Billion Dollar Babies

What makes a billion dollar movie? Isn’t that the single-most decisive question in today’s Hollywood? In 2012, the answer was The Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hobbit — but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t get there. Neither did MIB 3. Nor did The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2. But why not? We like to think that superhero movies make the most money. And, sure enough, this year, Iron Man 3 easily crossed the coveted billion dollar worldwide box office threshold.  But will the new Superman get there as well?  And what about Bond — since when has that franchise been worth a billion in receipts?  And is Middle Earth automatically good for a billion as well (they’ve still got two more Hobbits waiting in the wings)?

Seriously, what makes one movie reach a billion dollars and another fall short? A lot of these films have similar, if not identical budgets, usually in the $200 million range, each with state-of-the-art special effects, A-list movie stars, and robust marketing budgets.  And yet, for some blockbusters, the road to a billion seems effortless, while for others it’s a much bumpier ride.

So far, in 2013, there have been some interesting developments.  We all know what happened to Jack the Giant Slayer and its mind boggling $200 million budget — which essentially has been treated by Warner Bros. as a nearly $200 write off.  Oz The Great and Powerful had the requisite $200 million budget, but, in spite of its solid opening, couldn’t get past $500 million in receipts. Why not? Was James Franco the wrong star? Possibly. Was The Wizard of Oz series just not enough of a draw overseas? Probably. But can you quantify these things? Did Disney think it had a billion dollar movie, or was it going to be content with half that number all along?

What about Oblivion? Everyone knows Tom Cruise movies do huge business overseas, but shouldn’t it have earned twice that meager $180 million in foreign box office? Was it the genre? Is sci-fi less valuable at the box office than action adventure? Was it the budget? It only cost $120 million; should Universal have spent another $80 million? Was it because the movie wasn’t a sequel, or based on an existing character? This coming weekend, the similarly themed After Earth is opening. Its budget was about the same as Oblivion‘s, and Will Smith’s international star power is about the same as Tom Cruise’s. Will it also sputter at the overseas box office, or will it be a breakout hit? [Update: it bombed.]

And what in the world are we to make of Star Trek Into Darkness? $190 million budget, J.J. Abrams back in the director’s chair, tons of action and special effects. Isn’t that worthy of a giant slice of the current overheated box office pie? Short answer: no. It’s making less than its predecessor, and may finish below $400 worldwide, meaning it won’t even break even. But isn’t that a bit of a head scratcher? In today’s market, isn’t Star Trek worth a billion? [Update: it broke even.]

I saw both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. And while it’s certainly true that Iron Man 3 is the better of the two films, how would anyone know that in advance of buying a ticket? Did audiences just assume Iron Man 3 would be better? If so, why? In the States, Iron Man 3 earned a near-record $175 million its opening weekend, while Star Trek took in $100 million less than that number when it opened. Is the Iron Man franchise really that much more valuable than Star Trek? Is it the comic book thing again? Or is it the movie star thing — is Robert Downey, Jr. just a much bigger star than Chris Pine? I mean, that sort of explains why one film would outpace another, but it doesn’t quite account for the huge discrepancy. In 2012, The Avengers earned an astounding $1.5 billion at the box office. Analysts decided it had something to do with both the chemistry between the characters and Joss Whedon’s confident direction. But, in Iron Man 3, none of the other Avengers got added into the mix, and there was no Joss Whedon in charge, or, for that matter, Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films. Instead, Shane Black took the helm, and the results so far have been terrifically impressive. It could very well reach $1.2 billion worldwide, a stunning number that may earn it the title of highest grossing movie of the year.

But why? The Wolverine is another Marvel franchise, but no one predicts that film to get anywhere near a billion. Hopes are high for Man of Steel as well, but what effect will not having a movie star in the title role have on that film? And what about The Lone Ranger? Disney has a lot riding on that picture, not least of which is a reported $250 million budget. But The Lone Ranger was never a traditional superhero, so this retelling won’t benefit from the comic book effect. It began as a radio show in the 1930s, before being serialized by Hollywood and then turned into a long running television series in the 1950s. Is that enough pre-awareness to reach a billion? Probably not. But what about the Johnny Depp factor? What’s he worth internationally? Two of the four Pirates of the Caribbean entries hit a billion worldwide; will some of that Disney pixie dust rub off on The Lone Ranger as well?

Pacific Rim is another huge gamble this summer, this one from Warner Bros. It’s got robots, but not the kind based on existing Hasbro toys (Michael Bay might argue that point). Regarding the genre question, is Pacific Rim action adventure or sci-fi — and what impact will that have internationally? And speaking of international tastes, why is the The Fast and the Furious franchise such a big draw overseas? The cars? Vin Diesel? I have no idea, but that movie is well on its way to crossing the $500 million mark, will zoom past it, in fact, without breaking a sweat. Why do some movies make it look so easy?

World War Z is another major contender in this summer’s box office sweepstakes. It’s got international appeal written all over it. Brad Pitt, exotic locales, and, yes, lots and lots of zombies. But is it a billion dollar idea?  And then there are the computer animated movies for kids, which, this summer, include the sequels Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University (technically, that one is a prequel). Toy Story 3 cracked a billion; can one of these entries do the same?

With the recent exponential rise in overseas box office, it’s now become clear that many more titles will vie for a billion dollars at the box office. In 2013, we probably won’t exceed the four winners from last year, but who’s to say? Blockbusters have never been more popular overseas, and 3D surcharges are helping goose the bottom line. The truth is, a billion dollars just might be the new benchmark for certain types of projects. Studios will look at a franchise that has already run its course, such as Harry Potter or Batman, and decide that it’s simply unthinkable to keep those characters on the shelf. We’ve already got new Star Wars films in the pipeline — complete with J.J. Abrams’s signature lens flare — and Sony is trying to get the next Bond up and running as quickly as possible (though, at this point, they don’t have a director).

But what of the rest of these movies? If a movie is not projected to hit that billion dollar figure, will it get the short end of the stick? I’m not talking about the pictures competing for Academy Awards — they don’t start coming out until late September anyway, and the math on those pictures is entirely different. Besides, specialty pictures with an indie sensibility have begun to migrate out of the studio system and are now being funded, and often distributed, by outside players. The business of mainstream Hollywood these days is primarily blockbusters, and, thanks to overseas box office, business is booming.

But as long as the budgets on these extravaganzas keeps rising, in some cases well past $200 million, earning $400, $500, or possibly even $600 million in worldwide box office sometimes isn’t enough to hit the break-even point. Going forward, the vexing challenge for the major studios will be in projecting which one of their projects in development actually has a chance to hit a billion.

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One response to “Billion Dollar Babies

  1. I’m 2.5 weeks late, but that was a good blog! I’m actually glad what makes a billion is still a mystery. If the studios feel they have that absolutely quantified, we’ll get nothing but exactly that. If they continue to throw so many darts at a board, we’ll at least have some minor variance.

    Such a weird thing. Since I’ll almost certainly never make a movie like that, it’s something I follow with only minimal interest. It’s like basketball season vs. football season. (BB being the blockbusters and football being the fall specialty and other Oscar type films… at least for this metaphor.) Sure, I’ll watch some BB. But really? I’m just killing time until football comes around again. :) 

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