Get ready for the invasion of the wisecracking animals with weapons. Given Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ $65 million opening on top of Rocket Raccoon and Friends lighting up the saggy summer box office last weekend, you just know that’ll be Hollywood’s takeaway lesson from summer 2014: Let’s give Bugs Bunny a grenade launcher. “Wait a sec,” you protest, “August isn’t even half over. I’m still waiting for The Expendables 3!” Well, as you count the days to Mel Gibson’s comeback, the studios have already fired up the incense and are actively reading the entrails of this summer’s blockbuster offerings to divine the will of the box office gods. Because, while there hasn’t been a bomb as spectacular as The Lone Ranger or After Earth this year, the summer as a whole has shown all the vigor of an asthmatic 18-year-old cat: It’s been death by a thousand “mehs.” Until our aforementioned anthropomorphized saviors showed up, the summer was down 20 percent compared to 2013 — Guardians and TMNT combined to cut that gap to 16.5 percent. But the cumulative domestic box office for all of 2014 is still down 5.5 percent, and box office grosses are like paychecks: They tend to rise and we freak out if they don’t. After all, would you shrug off a 5 percent pay cut?
From the World Cup to social media to TV binge-watching, pundits have not lacked for straw men to beat up on as they prophesy the fall and decline of the feature film. In truth, it does feel these days like movies have lost some of their cultural-relevance luster: What does it say when theater owners start bringing in the Premier League to fill their Saturday-morning slots? But ultimately, great trailer campaigns and sneaky marketing aside, it comes down to the films. If anything, Guardians of the Galaxy’s success showed that we theater-going masses are still out there, waiting for just the faintest scent of freshness. So, who’s carried their weight this summer and who’s been crushed under the cold, hard heel of audience indifference? Let’s take a leisurely spin through the season’s box office results and find out.
Winner: Our Conquering Marvel Overlords
Duh. Isn’t it always Marvel? [Disclosure: Disney owns both Marvel and Grantland. So, yeah.] If you want to get technical, the first weekend of May traditionally marks the start of the blockbuster season. But we all know when summer actually started this year: April 4, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It should say something about the summer box office that this year’s highest-grossing domestic film didn’t even open in the summer. Then Guardians of the Galaxy swooped in to reap $313 million worldwide in the dog days of August, and it’s still going. Screw solstices. Kevin Feige gets to decide when summer starts and ends now. Marvel Studios doesn’t even have to be involved with a Marvel movie for it to make money: X-Men: Days of Future Past managed to bridge the divide between Bryan Singer’s original X-Men cast and Matthew Vaughn’s successful First Class reboot (all while deftly undoing the creative damage inflicted by Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand), earning more than $740 million worldwide and setting up a whole new iteration of X-Men films in the process. Even The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the second installment in the reboot no one can bring themselves to care about, squeaked out $700 million–plus internationally, keeping the much-maligned Spidey-verse on life support. Of course, the real lesson of Sony’s shakey attempt to ape Marvel’s success would be that when it comes to money-vacuuming, multidimensional franchises, no one does it better.
Losers: Parents Who Want a Couple of Hours of Peace
It’s tough out there for a parent: In fact, DreamWorks Animation’s stock got pretty roughed up over this summer after Mr. Peabody and Sherman fizzled in the spring. The daringly dark How to Train Your Dragon 2 should eventually crack $500 million worldwide, but in the absence of Pixar’s magic touch or Despicable Me’s marketing-godsend Minions, desperate parents trying to buy 90 minutes of distraction for their kids have had precious few opportunities to throw their money at a mental timeout. Even Planes: Fire and Rescue was originally intended to be a direct-to-DVD release, so no surprise it’s made a comparatively paltry $90 million worldwide. Apparently, one can’t put just any ol’ CGI’d cartoon up onscreen and walk away with a cool half-billion anymore. And what were the other options? Earth to Echo. Yeah, good luck getting “Everything Is Awesome” out of year head with those choices.
Winner: Michael Bay
All hail the Mighty Bay! He has become Death, Destroyer of Box Offices. He cares not for your puny negative reviews. The barbs of critics are like the tickle of a flea as it crosses the vast, bearded breadth of his ego; the careers of young starlets are his playthings, indifferently discarded one moment, only to be resuscitated on a whim. He laughs at the fools who doubt his ability to revive a franchise last relevant when Vanilla Ice was taken seriously. Read the numbers and weep: $1.03 billion worldwide gross for Transformers: Age of Extinction, the four-quel he could barely be bothered to direct. And on a whim, Bay demanded $94 million worldwide from us on the opening weekend of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All he had to do was blink and Paramount green-lighted a sequel. What is that you say, impudent wretch? That Transformers has made “only” $242 million domestically, much less than its predecessors? Go back and shiver in your roach-infested art house hovel, sayeth the Bay. He’s got better things to do, like conquering China.
Losers: Male Mega-Stars
At their most cynical, Hollywood execs used to know in their bones that all you really need is a well-lit famous face to make a blockbuster. Unfortunately, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence argues otherwise. Johnny Depp’s fading cool factor couldn’t light up an incoherent movie about the singularity, a.k.a. nerd rapture, topping out at $100 million worldwide on a $100 million price tag. This is losing all kinds of money. Apparently, if we want to watch films about futuristic, genocidal A.I. gone wild, it better have a thick Austrian accent. But not just any hulking mass of muscle will do. This summer no one wanted to smell what the Rock-ules was cooking: Dwayne Johnson has yet to lift Hercules over $150 million worldwide on a $100 million budget. Then there’s Tom Cruise. The international box office saved The Edge of Tomorrow to a degree, but even cinema’s greatest running man, in excellent form and armed with a great script and a $178 million budget, couldn’t overcome a generic trailer here in the States. Next time any film blogger raises the rallying cry for more original content, Warner Bros. can trot out the receipts for Edge of Tomorrow, shove them in our faces and say, “This is why we make Batman v. Superman: Dawn of the Reboot.”
Winners: Female Mega-Stars
If you want proof that marketing matters, Scarlett Johansson’s come-hither glare and spurious promises of Black Widow–style ass-kicking were enough to make the bizarre Lucy a success at $112 million worldwide and counting. Considering Luc Besson’s manically all-over-the-place track record, it can safely be said that Lucy probably couldn’t have worked without her. Likewise, Angelina Jolie sold Maleficent off nothing but the poster itself: She certainly didn’t do it with the help of the paper-thin story. And even though Tammy wasn’t the Bridesmaids clone people were expecting, those obituaries for Melissa McCarthy’s career were a little hasty: On its modest $20 million budget it should make a little money — it’s currently at $89 million worldwide — providing Warner Bros.’ marketing department didn’t spend too much on that extra-large font in the ads.
Losers: Aging Auteurs
Even after the recent commercial success of Midnight in Paris and the critical success of Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of tepid reviews — even with the double dose of both Colin Firth and Emma Stone’s charisma. Not that Woody’s bothered in the slightest: He’s already moved on to Rhode Island. (Besides, I’m guessing poor box office results are far down Woody Allen’s worry list.) Likewise, octogenarian Clint Eastwood’s odd-duck foray into musicals, Jersey Boys, didn’t exactly replicate the box office success of its Broadway originator at $58 million on a $40 million budget. Of course, the mere fact that both of these auteurs are still kicking out films with the regularity of a Rolex is a triumph in itself. Though maybe Eastwood would be wise to avoid Goodfellas clichés in the future.
Winner: Destroying San Francisco
Fun fact: Destroying San Francisco is worth roughly $1.1 billion in ticket sales, i.e., the combined international box office totals of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Godzilla. People must really resent the start-up scene. But, as a subset of the talking animals with guns phenomenon, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly deserves its share of credit for propping up a lackluster summer on Andy Serkis’s expertly CGI’d simian shoulders. And Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla finally washed away the lingering iguana-dung aftertaste of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film. Taken together, DotPotA and Godzilla showed that, when fracked with a strong enough stream of high-pressure digital effects and strong directing, even spent B-movie franchises can produce a gusher at the box office.
Winner: Self-Referential Funny Men
Just in case you weren’t paying attention, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s action-movie-trope-mocking The Lego Movie has made still more at the domestic box office than Transformers: Age of Your Eardrums’ Extinction. So, in the battle of toy franchise adaptations, plastic Eurobricks 1, robot cars that ride robot dinosaurs 0. Obviously, with a February 7 release date, it’s a stretch to call The Lego Movie a summer blockbuster. So just look at Lord and Miller’s other film in the top 10 this year: 22 Jump Street. Applying the same knowing wink by way of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s bro-mantic charisma, 22 Jump Street has made nearly $300 million worldwide off a reasonable $50 million budget — certainly enough to tempt Sony to consider some of those joke sequels in the closing credits. Together that’s more than three quarters of a billion dollars worldwide, essentially for Lord and Miller making fun of the very stale blockbuster conventions their films are bound by.
Losers: Self-Reverential Funny Men
Speaking of cynical, predigested pablum, Adam Sandler’s once indomitable humor machine seemed at last to roll off the tracks with Blended. It’s hard to cry over spilled clichés, but it’s a testament to a changing world that Sandler, whose regular returns were the Hollywood equivalent of GE stock, is no longer a sure thing. Think about that: For years an Adam Sandler joint needed no other raison d’être than than Adam Sandler felt like making a movie. If even Sandler has to worry about concepts like plot, story, or, god forbid, characters, it’s truly a brave new world. Meanwhile, the Boy Prince of Least Common Denominator Humor Seth MacFarlane found his westward expansion into the silver screen blunted without the aid of his foul-mouthed plushie: Not even Liam Neeson’s bad-assery could help A Million Ways to Die in the West avoid its self-fulfilling title.
Winner: Teen Cancer
The Fault in Our Stars proved to be the little tearjerker that could. On an insanely thrifty $12 million budget, it’s made $266 million worldwide so far. At the height of the world-ending CGI explosion season, an adaptation of John Green’s humble young-adult novel became one of the summer’s most notable successes. Good god, its title is a quote from Shakespeare! With desperate studios eager to crack Fault’s heart-string pulling/money-making code, could a young-adult reboot of Steel Magnolias with Emma Roberts filling in for Aunt Julia be far behind?
Loser: Shaking Down Your Fans for Financing
Putting aside the bachelor degree’s worth of ethics classes that will thrive as they debate Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign, it’s a good thing none of the incentive offerings were a cut of the profits.
Winner: Seth Rogen’s Laugh
Rogen probably shouldn’t change up his stoner chuckle any time soon, because it’s practically a box office mating call at this point. This Is the End was one of 2013’s bright spots both comically and financially, earning $126 million off a $32 million budget, but Rogen outdid himself this year with Neighbors. For the bargain-basement price (by studio standards) of $18 million, Universal has earned more than $261 million worldwide on Rogen’s baby vs. frat comedy. Zac Efron’s Abercrombie body probably helped him out a little, as well as Nick Stoller’s uniquely humanist high-concept directing. But Rogen has so thoroughly conquered the comedy box office that he’s willing to take on North Korea. International death threats aside, I’ll be happily spending my Christmas watching Rogen and Franco piss off Kim Jong-un.
Winners: Taking 12 Years to Make a Movie
It’s a drop in the proverbial blockbuster bucket, barely a rounding error in a Michael Bay budget, but Richard Linklater deserves a tip of the hat for squeezing $13 million (and counting) worldwide out of his beautifully audacious Boyhood. It’s a gently reassuring reminder that even over the cacophony of explosion-laden heroes’ journeys in which good and evil fight over the fate of the universe with robot tyrannosaurs and rocket snowboards, Linklater’s profoundly lyrical indie blockbuster can make itself heard.