Ben-Hur, done that. That, it seems, is how most people feel about the prospect of going to the movies in a summer which has featured an incredible number of box office flops. The most recent bomb, Paramount's Ben-Hur, took a truly disastrous $11m in the US this weekend for a fifth-place finish, marking the end of a rollercoaster summer for Hollywood. But first...
What Makes A "Box Office Flop"?
We can't talk about the biggest flops of the year without defining what being a "box office flop" actually entails. It's a term that's sometimes applied too liberally. If a film only makes 2x its budget, it might never become profitable even with DVD sales taken into account. In general, movies should make between 3-4x their production budgets at the global box office to begin making profit. After that, Blu-ray sales and streaming deals will guarantee big dollar for the studio.
That rule of averages is why I don't consider two major blockbusters released in 2016 to be flops, even though the wider media have tarred them with that brush: Neither Batman v Superman nor X-Men: Apocalypse will have lost the studio much money, if any at all. They didn't make as much money as expected, but people have a habit of setting their expectations too high. In short, these films did not flop by any realistic standard.
Which Movies Were Summer's Biggest Bombs?.
The year got off to an ominous start with Gods of Egypt, the $140m fantasy film set in ancient Egypt — not Ancient Egypt as history knows it, but one in which everybody is white. Controversy aside, this stinker screamed bomb from the start, possibly partly thanks to the fact that Gerard Butler was the biggest name in the cast. Gods made $145m.
Alice In Wonderland cleared $1bn in 2010, but if there had to be a sequel, it should have come much sooner than six years later. Alice Through The Looking Glass needed to make at least $500m, but ended up with just $292m. It's a similar story with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 ($239m from a $135m budget). Warcraft did huge business in China, but made only $47m in the US, which means its total of $433m (vs a $160m budget) is still somewhat disappointing for Legendary.
For more box office geekery:
- Will Batman v Superman be profitable for Warner Bros?
- Ben-Hur was a supersized box office bomb this weekend
- What does Suicide Squad box office say about the future of the DCEU?
Independence Day: Resurgence is a classic case of a studio expecting nostalgia to get asses on seats, but terrible reviews and a cast lead by Jeff Goldblum and featuring the Hemsworth who isn't Chris proved to be a bad omen. With $383m, it made just 2.3x its hefty $165m budget. The Legend of Tarzan drew mixed reviews and made a decent $348m, but its budget was a colossal $180m. Like many of the films on this list, the studio splashed the cash and got burned big time.
The BFG had everything going for it — directed by Steven Spielberg with solid critical reviews — but made just $141m, the exact same as its production budget. It was a crowded summer and this one had too much competition at the box office. Ghostbusters is an interesting case: Extremely high awareness and enough controversy over the female casting twist to generate interest, but in the end it made just $208m from a $144m budget.
Star Trek: Beyond is a genuine disaster which has chipped off $231m (so far) from a sky high $185m budget, while Jason Bourne, with a more sensible spend of $120m, still only made $278m. As a relevant comparison, last year's Spectre made $880. So much for Bourne being cooler than Bond. And finally, Ben-Hur took $22m globally this weekend although it was spawned from a staggering $100m budget. This is a movie with terrible reviews and a grand total of zero big-name stars among its cast, so Paramount should probably have seen this coming.
To find out more about lead actor Jack Huston, check out our video below:
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
The most obvious reason for this summer being such a bloodbath at the box office is that studios keep on spending too much money. Two films sum this up: Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters. The latter is perhaps the classic example of a movie which should have cost $60-80m to make. Deadpool cost only $58m (achieved by keeping the CGI to a relative minimum) while Paul Feig's previous comedy, last year's excellent Spy, cost just $65m. still looked expensive, and ultimately made more than Ghostbusters. The simple lesson: don't overspend.
It's not like it's impossible to make a great movie on a small budget. Most horror flicks keep the budget low by keeping set pieces to a minimum. That worked wonders for The Conjuring 2 ($318m vs a $40m budget), arguably summer's biggest hit.
Another moral is that it's difficult to get very far when the critics are slating your movie. Suicide Squad will be profitable for Warner Bros. (after three weekends it's already cleared three times its budget), but could have had a much stronger box office intake if reviews were decent. The critical consensus was that Jason Bourne wasn't new or different enough to justify the semi-reboot of a tired franchise. Resurgence and Warcraft just weren't well-written movies.
Last week, Fortune.com reported that only Disney — with four enormous hits, a total of $5bn+ taken and a 27% share of the market — has enjoyed an enviable year. Warner Bros. is in second with a global $1.5bn and counting, thanks entirely to the success of its two DC movies. The studio has another tentpole coming up with Fantastic Beasts, which should keep it clear of the competition. Why did Disney do so well? All of its four huge movies received good to great reviews, which gave them legs at the box office. Quality usually wins out.
Does Next Summer Look Any Brighter?
Summer 2017 at the box office kicks off with Fox's Wolverine 3 on March 3, followed a week later by Kong: Skull Island from Warner Bros. The latter has a superb cast including Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson, and both should be decent mid-size hits.
Other movies bound to do well include Fast 8 for Universal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for Disney, Spider-Man: Homecoming for Sony/Marvel, Wonder Woman and Dunkirk (see the spine-tingling first teaser trailer above) for Warner Bros. and Kingsman: The Golden Circle for Fox. That's arguably a much more diverse selection of movies than what audiences were offered in 2016.
Some look more questionable: The Mummy reboot with Tom Cruise is a gamble for Universal, Emoji Movie and Barbie are unlikely to drag Sony out of the mud, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword might be another Guy Ritchie flop for WB. Prometheus is already four years old, so Alien: Covenant from Ridley Scott also feels like a toss-up. The Rock's Jumanji reboot could go either way, although I'm stoked for that one.
Franchise Fever: Are We Done?
Many critics have noticed a prevailing trend among this year's flops: most were remakes, sequels in an existing franchise, or attempts at beginning a new one. Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets were original, standalone stories, and both were huge hits. Could it really be that franchise fever has left the building?
Realistically, no. The success of Captain America: Civil War clearly signifies that a well-written sequel which actually contributes something new will still draw audiences in. Before 2016 is out we'll get Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Doctor Strange, Rogue One and Assassin's Creed, all franchise movies with a strong likelihood of doing big box office business.
The box office is not dead. Like the ancient, low-IQ baring mutant of X-Men: Apocalypse, it's merely resting. Sure, it's in need of a little regeneration but it's certain to come back as powerful as before for another CGI-heavy assault on the senses — and if the other major studios can wrestle back that crucial understanding of what audiences want from the iron grip of Disney, next summer could be an altogether more even battlefield.
Until then, there's always the Gods of Egypt Blu-ray, now available cheaply in all good retailers for the classic Ancient Egypt experience... with added white dudes.
What was the biggest disappointment of this summer's blockbusters — and which of next year's selection has you most stoked?