsman” Some Props
What if you made $300 million and nobody noticed? That’s exactly what happened with Fox’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” In a shrewd bit of counterprogramming, the tongue-in-cheek spy thriller opened on the same weekend as “Fifty Shades of Grey” — and rode strong word of mouth to a respectable return. Greenlight a sequel already!
The Kids Are All Right
“Cinderella,” “Paddington” and “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” neatly carved up the family crowd. Each film was neatly spaced out to avoid cannibalization, allowing their backers to maximize profits — and resulting in veritable gems of planning and promotion. Last year, studios were faulted for not providing enough animated features and wholesome fare, but so far 2015 is off to a strong start, with “Home” closing out the quarter respectably. Lesson learned?