As we start poring over the reviews out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto to get that ever-crucial five-month head start on our Oscar pools, we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that film, at its core, might actually be about art. And in the coming months, while staring at Johnny Depp’s tastefully decayed teeth or admiring Michael Fassbender’s prowess at spouting tongue-twisting Sorkin dialogue while maintaining a perfect jawline, even the most jaded among us might begin to believe that.
But before you settle into that high-minded delusion, you must first pay tribute to the false idol that makes all the art possible: money. You can win all the Oscars you want, but nothing comes close to the glee of a 10-figure victory ad in Variety. Now that summer’s blockbuster bounty has been tallied, and the cruel, merciless gods of the box office have spoken, let us prostrate ourselves before them one last time to sing the praises of those they anointed as chosen and avert our eyes in disgust from the mangled movie corpses left to litter summer’s heat-scorched desert.
Undisputed Worldwide Champion: The House That Laemmle Built
Somewhere on Universal’s backlot,1 there must be a dark altar covered in the sacrificial blood of would-be Spielbergs who foolishly jumped off the tour tram to get a closer look at the façades. How else do you explain this run? For years Universal was the runt of the studio system,2 the neglected stepchild that couldn’t afford any world-building franchises of his own because it was being passed from corporate foster parent to corporate foster parent. And yet in the end, Universal gets the last laugh: 6 billion of them, actually. While everyone knew Jurassic World would be big, even Spielberg admits he couldn’t have seen beyond a $100 million opening weekend. Instead we get the third-highest-grossing film of all time with $1.65 billion worldwide? And, of course, that’s just the tip of the all-devouring dino-iceberg: Universal’s movies accounted for more than a third of all box office revenue this summer. The $1 billion–grossing Minions was the no. 1 animated film of the summer and Straight Outta Compton took what had previously been seen as a niche genre, the musical biopic, and milked $150 million domestic out of it. And “summer” doesn’t even technically cover Furious 7 — the fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time. Limitless digital ink has been spilled trying to explain Universal’s witchcraft. In the end, no one but chairwoman Donna Langley, some sacrificial entrails, and the Dark Lord Beelzebub truly knows. And inevitably Universal cannot, statistically, repeat this success. What one can say for sure is that Universal refused to march to the beat of the other studios, built a balanced slate that mainlined the zeitgeist, and just watched the money flow in.
Runner-up: The House That the Mouse Built
You’d think maybe the Bates Motel façade. But I’ve been back there, and it’s just Norman Bates listening to NPR in between scaring tourists. My guess is that it’s actually under the Laemmle building, which is both a parking structure and executive suites. You don’t get more evil than that.
Once MGM/UA vanished into Sony’s gaping corporate maw.
Turbo-charged with Marvel’s success, Disney3 was the summer’s other juggernaut, accounting for a hefty 25 percent of the box office. That’s thanks to Avengers: Age of Ultron, which — despite our deep-seated need to be disappointed by it — is still the sixth-highest-grossing film worldwide of all time, and Ant Man, which after a muted opening (by superhero standards) has legged it out to $384 million worldwide. And of course, after its year off, Pixar kept up that near-perfect record with the critically adored Inside Out earning $735 million globally so far. In any other year when Universal wasn’t rewriting the record books, Disney probably would’ve come out on top. Fearless leader Bob Iger will just have to cry himself to sleep on an unshipped pallet of new Star Wars: The Force Awakens toys while he waits to open that massive present to his bottom line this holiday season.
Loser: Everybody Else (Especially Sony)
Which owns Grantland, but doesn’t need me to sing its corporate praises.
How the mighty have fallen. Warner Bros. was long the epitome of the soulless media conglom, with the biggest studio lot in the city and an octopus-like media reach with which to synergize all its “properties.” But sans those Boy Wizard films boosting its bottom line, the studio struggled to $615 million in domestic box office: not horrible, but not what you expect from an empire. To be sure, Warner Bros. had genuine hits — e.g., Mad Max: Fury Road and San Andreas — but it paid dearly for them with massive production budgets and the biggest media spends of any studio. They also paid more dearly still with flops like Hot Pursuit, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and the Entourage movie. At the end of the day, volume alone kept the Warners tank rolling along. But it seems to validate the opinion long whispered around town that letting longtime studio chief Alan Horn decamp to Disney was a big-time blunder by parent company Time Warner.
The most embarrassing stumble belongs to Fox, last year’s summer champion. With Rupert Murdoch’s Sauron-like eye watching from afar, the 20th Century boys pride themselves on ruthless financial efficiency, never letting production budgets or pesky talent get out of hand. Talk about irony, then, in the most classic Greek sense of the word, that they gave into the hubris of heedless world-building and went all in to reboot Fantastic Four, an epic flameout that almost took all of August down with it. In the end, this year’s hits couldn’t compete with last year’s dream team of X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fault in Our Stars, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, leading to a 65 percent drop in domestic box office. Paramount suffered a less severe 44 percent decline and didn’t fare any better in raw-number terms ($273 million domestic total), although Mission: Impossible’s success — $512 million worldwide and counting — took the sting out of Terminator Genisys’s domestic failure.
Then again, it could be worse for all of these guys: They could be Sony Pictures. When War Room, a $3 million faith-based film that has yet to top $30 million domestic, counts as your only genuine hit, you have truly lost the summer. Pretty much every story tracking the studio has pointed out that if longtime studio head honchess Amy Pascal hadn’t already gotten the boot after the infamous and disastrous hack, this summer would have surely done her in. Aloha and Pixels were two of the summer’s undisputed bombs, and they both belonged to Sony — the only saving grace being that their budgets weren’t totally out of hand. Sony’s domestic revenue plummeted 71 percent to under $175 million. That is not good.
Loser: Superhero Dominance
We should take great pains to highlight that the total cultural dominance of comic-book franchises is far from over, but the edifice is definitely showing some cracks. Yes, it’s silly to rip Age of Ultron for “underperforming,” however the laws of the box office did predict just a little bit more; and Ant-Man, while undoubtedly a success, came in on the bottom rung of Marvel’s moneymakers. But as our own Mark Harris pointed out, the truly keeled-over canary is Fantastic Four. There’s no denying that the deeply troubled production was a mess — and at a certain point of subzero performance, bad box office is about quality. But the previous Fantastic Four films were no wonders of aesthetic achievement, and they made enough money. It’s hard not to feel the collective hangover from this summer’s superhero films is at least partly fueled by Fantastic Four’s spectacular collapse.
Winner: Funny Women
With the Lady Ghostbusters playing the film-nerd zeitgeist like a baby grand, it’s no surprise that funny women remained one of the few dependable variables in a hot and cold summer. Spy may not have matched Melissa McCarthy’s previous highs, but it still cleared $100 million domestic,4 as did Amy Schumer with Trainwreck. But the real girls of summer were the Barden Bellas; Universal’s Pitch Perfect 2 notched the fifth-highest domestic gross of the summer. The modest budgets of all these films just made them more appealing and should finally solidify the obvious conclusion it’s taken Hollywood too long to accept: Making movies with women, for women, and by women5 can also make money. Who knew? (Everyone.)
Loser: Unfunny Men …
And well over $200 million worldwide.
Trainwreck and Spy had male directors, but Elizabeth Banks outearned them both with Pitch Perfect 2.
On the other hand, having a Y chromosome isn’t a guarantor of success anymore. Just ask Zac Efron: In terms of pure raw box office, he set an embarrassing new record low for a studio film with We Are Your Friends. Who knew the words High School Musical and Delgo would ever appear in the same story? But the truth is that’s just an embarrassing result for a film without much muscle behind it anyway. One of the biggest write-downs of the summer remains Disney’s Tomorrowland — the movie responsible for one of the worst Memorial Day weekends in recent memory, with an estimated loss of up to $150 million — and the only real movie star to pin it to is Hollywood’s crown prince, George Clooney. In fairness to Danny Ocean, no one’s ever mistaken Clooney for a box office sure thing, but you can’t jump from a sinking ship as big as Tomorrowland without mussing your perfectly tailored tux. Then again, Bradley Cooper didn’t do much better with Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, and the Governator wasn’t able to dead-lift a moribund Terminator Genisys into a domestic success. (He wisely left that to the Chinese.) Then there’s Adam Sandler: Pixels has proved to be the nth final nail in the coffin of Sandler’s box office rep — well, until his deal with Netflix suddenly brings him back from the dead. Whether you want it or not, that’s going to happen.
Winner: … Except the Rock
Can you smell what the Rock is cooking? After San Andreas’s nearly $500 million worldwide take, a solid box office reputation.
China is the new promised land for Hollywood, the latest fresh hot pie it wants a disproportionate slice of. February already set a noteworthy milestone: For the first time the Chinese box office outperformed the American one. China’s economy may be listing, but that isn’t stopping Chinese consumers from heading to the theaters, and that market’s surge to film dominance is still forecast for 2018. Just like global warming, it’s an inevitability: sea levels will rise and you will see more and more Chinese stars in our biggest blockbusters. Because not only did China supersize the grosses of Jurassic World, Avengers, and, most recently, Mission: Impossible, it also salvaged the profitability of that rusting exoskeleton of a franchise Terminator Genisys. Despite utter indifference Stateside, where it grossed well under $100 million, Genisys has amassed $435 million worldwide thanks to a record-setting Chinese box office performance. That has never happened before, but you better believe it’s going to happen again. And again and again.
Loser: China’s Business Partners
The problem is getting a piece of that enormous, still-growing pie. For all their record numbers, the amount of money that Hollywood gets back from China remains capped at 25 percent thanks to the film industry’s state overlords, and blackout periods also limit Hollywood’s ability to program a world-conquering blockbuster release. Even those fancy corporate partnerships that producers, agents, and studios continually tout with China seem to disappear upon closer scrutiny. Chinese investors love to make an announcement, but apparently actually following through on the terms of a deal is optional. And new reports have it that the Chinese are actually stealing box office from Terminator Genisys — prodded by government incentives, Chinese theater chains are apparently selling folks tickets to home-grown nationalist epic The Hundred Regiments Offensive and making them use said tickets for Terminator Genisys. And there’s not a damn thing Hollywood can do about it. That’s the surest sign of China’s rise: It’s turned Hollywood, the eternal patsy-maker, into a powerless patsy of its own.
Loser: The Sundance Kids
Lastly, it was a tough summer to be a critically acclaimed indie film, especially for Sundance festival favorites: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Dope, and even The End of the Tour all barely made a dent at the box office. Lily Tomlin’s Grandma and A Walk in the Woods hit, of course, but by catering to senior audiences underserved by Hollywood. Summer is never high-art season, but as prestige projects struggle to break out, they find themselves floundering in the VOD sea. For art films these days, a summer theatrical release is more a trophy than a business strategy, accomplishing little more than maintaining the fiction that challenging films can survive in the blockbuster-dominated marketplace. No, from now on, they’ll exist only at film festivals, the Oscars, and Netflix.