The winners and losers of summer 2014

Feature Simon Brew 14 Aug 2014 - 06:25

Marvel soared while Adam Sandler floundered. Simon takes a closer look at the winners and losers of 2014's summer blockbuster season...

As another summer blockbuster season comes to an end, here's our annual reflection on what worked, what didn't, and who was left with egg on their face.

It's been a surprisingly strong summer season, in truth. Sure, there've been a few misses here and there, but we've found much to enjoy in many of the season's big releases, both in terms of widescreen spectacle and thought-provoking ideas.

So as the summer of 2014 winds to a close, here's what we took out of it... 

Marvel

Taking its usual place in the 'winners' section of articles like these is Marvel Studios, which opened and closed summer blockbuster movie season this year with considerable style.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier garnered strong reviews, and comfortably outperformed its predecessor at the box office. The gamble on the Russo brothers to direct the film was also comfortably won.

Then, of course, there's James Gunn's Guardians Of The Galaxy film, where Marvel gambled on the property, the filmmaker, and the release date unusually scheduling a huge blockbuster for the start of August. A far higher than expected opening weekend came off the back of ecstatic reviews, and the Marvel cinematic universe remains the unstoppable force in modern day blockbuster cinema. Joss Whedon's Avengers sequel is up next, and that's not going to break Marvel's winning streak. And right now, who would bet against Ant-Men either?

The X-Men

Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days Of Future Past finally saw an X-Men movie topple the numbers of the least liked film in the series, Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand. Furthermore, the new X-Men film, which blended the old cast with the new, also outperformed every other comic book movie this year at the box office. It feels like a big commercial breakthrough for Fox, which previously hadn't seen an X-Men movie break the $500m ceiling at the worldwide box office.

The studio already has its two next X-Men movies lined up - X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, the next Wolverine movie in 2017 - and plans are afoot for further spin-offs, including a Gambit film. Whether Fox knits this world together with the Fantastic Four longer term remains to be seen, but in a summer that's seen Sony stumble over its handling of a Marvel property, Fox appears to have found form at the right time.

Michael Bay

Michael Bay delivered a new Transformers film, critics delivered reviews that ripped the film to shreds, audiences didn't care and have thus far powered the movie to over $1bn at the global box office. Transformers: Age Of Extinction is the biggest movie of the year, and by the end of its run, will be the biggest of the Transformers movies too.

The only mild fly in the ointment is a decline in the American audience. But the film has been a huge hit in China in particular, and Michael Bay continues to deliver blockbuster after blockbuster. There's no studio in town that wouldn't give him $200m to make a tentpole picture. Transformers is also one of the most consistently massive franchises on the planet.

Then Bay struck gold again with his controversial rebooting of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Opening to $65m in the US, Paramount has already ordered a sequel, which Bay will again oversee.

It's suggested that Bay won't be directing Transformers 5 himself, instead moving onto a film about elephant poaching (rumoured title: Dumboooooooom). But it doesn't really matter what he does next right now. Off the back of this summer, Michael Bay is the movie director - and producer (for his Platinum Dunes outfit was also involved in another hit, The Purge: Anarchy) - that Hollywood studios desperately want to work with.

Lower budget R-rated comedies

You might not be able to get an R-rated blockbuster through the studio system any more, but there's no trouble with comedies. Summer 2014 has Bad Neighbours (Neighbors in the US), 22 Jump Street, Tammy and Sex Tape amongst its releases. Two of those delivered in considerable box office style.

Seth Rogen has admitted that he needed to bring down the budget of Bad Neighbours to get an R-rated cut of the film, but the upshot of that was that a movie that cost under $20m to make has turned in a huge profit. In a summer where Universal barely had a franchise picture, it was one of several hits for the studio. Its $258m worldwide take includes just under $150m in America, which is said to have bitten off a part of The Amazing Spider-Man 2's audience.

22 Jump Street, which sported the best end credits sequence we've seen in a long, long time, did even better. Living up to its impressive predecessor, the movie is closing in on $300m worldwide, off a relatively modest $50m production budget. In the UK, meanwhile, The Inbetweeners 2 has already enjoyed the best single day opening of the year.

Not every R-rated comedy has hit big. Sex Tape and Tammy both performed below expectations (and we're coming to the new films from Adam Sandler and Seth MacFarlane shortly). Yet the lower cost of an R-rated comedy brings with it lower exposure for studios, and for the next few years at least, you can expect prime time movie schedules to be stuffed with them.

Comedies based on British TV shows

A very British entry, this. Two films derived from comedy TV shows got very different receptions from critics, but both went on to do staggering business, albeit only the UK thus far.

Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie firstly. It was perhaps Mark Kermode who came up with the most damning criticism of the film, arguing "I just looked at it". Yet the film has banked over £13m in the UK off a modest budget, outgrossing many higher-profile releases as it's done so. At least one sequel is on the way, and a 2015 arena tour has already been announced.

The aforementioned The Inbetweeners 2 has done ever better though, and considering the near-£50m haul of the first film, that's a staggering achievement. It may not yet toppled that, but it's had the biggest opening of the year in the UK, and has amassed - ready for this? - £12.5m after five days. There are apparently no plans for The Inbetweeners 3. But we bet writer-directors Iain Morris and Damon Beesley have been asked about it a lot this week.

Scarlett Johansson

Earlier this year, Scarlett Johansson earned critical plaudits for the unnerving Under The Skin. Heading into summer blockbuster season, she had two films lined up: a reprising of Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and a lead role to herself in Lucy. It would be fair to say that both brought home the bacon.

Lucy is the particularly impressive achievement here. At a point where studios are still muttering about whether to cast a woman as the lead in major superhero film, director Luc Besson just got on with it, and was rewarded with a $43m opening weekend in the US alone. The $40m budgeted picture is just about to cross $100m in the US alone, and it's in the process of starting its non-US run now. The film's overall total should cross $200m by the time it's done.

Johansson is a bona fide movie star now - if she wasn't before - and one with a broad taste and a willingness to take on challenging roles. This year, she has very much got her just reward. Let's hope Hollywood takes notice.

Young Adult Adaptations

Hollywood's growing trend is taking novels aimed at 'young adults' (as we apparently have to call young adults now) and turning them into four part series. As such, Divergent kicked off another one, relatively successfully, back in March.

But the big breakthrough was The Fault In Our Stars, which gave Shailene Woodley a second well-deserved hit movie. Arguably the breakout surprise of the season, it proved you can tap into a younger audience and still find intelligent things to say to them. The film has done a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office.

Next to go for the young adult audience? This autumn's The Maze Runner. If that works, expect sequels...

CG Creatures

Two of the biggest, and most acclaimed blockbusters of 2014 were both dominated by CG creations. Gareth Edwards' cerebral rebooting of Godzilla outperformed expectations, and a sequel has been ordered. Mind you, it has to take its place in the queue, as Edwards has been lured to direct a Star Wars spin-off movie.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, meanwhile, was just as intelligent and perhaps even more technically impressive. It felt there was no compromise made in the shooting of the film, with director Matt Reeves finding interesting angles, tense sequences and moments of real pathos, often with a technologically aided creation at the heart of his frame.

Both Godzilla and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes are getting (further) sequels, but the hope here is that special effects and intelligent filmmaking in modern blockbusters can continue to work hand in hand. There's proof here after all that it can work, and still bring home box office gold.

Sequels

It wasn't just the commercial performance of sequels that delivered once again for Hollywood: there was an argument that the sequels themselves are getting better.

Certainly, there's a case to say that Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Purge: Anarchy, How To Train Your Dragon 2, The Inbetweeners 2 and 22 Jump Street either lived up to, or exceeded, their predecessors. In fact, only Rio 2 stands out as a sequel that didn't at least have a touch of ambition about it.

Predictably, many of 2014's successful films will have new chapters in 2016. But if we are stuck with sequels, we'd far rather have good ones...

Angelina Jolie

In a summer where the few remaining movie stars on the planet floundered at the box office a little, Angelina Jolie broke through.

Maleficent sold heavily off the back of her starring performance, which in truth made the film. As a result of that, the film was one of the biggest standalone movies (sort of, accepting its links to Sleeping Beauty) of the year, grossing over $730m worldwide - that's more than The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, for a start.

There's sequel talk, as you might expect, but Maleficent, for now, is a gamble that worked a treat for Disney. Interesting that the two films sold off the back of female leads this summer both hit big... 

Sony's Spider-Man universe

Two steps forward, two steps back. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 earned slightly better reviews than its predecessor, and cleared $700m at the global box office. But, as has been lengthily discussed, the Spider-Man series is not a franchise experiencing growth. At a point where every big budget superhero sequel seems to make more cash than the last, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was the exception to the rule. Sony would have been looking for at least another $100-150m with this one, and it didn't get it. The tail of Captain America: The Winter Soldier did not help it there.

Yet $708m is still a decent amount of money to build a series off the back of, and Sony has been moving to put a Spider-Man movie universe into place. Thus far, it has Sinister Six for 2016, a reportedly female-led spin-off in 2017, and the delayed The Amazing Spider-Man 3 in 2018. More spin-offs, including Venom, are planned.

Sony is at a turning point here though, and if Sinister Six doesn't take off in 2016, then it's got some serious retooling to do. As it stands, at best, it's trodden water with Spider-Man this year, at a point it needs to be building momentum. It's not as if the competition isn't fierce...

DreamWorks Animation

In the midst of one of the driest summers for good, family blockbuster movies, DreamWorks Animation continued to hit problems. How To Train Your Dragon 2 was the best family movie of the summer, and the sequel to what many regard as DreamWorks' best film. However, its box office total of $487m worldwide is being regarded as a disappointment in some quarters, with it being used as further evidence that DreamWorks Animation has lost its magic box office touch.

Certainly the studio isn't having the easiest of times. Recent releases such as Mr Peabody & Sherman ($262m at the box office worldwide), Turbo ($282m) and Rise Of The Guardians ($306m) were said to have underperformed, and of its recent schedule, only The Croods has really broken through (grabbing $587m worldwide).

The problem with How To Train Your Dragon 2 is one of expectation. That $487m gross is still a little behind the $494m banked by its predecessor (which it will beat), but it's still a good $100-200m shy of where the film was expected to land. This isn't a similar case to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 either. Reviews of How To Train Your Dragon 2 were rightly strong, but the film just hasn't lifted to quite the level DreamWorks wanted, and perhaps needed.

The longer term concern will be that How To Train Your Dragon 3 is already well into production, and a centrepiece of the studio's 2016 schedule. 

Tom Cruise

You know there's a problem when you're a big movie star in one of the best reviewed blockbusters of the summer, and the film still underperforms. Furthermore, people haven't been shy at pointing the finger at the man who headlined the project as the reason for the comparably low box office performance.

For the second summer running, Tom Cruise starred in a standalone sci-fi movie. We always quite liked Oblivion, but this year's Edge Of Tomorrow was something really special. Cruise was great, Emily Blunt even better, and director Doug Liman got a real handle on the mix of humanity and sci-fi threat.

Unfortunately, Edge Of Tomorrow - whilst moderately successful - stumbled a little at the box office. It's not necessarily fair to land that all at Cruise's feet, either. Edge Of Tomorrow was a very expensive non-franchise film that landed in the midst of a sequel-saturated summer, and was always facing an uphill struggle. What's more, outside of America, Cruise still clearly sells tickets. It's his US audience that's mainly leaving him alone.

Edge Of Tomorrow has cobbled together $363m worldwide, so it's no flop, and it's not going to make anybody poor. The fear is that it won't encourage a studio to back an interesting, standalone sci-fi movie at this scale anytime soon. We hope we're proven wrong there.

Clint Eastwood

On the upside for Warner Bros, Clint Eastwood directed films tend to come in for a low price, generally under budget, and with the minimum of fuss. On the downside for Warner Bros, Clint Eastwood directed movies haven't been too interesting for a while now.

When Jersey Boys was first mooted for the big screen, it was Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau who was in charge. Eastwood was a fairly late in the day replacement for Favreau, but any hope Warner Bros had of enjoying a Les Miserables/Chicago/Mamma Mia-sized musical crossover hit would have been extinguished when it saw the first cut. Eastwood didn't seem that interested in making that film at all. And whilst his Jersey Boys was decent, a film to spark a summer audience into life it was not. It silently sank at the box office, taking under $60m worldwide. Profitable, certainly, but only just.

Adam Sandler and Seth MacFarlane

Two of the highest profile comedies going into the summer season were Blended and A Million Ways To Die In The West. Big things were expected of both of them.

Accepting that Adam Sandler's critical stock has never been lower, he's still proven a box office draw with crap like Grown Ups 2 (which notably beat Pacific Rim at the US box office). His reteaming with Drew Barrymore for the third time, in Blended, looked like a positive step. But whilst it wasn't Sandler's worst of recent times, Blended still won itself few friends amongst critics. More surprisingly, it won itself few friends amongst the audience too.

Blended crawled its way to $121m worldwide, but interestingly, it was Sandler's US audience that mainly left him alone. Blended didn't break $50m in the States. Nor did the much-vaunted A Million Ways To Die In The West, Seth MacFarlane's follow-up film from the huge hit that was Ted. It made $85m worldwide, but again, it didn't break $50m in the States. Comedy that goes through similar routines doesn't always strike gold, it seems. MacFarlane is heading back to the safer waters of Ted 2 next.

Summer Horror

A surprise, this. Last year, horror movie season seemed to switch from October to summer, with The Conjuring in particular proving to be a successful and hugely profitable movie for Warner Bros. This year, more horror films have staked out a traditional October slot, but the ones that ventured into summer season never really made the impact they perhaps deserved.

Sony in particular had confidence in Scott Derrickson's Deliver Us From Evil, moving it forward to an early July release. The film picked up decent reviews too, but scheduling it against Transformers: Age Of Extinction did not prove to be wise counter-programming. Deliver Us From Evil did okay, but there's a suspicion it could have done even better in a less crowded release window.

Likewise, the perfectly fine Oculus also arguably suffered as a result of scheduling. The film was well liked, but an April release saw it fighting Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the US. It would be fair to say that Captain America won.

In both cases, the films in question didn't appear to be the core of the problem. Rather than pitting them against major blockbusters didn't appear to be the best way to sell them.

Overall thoughts? It's been quite a good summer for movies, with more and more blockbusters having something to say, and one or two them exceeding our expectations by no short distance. It certainly throws down the gauntlet for summer 2015...

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