Michael Bay, the filmmaker behind “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and the “Transformers” franchise, was once the premier architect of big-budget explosive blockbusters. “Ambulance,” the director’s latest detonating action-thriller, proves times and tastes have changed in the days since mayhem and Autobots ruled the box office.
Over the weekend, Universal’s “Ambulance,” a heist thriller that largely unfolds on an EMS vehicle, stalled out with $8.7 million from 3,412 North American theaters. It’s a disappointing domestic box office debut given Bay’s track record in fielding commercial hits. The R-rated “Ambulance” currently ranks as the worst opening weekend of Bay’s career, coming in behind 2013’s hulking action comedy “Pain & Gain” ($20 million debut) and 2016’s Benghazi war film “13 Hours” ($16 million debut). Neither of those movies went on to set the world aflame.
You may be saying, “Hey! We’re still living through a pandemic, and the domestic box office has not returned to normal.” And that’s true. But during the same three-day period in which “Ambulance” fizzled, the family friendly “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” opened to a mighty $71 million. And older male moviegoers, the target demographic of Bay’s films, have shown up for “The Batman,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and James Bond’s latest mission “No Time to Die.” Several other movies have still managed to sell tickets despite lingering pandemic effects. Through Sunday, “Ambulance” only grossed $2 million more than A24’s comedy-fantasy-sci-fi mashup “Everything Everywhere All at Once” ($6 million from 1,250 North American theaters) even though the latter was playing in far fewer cinemas.
Some box office analysts believe the crowded marketplace — Jared Leto’s antihero adventure “Morbius” and Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s screwball romantic comedy “The Lost City” ranked higher on box office charts — worked against “Ambulance.”
“Timing was the biggest factor working against ‘Ambulance’ this weekend,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “Although ‘Sonic 2’ is a family movie, it drew heavily from a male audience up and down the age spectrum because of the brand’s generational appeal. That cut significantly into the usual wheelhouse of these types of films and Bay’s own target moviegoers.”
“Ambulance” cost $40 million, which is relatively cheap for Bay, whose past films have carried price tags well over $100 million. (The studio spent additional tens of millions on marketing and other efforts to get the film on audience radar.) For a major studio’s release, an $8.7 million debut is disappointing any way you slice it. But the blow could have been all the more painful had the production budget been closer to nine figures.
In the late 1990s and early aughts, there was no bigger filmmaker than Bay. His movies may not make critics’ best of the decade lists (they did, improbably, earn admittance into the Criterion Collection), but Bay had a knack for turning adrenalized, physics-defying tentpoles into pop culture-defining hits. That formula does not always work these days, especially at a time when Netflix is regularly churning out a library that plays like an homage to Bay’s filmography. Audiences no longer have to leave home to watch “The Old Guard,” “Triple Frontier” and Bay’s own “6 Underground.” And while those films boasted big stars and (mostly) positive reviews, none of them managed to stick around in the zeitgeist in the same way as a “Bad Boys” or “Armageddon.” Netflix film chief Scott Stuber later admitted to Variety that “6 Underground” fell short of expectations.
In some ways, the Netflix-ification of rom-coms has come for rip-roaring action spectacles. With rom-coms, an influx of satisfactory meet-cute stories trained people to lower their expectations and stay home for any movie that isn’t a standout. “Ambulance” was halfheartedly embraced by critics, landing a 69% Rotten Tomatoes average rating. Ticket buyers — of which 58% were male and 50% were 35 or older — were more enthusiastic about the film, which secured an “A-” CinemaScore. “Ambulance” stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as adoptive siblings who hijack an ambulance and hold the vehicle’s occupants hostage.
“Big-budget action movies were once the bastion of the big screen; only the movie theater [could] render these expensive films profitable” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “[Those films] are now finding favor with audiences on streaming platforms, such as Netflix, who have the cash to produce such films.”
At the same time, COVID-19 continues to take a toll on moviegoing habits. Sure, superhero adventures and video game adaptations can pack theaters, but some genres just aren’t resonating with ticket buyers like they used to. One-time action stars like Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, who rode sidecar with Bay in “Armageddon” and recently retired from acting, are no longer the driving force behind box office triumphs. As evidenced by current theatrical winners, such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “The Batman” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” familiar properties are the real draws. Horror is another safe bet at the box office, and Bay has recently had more success as a producer, working on “The Purge” franchise and John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” films.
“Today’s audiences want something special every time,” said David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “The bar is set higher now.”
For Universal, “Ambulance” extends a bumpy start to 2022. After kicking off the new year with back-to-back duds, the female-fronted heist film “The 355” and religious drama “Redeeming Love,” the studio put Jennifer Lopez’s romantic comedy “Marry Me” day-and-date on NBCUniversal’s streamer Peacock, which likely curbed box office ticket sales. Holdover revenues from Illumination’s animated comedy “Sing 2,” which has grossed $162 million since December, have been a bright spot. And a stacked summer slate, including “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and Jordan Peele’s horror film “Nope,” look to reverse those fortunes.
Just don’t expect Michael Bay-style action epics to ride to the rescue. Those days are probably in the rearview mirror.