The Weekend Warrior: Summer’s Big Winners and Losers

I thought it would be good to point out a couple noticeable trends, some that will hopefully be replicated, others that will be taken as warning signs that moviegoing tastes are changing.

WINNERS! – Original Ideas Done at Budget Prices

This was one of the summers biggest and best trends and one that made me deliriously happy, first because having movies based on original ideas is key to keeping the moviegoing experience fresh and alive, but also proving that movies can be made relatively inexpensively rather than throwing hundreds of millions at the screen to save a bad concept or script. (We’re talking to you The Lone Ranger!)

The relatively inexpensive Now You See Me–$75 million is roughly half the budget of director Louis Letterier’s previous two films–was a global hit based on an original fresh idea that combined magic with an “Ocean’s 11″ style ensemble heist movie, while The Conjuring examined one of the cases of real-life supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The latter was a movie that cost $20 million to make, almost an indie-level budget, and it’s proven to be hugely profitable for New Line. Regardless of whether you consider Universal’s home invasion thriller The Purge–which I haven’t seen– an original idea or not, they did a good job selling the low-budget thriller to audiences as it took advantage of its summer release to do big business opening weekend, and this was after a long delay before starting any sort of marketing campaign, too. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This is the End also did very well based on a smaller budget than most summer comedies, as did New Line’s We’re the Millers, which teamed Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis. Both those movies took a long time to see the light of day, but maybe studios will take more chances with original comedies in the summers to come.

LOSERS! – Expensive Sequels No One Wants

This continues to be a big problem, especially this past summer. In a year when a fifth “Die Hard” movie did disastrously bad at the box office even before the summer began, what did people expect? We first started seeing the signs of sequel fatigue as early as May when Star Trek into Darkness opened weaker than expected and then by all intents and purposes, Todd Phillips’ The Hangover Part III just couldn’t recover after the disappointing 2011 sequel. By the time we were getting sequels to The Smurfs, RED, Percy Jackson & The Olympians and Kick-Ass, North American moviegoers had enough and the box office reports got progressively more dismal as some of the original movies mentioned above started gaining audiences and attention and what should have been sure-fire hits based on the popularity of the previous movies were being listed in the studios’ red ledgers.

WINNERS! – Large Ensemble Casts Offer Much Needed Diversity

This is actually something that can be proven almost scientifically at this point–that if you can offer a large cast that offers diverse characters that different audiences can relate to, there’s a better chance that a larger audience will be interested in giving the movie a look.

No movie proved this better than the sixth Fast and Furious with an incredibly diverse cast surrounding the key players of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Dwayne Johnson with the likes of Sung Kang, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris getting even more screen time for the movie. Add to that kick-ass female characters played by Michelle Rodriguez, Gina Carano and Elsa Patsky and Israeli Gal Gadot and you ended up with an incredible amount of diversity where everyone was treated equally. Then there was the magical heist movie Now You See Me, which offered an equally eclectic cast that included everyone from Jessie Eisenberg to Melanie Laurent, and Star Trek Into Darkness, regardless of whether you liked it or not, also offered a large cast of popular and familiar characters with something for everyone. Likewise, Pacific Rim offered a fairly global cast of Americans, Asians and Australians that was all about the ensemble rather than individual characters.

(I’m going to try our best to ignore Grown Ups 2 in this category.)

WINNERS! – Kick-Ass Female Action Heroes

And this is another welcome trend this summer, that the women who appeared in the summer action movies rarely took a backseat to the film’s male stars.

Working backwards from the end of summer, Chloë Moretz’s Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass 2 was the only thing about the movie that everyone could agree on, as she took on five and six armed men at a time, often with an expletive or two on her lips. All of the women of Fast & Furious 6 got in on the action rather than sitting on the sidelines with the two “girl fights” between Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano probably being highlights of the entire series. Zoe Saldana’s Uhuru in the Star Trek sequel also got to do a lot more as she continued her foray into becoming one of the top female action stars, which should continue with her role as Gamora in next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy and her return in James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels. And then you have Japanese imports, Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori from Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and model-turned-actress Rila Fukushima’s Yukio from The Wolverine, two characters who really brought so much to both movies.

And let’s not forget the success of The Heat. Or we can if you want–it was literally one of the few movies I saw this summer that I absolutely hated, so I guess I’m just a bit old hypocrite by claiming…

LOSERS! – Still Not Enough Women in Summer Movies

Despite the above statement, it still felt that summer movies were still very much a man’s game and it was very hard for women to find a place in them. Rinko Kikuchi was literally the only significant female character in Pacific Rim and the same could be said for Rosamund Pike in The World’s End and there may have been a few movies with an even less significant female presence, like The Hangover Part III and… while I hate to drive the nail in… Grown Ups 2. When you have a character like Julie Delpy’s in Before Midnight or Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine–not to mention both actresses in The Conjuring–it reminds you how much a rich, well-written female character can bring to the mix. Unfortunately, the mostly male filmmakers offering movies this summer seem to have forgotten that other than some of the ones mentioned above.

LOSERS! – Too Many Animated Movies

Another big trend this summer was that a studio releasing an animated movie didn’t automatically get families with kids into theaters other than the two big movies from Universal and Pixar, Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University. Those two movies dominated so heavily during the second half of summer that movies like DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo, Sony Animation’s The Smurfs 2 and even Disney’s Planes suffered greatly, none of them doing nearly as well as they might have if they were moved to a less busy period of the year or even until next winter/spring. Two of those already have sequels in the works and we still have four more animated movies coming out this year including the anticipated sequel Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Disney’s musical Frozen, something called Free Birds and Walking with Dinosaurs. It doesn’t look like CG animated movies are going to just stop anytime soon, but it’s going to be harder for them to make a mark with so many being released.

WINNER! – Brad Pitt’s Star Power

And then we get to the oddest trend of the summer where movies with big name stars were bombing right and left… and then along comes Brad Pitt, starring in World War Z, his first big budget action movie in some time and also his biggest hit to date. Moviegoers flocked to theaters for his zombie action movie to the tune of $66 million opening weekend (and that was against the much more sure-fire hit of Monsters University) and it even had stronger legs than anyone expected, because surprise, surprise, it was a pretty decent flick!

LOSERS! – Will Smith and Johnny Depp’s Star Power

Part of what started the whole ball rolling on the questions of star power started in late May when Will Smith’s latest movie, After Earth, a sci-fi action flick co-starring his son Jaden, opened with $27 million but then quickly tailed off, only grossing $60 million total. It did significantly better overseas but it barely reached its $130 million production budget. A few weeks later, Johnny Depp showed up as Toronto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, an action-packed Western that came into the summer with rumors of it costing $200 million but hoping they’d have the same success of their “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. For the second year in a row, Depp’s fans weren’t having any of it and the movie didn’t perform nearly as well over 4th of July weekend when facing the juggernaut Despicable Me 2, grossing roughly $48.7 million and $87.8 total domestic or less than double its first five days.

LOSERS! – Awkward Reunions

Besides the reunion of Will and Jaden Smith for After Earth after first being seen on screen together in Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness, Wedding Crashers stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finally broke down and did another movie together, the high concept comedy The Internship, which failed to find many fans. Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski reunited with Jerry Bruckheimer, trying to recreate the magic of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies with The Lone Ranger, but it just wasn’t to be. It just goes to show that nostalgia can only go so far with moviegoers and they’re not so ready to just accept the stars of their favorite movies doing something different.

WINNERS… AND LOSERS? – J.J. Abrams & Zack Snyder

Two fan favorite directors came back in a big way this summer, Abrams with Star Trek Into Darkness–which I’ve already discussed quite a lot above–and Snyder with Man of Steel, a movie that solidified his role as one of the top directors of comic book movies. And yet, Abrams angered long-suffering Star Trek fans with some of his decisions, as did Snyder with his, so one wonders how the fans will react to each of their next movies–Star Wars: Episode VII and the Superman/Batman film–which are slated to go head-to-head in the summer of ’15.

WINNERS AND LOSERS – The Summer’s Comic Book Roster

There’s no question that after years of surviving based on the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” franchise, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment finally got their asses in gear in terms of launching a movie universe that could compete with Marvel Studios’ lofty empire and that came in the form of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Besides opening big, the movie created a huge fan fervor while dividing fans and critics alike. Five weeks later, Snyder was at Comic-Con with the explosive announcement that in his sequel to Man of Steel, Superman would be taking on none other than Batman. This news successfully dispelled all of my own concerns about the future of the DC Universe on film and you know what? I think Ben Affleck is a great choice to play Batman, so sue me. And that’s all I’m saying on that.

That brings us to Marvel Studios, who had their second-biggest hit with Iron Man 3, a huge global blockbuster that brought in $1.2 billion, but a much weaker offering even than its 2010 predecessor–don’t even get me STARTED on the handling of the Mandarin, seriously! Not that I was in the majority there, since the movie scored a 78% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (slightly better than Iron Man 2) and better among IMDb users, too. But to me, it seemed like what was once fresh about Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark had started to run its course and I’m sorry, but you don’t make a movie called “Iron Man” only to have the main character appearing in armor for what seemed like 15 minutes or less. Then add to that Marvel Studios’ decision to not make any new announcements at Comic-Con or D23 other than the subtitle of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, focusing on Phase 2 footage while snagging key dates through the summer of 2017 and leaving everyone wondering what they had planned. None of this should hurt Marvel’s next couple offerings, the Thor and Cap sequels, even in the slightest, but many long-time fans may have been disappointed.

20th Century Fox’s single foray into superhero movies this summer, The Wolverine, was met with passionate reviews and it did well enough to get into the Top 10, but few moviegoers were as excited for it as they were for next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which brings director Bryan Singer and most of the original cast back into the fold. Expect it to be one of the biggest movies of next summer.

Beyond the big releases from the “Big Two,” there were a lot of other comic book movies released this summer, but with movies like R.I.P.D. starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges outright bombing, Kick-Ass 2 not doing nearly as well as some expected and even the Denzel-Wahlberg crime-comedy 2 Guns–most people didn’t even realize that was based on a graphic novel!–didn’t bode well for the current trend of Hollywood trying to find ideas in comic books.

STUDIO WINNERS!

To the studios of Hollywood, part of the appeal of releasing a movie during the summer is, obviously, to make money, whether it’s with sequels that offer some sort of sure-fire guarantee (at least on paper) or new tentpole movies that can hopefully launch profitable franchises in the future. This summer, two studios really took advantage of the season in terms of keeping beloved franchises alive and also launching new ones. You might think I’d give this annual award to Disney since they did have the #1 and #4 movies of the summer, but going by the above, I’m instead going with studios that impressed me with less likely no-brainer hits.

First, there’s Universal Pictures, who have been having one of their best years at the box office with early hits like the high concept comedy of Identity Thief and the low-budget horror of Mama. After a relatively disappointing showing for Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, they screamed into summer with Fast & Furious 6, which had a huge opening over Memorial Day weekend, dwarfing the sequel non-competition of Todd Phillips’ The Hangover Part III, which two years earlier did the same thing to Kung Fu Panda 2. Within weeks, they already were gearing up for a 7th installment of the franchise for 2014, which one expects will also do well next summer. Two weeks later, the low-budget home invasion thriller The Purge, made for reportedly $3 million, made that money back in its Thursday preview screenings with a huge opening weekend of $34 million, which was very strong for an R-rated horror movie. Then there was Despicable Me 2, a movie that everyone knew was going to be a hit based on the popularity of the original movie but few saw it surpassing Pixar Animation’s own summer offering Monsters University. Universal had a few flops like the long-delayed R.I.P.D. and Kick-Ass 2, both based on comic book movies, but they definitely are having a better summer than years past.

They’re tied with Warner Bros. PIctures, which mostly stayed out of the sequel game this summer other than The Hangover Part III, which flopped really badly for them, though by then, they’d already had a massive, some might say “surprise,” hit with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby which opened huge. A month after that, they were taking a huge gamble with a wildly different take on Superman in Man of Steel, bringing together producer Christopher Nolan with director Zack Snyder, a movie that scored the studio’s sixth-biggest opening with $116.6 million paving the way for an anticipated sequel. While Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was more of a distribution deal for Warners, it did very well overseas, a testament to their international presence, and just when the summer seemed over, along came James Wan’s supernatural thriller The Conjuring, which made back its production budget and then some opening weekend. And unlike other horror movies like The Purge, audiences kept going to see it based on word-of-mouth allowing it to sneak into the Top 10 for the summer. And not to let the summer slip away without having a comedy hit, they released We’re the Millers in the second weekend of August against much stronger fare like Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and Disney’s Planes and it’s since pulled way ahead of both of them as it looks to gross more than $100 million before Labor Day.

And that just leaves The Weekend Warrior as either the summer’s biggest loser or biggest winner depending on your perspective…

Two weeks before the summer even began, I was diagnosed with acute leukemia and ended up being waylaid in Columbus, Ohio for most of the summer, which forced me to rethink how I do my job in terms of watching movies and writing about them. It made writing the column a lot more difficult, especially in the weeks I was stuck in hospital, but I wouldn’t let that knock me down and I spent the summer seeing and doing whatever I possibly could as far as seeing movies–often sneaking in three to four between my in-patient visits to the hospital for chemo. I have to thank some of the warm and friendly locals like Kevin Carr, Barb Mindel, David Zeller, Clayton Walter, Liz and Nate Stetz, Kristin Kramer and Jason Zingale, as well as the fine publicists at the Owens Group and Allied, who made me feel so welcome during my summer in Columbus.

The good news is that I’m done with chemo and I’m gearing up for a bone marrow transplant that will fix up my immune system hopefully once and for all. I’ve been very lucky through this whole process with so much love and support that it’s overwhelming, and by next summer, the Weekend Warrior will be back in form and actually getting to see some of the movies you read about in my weekly column.

And with that, the summer’s over and we can all relax a bit before the crazy holiday and awards movie season to come.

But before we do, Happy 15th Anniversary to ComingSoon.net! As a 10-year-veteran it’s hard to believe that this site was able to function for five years before I came along–kidding, kidding!–but it’s quite an achievement and quite a milestone, and all of it comes down to our fearless leader Mirko Parlevliet who got the idea for the site and has kept it going for such a long time. Kudos to him and everyone who has been involved with making things happen over the past 15 years!

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