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Why the Failure of ‘Expendables 3’ Didn’t Doom the August Box Office

The circle of life is eternal: When one set of aging stars fades into the VOD sunset, a new generation springs forth, sometimes from the most unlikely of places.

Sometimes a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats, especially when one boat is a massive cruise liner laden with a metric ton of 60-year-aged action star beef. Even though we all apparently decided to start going to the multiplex again in August, The Expendables 3 missed the wave of late summer box-office happiness. It bagged a paltry $16.2 million, much lower than its two predecessors, qualifying it for roadkill status and giving box-office analysts something to write about other than the continually surprising success of the no.1 movie — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I guess we better get ready for some intense anti-piracy videos featuring a teary-eyed Sylvester Stallone. His franchise baby wiped out hard, which he can at least partly blame on Internet pirates who spewed forth a DVD-quality copy of the film that has allegedly been viewed about 5 million times. But $16.2 million? X-Men Origins: Wolverine had the bejesus pirated out of it (rumors said because of Ruport Murdoch, no less) and still made $373 million worldwide. An opening this bad has to do, at least in part, with the Jaws 3 effect: You can only repeat the same shtick so many times before people move on, especially if you take the bite out of that shtick by making it PG-13. The Expendables 3 is precisely the kind of movie most vulnerable to piracy: If you rely on a gimmick to stoke the audience’s curiosity — say a cast list that reads like a celebrity sandwich deli menu — it will sate that curiosity through the magic of piracy, no matter how many ’80s/90s action stars you shove on the poster. With a bloated $100 million budget, it’d take a 900-horsepower StairMaster to get the arthritic Expendables up that steep staircase of box-office profitability. But we all know the international box office is where it’s at these days, right? Sadly for Sly, The Expendables 3 made a meager $15 million abroad.

Yet, the circle of life is eternal: When one set of aging stars fades into the VOD sunset, a new generation springs forth, sometimes from the most unlikely of places. Say, a TV show that started out as an adorkable vehicle for Zooey Deschanel. Despite a barrage of dismissive reviews — and recent events in real-life Ferguson, Missouri — Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr.’s faux–cop buddy movie Let’s Be Cops has made a more than respectable $26.1 million since Wednesday, a success since the movie only cost $17 million to make and neither Johnson nor Wayans Jr. are marquee names. It might not quite match We’re the Millers as an August comedy powerhouse, but if it holds, Let’s Be Cops could make more money than Cop Out, which starred the much more established Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in 2010. And it’s further proof that as the summer draws to a close, sometimes mindless humor is all you have the energy for after a season of blockbuster events.

Lets-Be-Cops

Then again, 2014 has been the year of the blockbusters that didn’t bust that many blocks. Only with the late-inning anthropomorphic saviors of Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have pundits had anything to crow about. In fact, despite the embarrassing stumble of The Expendables 3, the top 10 films of the weekend grossed 9.9 percent more domestically this year than last. Even without Sly, Mel, Ahnold, et al. carrying their weight, the up weekend has shaved the domestic box office’s year-over-year deficit to 5.2 percent. This weekend saw several of the summer’s biggest hits earn their box-office angel wings: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes crossed $200 million at home, with a slight chance at making $600 million worldwide — ensuring we’ll not want for clips of monkeys with machine guns for the foreseeable future. Lucy also crossed $100 million at home earlier in the week, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 thumbed its nose at naysayers, crossing $500 million worldwide to become 2014’s most successful animated film. Since DreamWorks Animation hasn’t really been feeling the shareholder love these days (i.e. lawsuits), that should give Jeffrey Katzenberg a good night’s sleep.

And of course, the little obscure comic-book franchise that would, Guardians of the Galaxy, might end the summer with the highest domestic gross of 2014 (so far). It’s already leapt to no. 6 for the year with $222 million at home and $418 million worldwide. Give it another week and Guardians should easily pass Transformers: Age of the Meaningless Extended Title. With nothing else left to sate fanboys this summer but Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it could also lap Captain America as box-office champ by the time the fall prestige season arrives.

In happier news, we’ve found one silver lining to an otherwise shrug-producing summer: Prestige season seemed to come early with Richard Linklater’s quietly stunning Boyhood. The minuscule indie film with grand ambitions and the artiest of pedigrees actually broke the top 10 at the box office this weekend. Boyhood has earned $13.8 million here and $22 million worldwide, and it will pass Y Tu Mamá También soon to become IFC Films’s second-best release ever, behind My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This is far from Linklater’s first time in the top 10 (School of Rock made $130 million worldwide 11 years ago), but since this was a 12-year labor of love for him, Boyhood’s $22 million and counting must feel pretty good. More importantly, it’s built momentum and a following that make it the first real (and deserving) Oscar contender of the year. Hopefully it won’t be lost in the deluge of awards bait soon to flood Toronto, Venice, and Telluride like Fruitvale Station before it. Because if this summer has left you at all feeling blockbustered out, that an artistic moonshot can also make money can only lift your spirits. And wouldn’t it be rad to see Linklater lift a Best Director Oscar next February?