Although Labor Day signals the traditional end of the summer box-office season, things have been quiet on that front for a few weeks now. Revenues are up this year by about 7% to date
but beneath the surface, all the news is not necessarily rosy for the industry. My take on who made out like a bandit and who was left holding the bag:
The Mouse House ruled the waters this summer with Pirates of the Caribbean 2
, and the profitable Step Up
. "Pirates" just passed the $1 billion mark in its worldwide take, "Cars" continued Pixar's track record of b.o. success, and "Step Up" has grossed $50 million (double the $24 million budget set by Touchstone Pictures).
Close behind Disney was Sony, with a $200+ million performance from The Da Vinci Code
and $100+ million from comedies Click
and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
. Not quite as big a splash as Disney but good enough to get Amy Pascal named co-chair
at the studio.
3. Little Miss Sunshine
In addition to the big studio comedy successes like Sony's, Fox Searchlight scored the summer's sleeper hit with its Sundance pickup of Little Miss Sunshine
. The dysfunctional family road trip has slowly rolled its way into theaters over the past month and into the top five on the box office list, with $36 million in the bank to date. With a budget of only $8 million, "Sunshine" has proved the drawing power not only of smart writing but also good word of mouth.
Although Mission: Impossible III
underperformed here in the United States, in comparison to past installments of the franchise, it hass done well worldwide ($261 million outside the U.S.) and Paramount was able to attribute the shortfall to the negative publicity surrounding Tom Cruise during its promotion and get the studio out from under
the star's costly production deal. Other summer performances ranged from respectable (Nacho Libre
to below-average (World Trade Center
5. Al Gore
Maybe it was the fact that the entire United States felt like it spent the summer inside an Ez-Bake Oven. Maybe it was the fact that people were taking out second mortgages to pay for gasoline. Maybe recent events simply made audiences nostalgiac for the days of geeky policy wonks with 90 minutes of Keynote
slides on the scientific minutae of climate change. Whatever the reason, it was good enough to pull in over $20 million for An Inconvenient Truth
, making it the #3 grossing documentary of all time. That's hot.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the big changes at Disney this summer (see below), was the installation
of Oren Aviv as the head of the studio. Significant because, unlike some of his counterparts, his background is not in story or project development but from the marketing side of the business. While this move could make more sense for a company that has a supply of built-in properties, like Pirates of the Caribbean, that can be turned into high-concept event properties, it remains to be seen whether other studios follow the trend when the next round of changes at the top come.
7. Nina Jacobson
The (now former) head of production for the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group looked every bit the smart exec when a behind-the-scenes book
told the story of her doubts about the script M. Night Shyamalan delivered for Lady in the Water
. Night took his bruised ego and script to Warner Brothers, where it presently became the director's first certified bomb.
1. Warner Brothers
As bad as "Lady" was for Warners ($40ish million grossed against a $75 million budget), that wasn't even the worst of it for the studio with easily the worst summer slate. The Brothers started taking on water with Poseidon
in May and not much improved thereafter. Superman Returns
failed to meet high opening weekend expectations and will likely finish a few million short of the $200 mark. The Ant Bully
, The Wicker Man
, the hits just kept on not coming. Better luck next year, if only because it could hardly be worse than this one.
Not only was the studio beat out in the DreamWorks purchase by Paramount (which also poached Universal chief Stacy Sinder to run its new acquisition), but its summer tentpole, Miami Vice
, failed to connect with either the youth market or older viewers who watched the original series in the 80s. Not exactly what you hope for when remaking a show with the vaunted "built-in audience" these days. Especially when you spend $235 million
(!) to produce and market and only earn $65 million in return. Nor did The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
capitalize on prior installment's successes. The lone bright spots were the Wedding Crashers, Owen Wilson
and Vince Vaughn
, whose individual efforts, You, Me and Dupree
and The Break Up
, did respectable (though not "Crashers"-level) business.
The underperformance of "MI: III," the public breakup with Tom Cruise, and the unceremonious dumping
this week of Viacom CEO, Tom Freston, raises the question of how long Brad Grey is for the Melrose lot. With Sumner Redstone making the Cruise and Freston moves conspicuously his own, some say the writing is on the wall for Grey, especially with Stacy Snider (who has the experience running a studio that Grey does not) waiting in the wings if Paramount's releases continue to come up short. In the end Snider's DreamWorks may end up being the fish that swallows the whale and the sense is that things haven't stopped shaking out on the lot just yet.
Flush with the success of "Pirates" and "Cars," Walt Disney Studios chairman, Dick Cook, did what any good executive in his shoes would have: fire 650 employees, oust the head of production, and cut back the number of produced films from 18-20 per year to only 8-10 (branded properties, Pixar animation, and . . . ?). This contraction back to the company's "core competencies" looks like the right move with Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End
in the pipeline for next summer. If Disney is unable to keep the sure bets coming, however, it doesn't sound like they'll have the next "Step Up" to fall back on.
For the first two installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise and War of the Worlds
, Tom Cruise had a lucrative production deal at Paramount that paid him a large share of the profits. Prior to MI: III, the studio renegotiated the deal to cut back Cruise's take and after the release, terminated the agreement altogether. Other high-profile projects for solid box-office performers, such as Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey, were put into turnaround when the studios balked at ballooning costs. The belt-tightening can be in part attributed to the same culture that is prevalent across corporate America (of which the studios have become a part) but the message seems just as clear that the balance of power is shifting away from the stars and back to the people who write their checks.
All summer long, the Internet appeared bitten by Snakes on a Plane
fever. Bloggers hyped the mere idea of a plane with snakes on it as the action-movie altar before which everyone would (or should) worship. New Line went back for reshoots to add the Sam Jackson line that all the bloggers wanted to hear, and more violence to give it a hard-R rating. Tracking predictions ranged from the 20s to the 40s for opening weekend. Result? A lot of bloggers apparently went to see it but not many others. On one hand, the $15 million opening may have been double what a standard B-movie action pic opening in late August would have grossed without all the online buzz. On the other hand, I'm sure New Line (and the other studios) were anxious to see if they had acheived the Holy Grail of marketing: being able to sell a picture without spending any money on advertising. They chose . . . poorly.
7. Nina Jacobson
Her instincts helped save Disney money and embarrassment in the case of "Lady in the Water," for which she was rewarded with a telephone call from Dick Cook letting her know that she was fired. In the hospital where, at the same time, her partner had just given birth to their next child. Congratulations!