News Column

Hollywood Flips an Early String of Summer Flops

August 25, 2013


Hollywood's summer of the bummer? Not so fast.

You may have read about the string of turkeys, over the past three months, that have supposedly put the "bust" in "blockbuster."

"The Lone Ranger" ($87 million domestic gross, on what was reportedly a $215 million-plus budget); "After Earth" ($60 million domestic gross, $130 million reported budget); "Pacific Rim" ($98 million domestic gross, $190 million reported budget), "R.I.P.D." ($31 million domestic gross, $130 million reported budget); and "White House Down" ($72 million domestic gross, $150 million reported budget) are some of the big films that have underperformed at the box office, and in many cases gotten bad reviews as well. Hollywood's "worst summer in years," some have been saying, is a watershed moment: a cue for executives to stop making the big-star, big-budget, "surefire" popcorn movies that may not be so surefire after all.

Nice story. Here's another one.

Hollywood is on track to make $4.7 billion this summer, up 10.16 percent from 2012. And for every epic failure Hollywood unleashed on an indifferent public, there was a hit.

"Iron Man 3" made $408 million domestically on a $200 million reported budget. "Fast & Furious 6" made $238 million on a $160 million reported investment. "Star Trek Into Darkness" made $227 million domestically on a $190 million reported budget. Even films widely thought of as disappointments did better than some people think: "Man of Steel" made $289 million on a $225 million reported budget, though the buzz was bad on this "Superman" reboot. "World War Z," after months of bad publicity, grossed $198 million on a $190 million reported cash outlay.

And all of this is not counting the international grosses, always a huge part of Hollywood's calculus. "After Earth," a flop domestically, made an additional $183 million overseas, bringing its total gross to something like $243 million. "Pacific Rim" took in another $286 million internationally, ratcheting up its total take to $384 million.

Any film that makes back its budget in domestic grosses - leaving international revenues as gravy - is considered a success, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of By this light, Hollywood has every reason to break out the Champagne this month.

"We're on track to have a huge summer in terms of revenue," Dergarabedian says. "The overall picture is very bright. Which shows you how impactful a few high-profile big-budget flops can be on the perception of the industry."

Of course, some people who were snickering over Hollywood's collapsed tent poles this summer were likely also engaged in a bit of wishful thinking.

Over the years, many have bemoaned the Hollywood business model, in force since the huge success of "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977), in which summer hits were constructed like TinkerToys: big stars, big explosions, big effects, plus a no-brainer concept that could be understood by the average 16-year-old boy (the target audience) or the average person overseas who doesn't speak English (the other target audience).

"They want to make what made money last week," says Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies. "They all want to make blockbusters."

It's a high-stakes, winner-take-all strategy, but the payday can be spectacular. And as for whether the movies are good, there's a saying in the industry: "You can't cash a review."

"I think the studios have long since stopped caring about whether people actually like the film," says Caseen Gaines, a Hackensack pop- culture historian and film writer who teaches at Rutgers University. "I think they care primarily about whether people saw the film. If it can make a certain box office, they'll make a sequel. That means the movie has found an audience, and the sequel will certainly open well. The point is to create a franchise."

What made people perceive 2013 as an off summer, Dergarabedian says, had more to do with the peculiar rhythm of the release schedule than the actual number of flops.

"It was the trajectory of the summer," he says. "It didn't allow enough time between films that didn't do well, so that the industry and press, everyone was allowed to dwell on these high-profile failures for too long."

Which is not to say that flops don't have an impact. Even the ones that do make back their money overseas.

"After Earth" probably damaged Will Smith's brand more than a little. And the tepid fan reaction to "Man of Steel" will doubtless make the next Superman movie that much harder to sell.

"There's damage done, and a toll taken," Dergarabedian says. "Even on films that technically break even, or make a little money. There's damage done to the overall brand of the property."



Rebound at the box office

Overseas sales helped salvage the film industry's summer.

Domestic Worldwide

gross gross

Iron Man 3 $408,195,474 $1,212,795,474

Fast & Furious 6 $238,454,145 $785,454,145

Man of Steel (3-D/Imax) $289,633,849 $649,133,849

World War Z $198,303,509 $517,603,509

Star Trek Into Darkness $227,161,815 $453,661,815

Pacific Rim $98,389,608 $384,389,608

The Hangover Part III $112,186,625 $350,986,625

The Wolverine $120,551,787 $336,951,787

A Good Day to Die Hard $67,344,392 $304,644,392

After Earth $60,522,097 $243,622,097

The Lone Ranger $87,707,876 $217,807,876

Jack the Giant Slayer $65,171,860 $197,671,860

Turbo $77,658,168 $143,558,168

White House Down $72,117,169 $131,317,169

Gangster Squad $45,996,718 $105,196,718

Red 2 $50,961,305 $102,461,305

Elysium $56,011,138 $95,211,138

The Internship $44,553,012 $77,403,012

RIPD. $31,970,110 $58,670,110


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