2010 Summer movies brought box office surprises

By Scott Mendelson

HollywoodNews.com: The biggest surprise of summer 2010 is how few surprises there really were. Most of the expected smash hits were smash hits, the expected under-performers underperformed, and the bigger films without studio support tanked. The more mainstream art-house cinema made money, while more challenging studio fare struggled. It surely wasn’t the best summer in recent years (that would probably be 2002 or 2008), but it wasn’t the worst either (2001 gets my vote). It was a summer just like any other summer, so let’s dive right in. You might want to take a bathroom break first…

If you asked pundits on the street in late April what the four biggest films of summer would be, they probably would have told you some combination of Toy Story 3 ($409 million domestic/$1.031 billion worldwide), Iron Man 2 ($312m/$621m), Twilight Saga Eclipse ($299m/$671m), and Inception ($278 million/697m). And sure enough, I just rattled off the four biggest movies of the summer. If you asked any intelligent pundit what would-be blockbusters weren’t quite going to catch fire, they probably would have told you Robin Hood ($105 million domestic/$310 million worldwide), Prince of Persia ($90m/$329m), Sex and the City 2 ($95m/$290m), The A-Team ($67m/$157m), and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ($61m/$176m). None of these films flopped, but all of them cost a way too much ($200 million, $200m, $100m, $110m, and $150m respectively), and they all required overseas dollars to prevent complete disaster.

There were exactly two real surprise smash hits this summer, The Karate Kid and Despicable Me. And you want to know what the common link between them was? They were surprisingly good movies! As far as surprise flops, I honestly expected Macgruber and Jonah Hex to make more noise than they did, but I couldn’t have predicted that their respective studios would so obviously abandoned them in the week or so leading up to their release. We can whine all we want about Tom Cruise’s fading starpower, but he remains a pretty consistent draw, so it was a surprise to see Knight and Day top off at $75 million in domestic box office, although it has racked up $222 million worldwide (I still say opening the film on a Wednesday was the fatal blow, as the film was already tagged as a flop by the time the weekend rolled around). Julia Roberts opened Eat Pray Love to $23 million (proving she is still a movie star in the right project), but the film didn’t deliver and the film ended up with $70 million. As far as new stars, Amanda Seyfried powered Letters to Juliet to $53 million all-by-herself. Star power isn’t dead, you just need the right project for the right budget.

And in an example of troubling consistency, Iron Man 2 rode a wave of audience goodwill from the first picture but still grossed $6 million less than the $318 million-grossing Iron Man in domestic box office (it grossed $621 million worldwide, versus the $585 million global take of Iron Man). That’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but if a sure-thing like Iron Man 2 has to struggle to make it to $300 million, what exactly is in store for bigger question marks like Thor or Captain America, let alone the (probably) $300 million+ budgeted Avengers picture? Speaking of consistency, Adam Sandler again proved that he is absolutely invincible in his safe zone of overgrown man-child comedy, as Grown Ups pulled in $160 million, it’s on the cusp of being his second-biggest grosser ever, despite getting some of the worst reviews of his career (and that’s saying something). The Twilight Saga: Eclipse parlayed an IMAX upgrade and series-best reviews to gross a whole $3 million more ($299 million) than The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and the third film actually grossed $38 million less ($671 million) than New Moon ($709 million) worldwide. Like the Harry Potter series, Twilight has a $290-310 million ceiling, which isn’t exactly a terrible problem to have.

While there were certainly a number of sequels, there were a few would-be franchise starters that actually succeeded in starting franchises (don’t expect to see Robin Hood Returns). Despicable Me, at a cost of just $70 million, set all kinds of domestic benchmarks, with $241 million in the domestic till (it has just started its overseas roll-out). In a day or two, it will pass Bruce Almighty ($242 million) and become Universal’s sixth-biggest domestic grosser in the studio history. A few days after that, it will surpass Cars ($244 million) and Toy Story 2 ($245 million) and become the tenth-biggest animated grosser of all time in America. It crushed the $198 million gross of Warner Bros’ Happy Feet to easily become the biggest-grossing toon not released by Dreamworks or Disney. Heck, it’s grossed more than any Dreamworks cartoon outside of the first three Shrek films. So yeah, expect a sequel in two-to-four years.’

Salt proved once again that Angelina Jolie is worth whatever she demands as an action hero, as she and she alone powered the 1990s throwback thriller Salt to a $262 million (and counting) worldwide gross on a budget of $110 million. Expect Salt’s Revenge in summer 2012 (stupid but fun idea: cast Jodie Foster as an enemy agent, who may or may not be codenamed Pepper). And kudos to Fox for reigniting the Predator franchise, as they spent just $40 million on Predators and used a precisely-targeted marketing campaign rather than a months-long saturation campaign to score a $100 million+ worldwide haul. Sometimes, especially when it comes to marketing, less is more.

The Expendables was a gift from the enemies of Carl Ichan, as Lionsgate finally opened a major picture like a grown-up studio ($36 million opening weekend). The Sly Stallone and Friends action-throwback will soon become the studio’s second $100 million domestic grosser, and its closing in on $200 million overseas with plenty of life left in it. Expect at least one or two more of these, with anyone who turned Stallone down the first time around (Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, etc) itching to join the team. The Last Airbender was probably the worst film of the summer and a heartbreaking artistic failure from the once promising M. Night Shyamalan (I still believe the man who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable is still in there, buried beneath the hubris). But the film’s $70 million five-day opening weekend proves that the Nickelodeon cartoon from which it is based has an uber-strong following, and the film has so far grossed $253 million worldwide (it too just started rolling out internationally) on a $150 million budget. So Paramount may see fit to give us Book Two: Earth, but this time with Shyamalan likely just producing.

Finally we have two smash hit originals and one smash hit sequel that I sincerely hope do not receive sequels. The Karate Kid was a stunning surprise, in that was a wonderful piece of old-school entertainment, and standing out as a character-driven drama in a sea of fantasy spectacles. The film was powered by nostalgia of the 1984 original, the kid-appeal of Jaden Smith, and the thrill of seeing Jackie Chan portraying a variation on Mr. Miyagi. But the marketing was unique in that Sony sold the fact that it was a film of quality (imagine that: ‘come see this movie… because it’s GOOD!’). Cue $56 million opening weekend, $176 million domestic and $334 million worldwide. It is the year’s highest-grossing film that wasn’t aided by IMAX or 3D ticket-price bumps. Nice work, but we really don’t need to risk the goodwill by making another one (although, to be fair, The Karate Kid part II was in some ways better than the original).

Inception, as I predicted back in early June, was the Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl of summer 2010. It was the breath-of-fresh air movie of the summer, the mid-July crowd-pleaser that filled a desperate need for something creative, original, and engaging after a relatively underwhelming June (it was ‘the movie we’ve been waiting for!’). The film was basically Warner placing a $200 million down-payment on Chris Nolan’s eventual third Batman picture, but Warner got lucky and made money on the bribe anyway since the movie turned out to be highly accomplished, completely entertaining, and surprisingly easy to follow (it’s complicated, but the big story threads are spelled out for anyone paying attention). I’m sure Nolan has little interest in a sequel, but I really hope we don’t get one. Why? Because having a second chapter would mean explicitly explaining the various ambiguities from the first film, and what fun would that be?

To read more go to Mendelson’s Memos.

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