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I kinda thought we would just wing it, you know.


Box Office Comment
January-February 2013


It’s the last week of February and, unsurprisingly, few contenders for box office glory have been released so far. Only two films (Die Hard 5 and Safe Haven) featured in my 2013 predictions and I usefully managed to omit Identity Thief, which is close to $100m in the US.

But who can predict hits, let alone comedy hits? Released at another moment, a Jason Bateman comedy would be a bomb. True, Seth Gordon topped $100m with both his previous features (Horrible Bosses and Four Christmases), and a savaging by critics is no impediment to a responsive mass audience. But no one was really expecting it to hit this big; the trailers, in particular, were horrible.

So, logic suggests this is the Melissa McCarthy factor; her first starring role after stealing Bridesmaids, and audiences clearly want to see her being obnoxiously crude and bovine. It bodes well for the prospects of the upcoming pairing of McCarthy with Sandy Buttocks in The Heat; my top-end estimate of US $120m now looks quite low. That said, give it 18 months and audiences will likely have tired of her.

The most notable run of disappointments in the year to date have been with action movies. Arnie’s return stiffed (The Last Stand) despite some favourable comments regarding Jee-woon Kim’s direction, and thus far it hasn’t been making up numbers in the rest of the world. But neither this, nor Stallone’s solo, non-franchise Bullet to the Head ever seemed to have much prospect of reward.

Schwarzenegger has been on hiatus governating for a decade and was a dimming bulb even before his descent into politics. Stallone has shrewdly spent the past decade reviving franchises and creating one that doesn’t rely solely on him (The Expendables). When it came to him doing his thing solo, no one wanted to know. Just like ’94-2004, then. Maybe The Tomb will do better as they team up. While I didn’t expect either of these to be hits, I didn’t expect quite such failures.

It hasn’t been good news for younger “icons” either. Mark Wahlberg may be a patchy leading man, but he’s a very Midas-like producer. The failure of Broken City is his first significant misstep since 2008’s Max Payne (the director of which will be mentioned shortly). Wahlberg tends to wisely make medium-budget starring vehicles, and had a very good year last year (Ted and Contraband), although he’s an actor whose following is mainly US-based. If teaming with Russell Crowe didn’t work out this time, there’s always Denzel coming up (2 Guns).

With the likes of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham it’s very much about lowered expectations anyway. As long as these guys make action pictures on a certain budget they can guarantee a certain level of return. Statham’s profile has been elevated by his support in The Expendables, following the profitable Transporter trilogy. But can anyone recall The Mechanic, Killer Elite or Safe (the middle one of which was more costly than he is used to, and suffered accordingly)? So now we have a new iteration of Parker, which looks to yield similar returns to the last few efforts. He’ll continue to get work, but the rare perfect fit of personality and interesting material (The Bank Job) now seems like an aberration.

Johnson has also prospered within (other people’s) franchises (Fast Five, Journey 2) but floundered on his own. Snitch looks set to follow the underwhelming Faster with Stat levels of box office. He has Fast 6 and G.I Joe 2 coming up, so they will insulate him for a while. But, like Statham, no one is really expecting his star vehicles to become break-out hits.

This glut of testosterone has also seen the one expected juggernaut crash and burn. Albeit, how much it was expected by Fox is questionable given the lack of advance screenings. A Good Day to Die Hard was roundly molested by critics and trampled into the dirt by fans of the franchise.

Reportedly, it had good responses from the general audience on its first weekend (B+) but its second week plummet suggests otherwise. If Live Free and Die Hard met with resistance from the fans who said it betrayed the franchise, there’s no denying that it was a word-of-mouth hit that came as something of a surprise. In contrast, Die Hard 5 will end up nearly $100m lower than its nearest franchise competitor when adjusted for inflation.

It’s another example of Fox having no idea how to make movies diligently. Slap a hack (John Moore, an in-house director who made all five of his films with the studio; what hold do they have over him, and why do they want him given the middling returns his pictures have yielded?) on a picture and quality be damned. And presumably Bruce Willis approved him (although Willis has always had negligible quality control, both in scripts and directors).

I don’t want actually this to bomb, because I’d like to see a worthy Die Hard 6 conclude the “double” trilogy. With John McTiernan returning.  Worldwide, the film is nearing $200m, and could well reach about $275m before it pegs out. As it cost $90m a sixth installment is possible, but I’m sure no one wants the stink of another one like this on them. I predicted $350m worldwide low-end if it didn’t stink. Alas, it did.

A Nicholas Sparks adaptation seems like a sure thing; reasonably cheap and an assured return. That’s why even a bidding war on his novels is a no-brainer. About two-thirds of the gross for these romantic melodramas comes from the US, however, so the $50m Safe Haven has made so far will likely finish up around, or just over, $100m worldwide.

A few of the films released so far have achieved surprising yields. Mama was an expected PG-13 horror hit, with Guillermo Del Toro attached as producer and nestled in the traditional January horror window. It had better legs than the one-week Texas Chainsaw 3D prequel and will end up about $100m worldwide. Another horror-tinged hit is Warm Bodies, a romantic zombie movie that has found an audience I wasn’t expecting (it helps that the reviews have been kind, of course). In contrast, Beautiful Creatures, a botched Young Adult adaptation, bombed and can be added to the ever-increasing pile of Twilight/Hunger Games-wannabe failures. The other horror-ish release has been Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Delayed and labelled a piece of shit, the medium-budgeted horror comedy has proved a success worldwide, certainly more so than anyone consigning it to the early January rubbish heap expected ($163m an counting).

The other hit that deserves a mention completely failed to make an impression in the States, although it nabbed Naomi Watts a Best Actress nod. The Impossible made a negligible $18m at the US box office, but its worldwide take stands at $161m. There’s little doubt that the film wasn’t cheap, and critical reaction has been lukewarm, but it’s interesting to see a release where the US response is so divergent – nine times lower (Resident Evil might be a similar comparison where the overall take is about six times the US one).

Escape from Planet Earth is the Weinsteins just about justifying their animation investment (see also Hoodwinked!) but not really having the understanding of the genre. Still, no one expected great things and it’s doing reasonable business.

The other area to note is the performance of Oscar nominees. As usual, films have received a bump from all the attention; Silver Linings Playbook in particular. Argo too, had pretty much finished its run when it got a second wind of another $30m+ from all the awards attention. The worldwide versus US grosses are something worth considering this year, as there are significant disparities in both directions.

Unsurprisingly, Lincoln has made three-quarters of its money in the US. At best, that will end up as two-thirds. In the current landscape, US takings would be expected/hoped as a third-ish of a film’s overall box office at maximum (in terms of the increasing appetite for cinema outside of America). Zero Dark Thirty has seen even less interest outside of America, with only just over a tenth of its gross (the reverse of The Impossible, which might highlight the US-centric subject matter and viewpoint, except that The Impossible went out of its way to give us white Caucasian leads). Now awards season has finished, that’s unlikely to change.

So too, Silver Linings Playbook ($107m, $160m overall) and Argo ($130m, £207m overall) look to finish up with two-thirds US and a third rest-of-the-world.

Django Unchained ($158m, $380m overall) and Les Miserables ($146m, $395m overall) are both heading in the direction of the third US/two-thirds rest-of-the-world ratio, but there’s some distance to go yet.

But the only film (and most of the nominees this year are significant hits on some level, so everyone will be happy) to truly hit the new model is Life of Pi. $113m in the US but $583m worldwide. That’s only a fifth of its take coming from America.

Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour are both very much art house inclined, and successes on that basis (which will likely be increased from the attention they get as rentals).

March sees would-be hits make themselves known, including the delayed Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz the Great and Powerful, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Olympus has Fallen, Admission (Fey and Rudd), The Croods, G.I. Joe Retaliation, The Host and (for US audiences) Tyler Perry’s Temptation. A couple of films could break out bigger than their budgets would normally allow, notably Wayne Blair’s feel-good ‘Nam girl group film The Sapphires. There’s also Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, but that’s more likely to garner critical kudos alone. 

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