“Hollywood never creates anything original” is an oft-referenced meme used to voice audiences’ distaste for the perpetual production of sequels, remakes and adaptations. Collectively, we gripe about the crop of films that come out every year. We roll our eyes at the numerous attempts to extend current franchises or revive ones from the past. We are left wondering why we can’t get anything new. But as we pack theaters to watch the latest film ending in a numeral, Hollywood is boldly shouting back to us, “Because THIS is what you WANT!” They aren’t wrong.
Last week, Warner Brothers Studios released Edge of Tomorrow. Things looked promising for the movie in the months leading up to it. The film boasted a buzzy and hypnotic trailer that had many excited. Early reviews were mostly favorable. Even advanced screenings had audiences cheering. After the opening weekend had completed, EOT finished third at the Box Office (getting trounced by “The Fault In Our Stars” and the holdover, “Maleficent”). WB has since been looking to use the ability seen in the film to reset their decision to green-light this production.
With $178M budget, EOT earned less than $30M in its first three days. WB’s attempt to bring an original, big-budget action flick to the screen backfired for the second year in a row. While 2013’s Pacific Rim failed to click in North America, it at least had a chance to recoup losses overseas. EOT doesn’t appear to be headed for the same fortune.
This EOT experiment will ultimately be a failed one and may shape the way studios operate in the coming years. Tentpoles without a strong built-in audience are a much harder sell than ones that come with an established brand name. Studios need the warm and fuzzy feeling that a film will perform well before they approve it. Sure, EOT has its roots in a graphic novel, but if you ask the average movie-goer if they’ve heard of it, you’ll find the answer is “no.” As the case study grows, it is becoming clearer that the bankability of these new brands is increasingly more risky.
The following is a list of the top performing action, adventure and suspense movies since 2011. Filtered out are family fare like “Frozen” and “Brave” (whose genre actually rewards originality). The list extends all the way down to the aforementioned Pacific Rim, which was the #41 grosser out of the included genres.
|1||Marvel’s The Avengers||May 4, 2012||$638,939,832|
|2||The Dark Knight Rises||Jul 20, 2012||$459,398,869|
|3||The Hunger Games: Catching Fire||Nov 22, 2013||$424,668,032|
|4||The Hunger Games||Mar 23, 2012||$418,262,212|
|5||Iron Man 3||May 3, 2013||$408,992,264|
|6||Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II||Jul 15, 2011||$392,061,978|
|7||Transformers: Dark of the Moon||Jun 29, 2011||$362,611,200|
|8||Skyfall||Nov 8, 2012||$311,740,405|
|9||The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey||Dec 14, 2012||$309,191,735|
|10||Man of Steel||Jun 14, 2013||$291,045,511|
|11||Gravity||Oct 4, 2013||$274,092,703|
|12||The Amazing Spider-Man||Jul 3, 2012||$268,614,348|
|13||The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug||Dec 13, 2013||$258,366,849|
|14||Captain America: The Winter Soldier||Apr 4, 2014||$255,886,103|
|15||Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides||May 20, 2011||$248,055,636|
|16||Fast and Furious 6||May 24, 2013||$238,679,845|
|17||Oz the Great and Powerful||Mar 8, 2013||$234,770,993|
|18||Star Trek Into Darkness||May 15, 2013||$228,778,656|
|19||Fast Five||Apr 29, 2011||$215,923,759|
|20||Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol||Dec 16, 2011||$215,239,706|
|21||World War Z||Jun 21, 2013||$202,359,709|
|22||Thor: The Dark World||Nov 8, 2013||$206,360,011|
|23||Thor||May 6, 2011||$186,281,196|
|24||Godzilla||May 16, 2014||$185,042,998|
|25||Men in Black 3||May 25, 2012||$183,518,865|
|26||Rise of the Planet of the Apes||Aug 5, 2011||$181,886,898|
|27||Captain America: The First Avenger||Jul 22, 2011||$181,778,149|
|28||Snow White and the Huntsman||Jun 1, 2012||$159,034,663|
|29||X-Men: First Class||Jun 3, 2011||$150,654,694|
|30||Divergent||Mar 21, 2014||$148,811,521|
|31||Taken 2||Oct 5, 2012||$143,348,670|
|32||Argo||Oct 12, 2012||$138,772,175|
|33||The Wolverine||Jul 26, 2013||$132,556,850|
|34||Super 8||Jun 9, 2011||$130,687,777|
|35||Prometheus||Jun 8, 2012||$129,654,893|
|36||Lone Survivor||Dec 25, 2013||$125,095,591|
|37||G.I. Joe: Retaliation||Mar 27, 2013||$122,523,053|
|38||Green Lantern||Jun 17, 2011||$119,983,041|
|39||300: Rise of an Empire||Mar 7, 2014||$106,580,045|
|40||Cowboys and Aliens||Jul 29, 2011||$103,147,900|
|41||Pacific Rim||Jul 12, 2013||$101,802,903|
The list shows that it’s far more favorable to produce a known product than it is an unknown. The top 10 includes only one new non-sequel/remake (“Hunger Games”). The top 20 adds only a second (“Gravity”). The top 30 includes only two more (“WWZ” and “Divergent”).
Of all the highlighted entries, only Gravity, Super 8 and Pacific Rim are original screenplays. All others have roots in other media. We only count these 10 as a group to distinguish them from the other established movie franchises. Whether book adaptation or original screenplay, the source isn’t considered proven until presented before a movie audience.
Calling Hunger Games and Divergent risky is hard in hind-sight. They are based off wildly successful books and had a built-in audience to carry over to the screen. That isn’t always a guarantee. Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson, and Ender’s Game are all examples of solid properties that underwhelmed in their movie adaptations. The producers of Hunger Games and Divergent did a wise thing in minimizing their risk by keeping production budgets under $85M. Each film easily recovered that with their domestic take. WWZ also had a popular book as its source, but became a risky project as its budget grew to $200M. If it weren’t for its sizable international take, this movie would have lost money.
For unproven material, Pacific Rim, Cowboys and Aliens ($163M), and Green Lantern ($200M) took huge risks with lofty budgets. They were not as fortunate as World War Z. If the rule of thumb states that a film’s bankability is based on the delta of the domestic gross vs. the production budget, these three films failed.
For the studios, the lessons learned are not to invest heavily in unknown projects. This doesn’t mean there will be a lack of originality in all films; Argo and Lone Survivor were made on relatively small budgets and made considerable bank. The victim will be the original special-effects laden films typical of a summer or holiday release. If these films cannot turn a profit without first being attached to a franchise, then studios will resist funding them. The chances of seeing an Avatar or The Matrix will become slimmer. Instead films will trudge up every comic book, YA novel, and television character in existence because the chances of success are better.
Conversely, studios could also figure out ways to produce these films in a more economical manner. Super 8 was made for $50M, featured some eye-pleasing effects and reeled in audiences. If producers can follow that formula, the death of original blockbusters may be warded off. Edge of Tomorrow’s biggest mistake wasn’t trying to make something new; it was spending too much to do it. Sure, the money created some well-designed set pieces and amazing effects, but at a cost the movie could not sustain.
Audiences can be stingy with the $10 they spend on tickets. They aren’t going to see every film during the summer. When we’re in the midst of one like this year (filled with Spider-man, X-men, Godzilla, Transformers and more), they might feel more comfortable holding out until a known product comes their way.
Oversaturation of sequels or remakes may one day create a backlash that fades the practice, but it does not appear to be the case anytime soon. Either audiences need to show more embrace of original films or studios need to learn how to make them for cheaper. Until that happens, those who fill the theaters for every new franchise entry should not be the ones who lament that Hollywood creates nothing new.
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