How the year 2012 helped redefine blockbuster movies

2012: the year the movie universe sparked, Universal struggled, and young adult adaptations really took off...

The big blockbusters of summer 2011 were the ones that followed fairly straightforward rules. The majority of them were sequels in linear movie franchises – Harry Potter, Transformers, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Fast & Furious – and it felt for the most part like a template was being followed.

Sure, there were surprises. Bridesmaids broke through and proved to be a massive R-rated hit. X-Men: First Class, meanwhile, came through unscathed – and in fine shape – from its reboot, whilst JJ Abrams took us temporarily back to the 1980s with Super 8. But other than that, the pattern was set: the big, pre-ordained films took the lion’s share of the cash, and regular sequels were the order of the day.

The signs of change were there in 2011, of course. Thor was a bigger hit than most were expecting, for instance, that led many to suspect Marvel’s cinematic universe that it was talking about might just work.

Yet it was 2012 that, in different ways, shook things up. Not monumentally, maybe (and certainly you can argue that every summer of movies has a knock on effect), but certainly in ways that have had lasting ramifications for blockbusters in the three years since. In fact, we’re arguably having a summer now that’s directly influenced by the successes and otherwise of summer 2012.

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So here’s what happened…

Young adult adaptations hit big

When Summit Entertainment hit big with the Twilight films, the instant question was whether this was a single bolt of lightning, or the beginning of a trend. For, let’s be clear, from the off, Twilight movies were making enormous amounts of money. But it’s never the first in a new trend that proves whether a new approach is here to stay. It tends to be the second. Thus, all eyes were on Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games, which was scheduled just before blockbuster season, in March.

The massive success of The Hunger Games had a few knock-on ramifications. Not only did it make Jennifer Lawrence a star (we’re coming back to her later), but it also cemented the idea that you could open a big movie in March, and earn massive box office in return (summer blockbuster season effectively starts in March now).

Also, it transformed Lionsgate. A firm that had been mainly known for horror, and for the Saw films, was now in effect Hollywood’s seventh major studio. And with another studio in the market for tentpole movies, that’s increased competitiveness in subsequent summers still further.

More than anything, though, The Hunger Games opened the young adult floodgates. In the years that have followed, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and The Fault In Our Stars have hit to varying degrees. And many, many more are following in their path. What’s more, it’s properties closer to The Hunger Games‘ template than Twilight that are coming through, with a dystopia effectively de rigeur to get such a film greenlit. You won’t be surprised to hear that many more young adult films, set in a dark future, are following…

Universal changed tactics

Of the major studios, it was Universal that fared worst in 2012. It made a couple of fatal errors, although escaped a terrible year thanks to some surprise hits that it’s following up this year.

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The biggest error surrounded Battleship. This was to be its big flagship movie, a Hasbro tie-in that starred Taylor Kitsch (who would not, following 2012, become the major movie star – at least not yet – as had been predicted). It had hoped to ape the success of Michael Bay’s Hasbro tie-in, Transformers, but instead, Universal misread the market. The idea of searching the Hasbro storeroom for another property proved not to be the path to box office gold.

Firstly, it didn’t help that the film wasn’t great. It couldn’t shake the biggest question surrounding making a Battleship movie – why? – and nor did it ever feel as though Universal wasn’t just trying to ‘borrow’ another studio’s tactics.

Worst of all, though, the studio horrendously underestimated the competition. Pretty much everywhere but America, it scheduled the film for a March release, which meant that when the money was counted up, it just about clambered to $300m. Mind you, the negative alone was just over $200m.

However, it held back the release of Battleship in the US until after that of The Avengers. You can work out the rest. Battleship struggled to get to $65m in America, whilst The Avengers – which we’ll talk about shortly – devoured it. Like many expensive modern misfires, Battleship wasn’t the outright financial disaster many painted it as, but it certainly left a sour taste in the Universal boardroom.

But Universal’s tricky summer wasn’t done. Whilst it had a bright spark – outside of the US at least – with American Reunion, its other comedy, The Five Year Engagement, fell hard. More troublesome though was its other supposed franchise starter, Snow White And The Huntsman.

Here, it felt like Universal was boarding another bandwagon, in this case the live action fairytale. It wasn’t quite playing Copy + Paste, more employing Excel’s Paste Special button (there you go: spreadsheet nerdisms).

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While Snow White And The Huntsman wasn’t a bad movie, it was a very expensive one to make and market (it wasn’t helped by the fact that Mirror Mirror stole some of its thunder earlier in the year). It fell just shy of $400m worldwide, although that was just enough to trigger the upcoming The Huntsman sequel (due 2016). Yet the bill neared $200m again just to make the thing, and Universal executives must have looked at the $1bn+ gross for Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland film and wondered what they’d done wrong.

Just to ice a not very tasty cake, expensive Bourne sequel The Bourne Legacy was mauled by critics, and underperformed at the box office. On the plus side, The Lorax overcame poor reviews to become a major hit, and the huge success of Ted, too, would point the way for a strategy change.

Universal has since refocused. It’s put the Fast & Furious movies at the heart of its schedules, and this summer is backing sequels, spin-offs and franchise revivals hard. Thus, Pitch Perfect 2 (which has enjoyed a massive opening), Minions, Ted 2, and Jurassic World, with Fast & Furious 7 already the most successful Universal film of all time (with around $1.4bn banked and counting).

Furthermore, Universal has also invested in low cost, high return comedies. Last year it was Seth Rogen and Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors. This year, it’s got Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck scheduled for slap bang in the middle of summer. It’s learned some keen lessons about where to place its chips, and has proceeded accordingly.

Also, to help revitalise its blockbuster output – and not put itself on the line to the same degree as it did with Battleship – Universal, since 2012, has signed a co-production deal with Legendary Pictures. That’s already brought it two Guillermo del Toro movies – Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim 2 – whilst Duncan Jones’ Warcraft is due next year.

All the while, Universal has tightened its deal with Jason Blum’s micro-budget outfit, Blumhouse Productions. As such, The Purge 3 is a year away.

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Oh, and Matt Damon has been signed back to the Bourne films. Meanwhile, plans for Battleship 2 have been quietly filed…

Star power continued to fade

Even by 2012, the studio star system had long been decimated, to the point where only a few names could be guaranteed to bring a bit of extra cash to a film’s box office takings. Yet 2012 was not a good summer for movie stars, and there’s not a star name headlining a standalone movie in huge letters at all in summer 2015. Sure, stars are out there, but they’re not being sold as the sole attraction any more.

The closest we have is Adam Sandler headlining Chris Columbus’ Pixels, but even then, the videogame angle is being played up a lot more than Sandler’s involvement. That, and George Clooney in Tomorrowland, although in truth, it’s not really his film.

In specific reference to Pixels, the providing of a safety net to go with Sandler’s involvement isn’t much surprise. Summer 2012 was the one, after all, where it was suggested that the Sandler decline was a trend rather than a blip. After all, for all the ire aimed at the risible Jack & Jill in 2011, it still grossed $149m worldwide. That was down on previous Sandler comedy vacuums certainly, but still profitable.

Yet summer 2012’s That’s My Boy was a surprise flop. Never mind the fact that, well, it was a bit shit, but that it grossed just $57m worldwide was a genuine surprise. The film failed to break the top ten at all in the UK, opening at number eleven over here. UK residents must have gone to the movies in search of a comedy that week.

Outside of the Grown Ups sequel and animated work, Sandler’s decline has not been arrested. Blended last year was expected to be a surefire hit, but even that stumbled, to $126m worldwide. Considering it was the reunion of Sandler with Drew Barrymore, box office gold was expected. But it did not come. That’s why you see him wrapped up in an expensive effects-driven movie this summer, having inked a deal that now sees his future movies going to Netflix first.

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Tom Cruise too came a cropper in summer 2012. He wasn’t the main attraction in the big screen take on musical Rock Of Ages, but he was still used to sell it. It’s not like they cancelled his premiere invitation.

People did not come, though, with the movie bottoming out at $59m worldwide (the lowest gross for a Cruise movie in a long, long time). Even now, outside of Mission: Impossible, Cruise’s star name only works in certain parts of the world. The excellent Edge Of Tomorrow‘s marketability didn’t seem aided much by Cruise’s mug on the poster. This summer, look at the size of his name on the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation poster. The title’s the winner then. Font sizes matter, friends.

Elsewhere in 2012, Will Smith scored a hit with Men In Black 3, but that was a hugely expensive film firstly for Sony to make, and then for the studio to promote. It seemed more a hit for the franchise than Smith himself too, and After Earth – a subsequent film that really needed Smith’s star power to sell it – fizzled far below expectations (although notably, Smith’s name still sells a lot of tickets outside of the US).

And yet there were two new names coming to prominence, that each to a degree define what the modern movie star is today.

2012 was the year that Jennifer Lawrence became a flat out movie star, after all. She had two movies that crossed $100m at the US box office – The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook – and she also took home an Oscar for the latter in early 2013. Channing Tatum too struck three lots of box office oil. 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike, and The Vow all crossed the $100m mark, all three surprise big hits.

But this is a new era of movie star, and summer 2015 reflects that. We’re in a summer largely absent of star vehicles, and even when there is a big name attached, they’re surrounded by lots of other selling points. That $15-20m star salary these days, it seems, is best spent on a few more quid behind the marketing campaign.

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R stands for Really quite a lot of cash after all

Over the past year, American Sniper, Gone Girl, and Fifty Shades Of Grey have turned an R-rating into box office gold. Long-believed to be a limiter of the potential returns for a movie, each of those films – in turn, each based on a book – has proven that’s not the case. American Sniper was the biggest grossing 2014 film at the US box office, for a start.

But then 2012 was already pointing the way towards a return of the R-rating for seriously commercial fare. Granted, Magic Mike‘s low budget – under $10m – made it less of a risk. But of the films that grossed over $100m in the US in 2012, eight of them had an R rating (out of 31). PG-13 was still ruling the proverbial roost, but that was still up from six in the previous three years. Notably, though, after 2009’s Watchmen had cost Warner Bros a small fortune to get to the screen, it was lower-cost R-rated films that were breaking through.

Yet when Ted crossed the $500m mark in 2012 – at a point where an X-Men film had never taken that much money – you could almost feel the resistance to the R-rating relaxing a little. Especially for comedies, and we continue to see the ramifications of that now.

Interestingly, though, it wasn’t just the cheaper films breaking through. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was a $100m production, a western running to two and a half hours. It took $162m in America alone, and is Tarantino’s biggest hit to date. Edgier action fare such as Safe House also banked big money, while Prometheus – powered by the Alien franchise – scored $400m worldwide.

It’d be remiss to say that 2012 brought in a sea change, but just look at the numbers that the hugely acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road has garnered. It’s one of several movies to have an R-rating this summer, with others including Ted 2 (inevitably), Entourage, Spy, Magic Mike XXL, and Trainwreck (with more awaiting their ratings). Expect a good three or four of those to comfortably bring in $100m in American money. The success of last year’s Gone Girl may encourage more studio executives to at least consider an R.

PG-13 became R-lite

Of course, for all the talk of R-ratings, the prevailing wind is still very much in PG-13’s favour. Most blockbusters put a contractual obligation on the director concerned to deliver a PG-13 rating for the movie in question (on A Good Day To Die Hard, director John Moore had to put together an R-rated cut for America, and a 12A version for the UK).

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Yet what’s interesting too is that films that would have been ostensibly R-rated movies in another era were slipping into PG-13. Skyfall (a later 2012 release) is a pretty brutal film, as is The Dark Knight Rises. Both pushed, it’d be fair to say, the boundaries of what a 12A/PG-13 film could and should be, and both grossed over $1bn at the global box office.

In a few years’ time, could we see a film such as Prometheus sneak into PG-13 we wonder? As it stands, in the US, the PG rating is barely seen outside of animation. PG-13 almost seems to be the law.

International box office > US box office

A lesson firmly cemented in 2012, but not by the most obvious example. One of the year’s biggest films, outgrossing the final Twilight film, The Hunger Games, Men In Black III, Ted, and Brave? That’d be Ice Age: Continental Drift. It took a staggering $877m worldwide, with over 80% of that money coming from outside of America.

That’s very much the modern model for blockbusters too (just look at how Transformers: Age Of Extinction courted Chinese audiences so overtly, and was rewarded with an extra $300m in box office takings). This year’s Fast & Furious 7, for instance, has added over $1bn to its gross from outside of America.

Expect fewer blockbusters to actually be set in the US at this rate. And expect more Ice Age films. Lots more Ice Age films…

The movie universe rat race began

This, of course, is the big one. Already, by 2012, rival studios had been looking enviously at the success that Marvel had been building up with its cinematic universe. But The Avengers was the massive gamble. Could a film work that brought multiple heroes together under one roof? And would that translate to box office gold?

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Yes. And yes.

Many of us had the feeling on the way out of seeing The Avengers that we’d seen something that we never thought would work, but really had. Gleeful fun, utterly entertaining, and almost demanding that you bought another ticket and went straight back to see it, The Avengers swiftly became the third biggest film of all time. And if it hadn’t already been shot, that fired the starting pistol for everyone else’s cinematic universes.

Now, in 2015, you can’t move for studios trying to put their own into place. Warner Bros has LEGO and DC Comics films, Paramount has Transformers, Disney itself has added Star Wars, Universal has classic monsters… you know all these, right? These are just some of the ones we know about, but it’s a fair bet that centric to any studio strategy now is a universe of films that it can generate a good two films a year from long term.

2012 saw the pinnacle of the new approach, and also the trouble with the standard reboot model. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man felt like it existed as a result of a business decision. Hard on one or two of the creatives, certainly, but when you hear of Brian Michael Bennis talking about a committee of people deciding whether Spider-Man should have mechanical webshooters, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.

It got worse for Spider-Man of course; in 2014, as Sony’ Spideyverse plans crumbled. But then maybe 2012 demonstrated that despite audience tolerance for reboots being higher than internet message boards may suggest, you have to at least come up with something diverse and interesting to make it all work (see also: Total Recall).

With The Avengers, that happened. Arguably, Marvel has struggled to recapture the proverbial lightning in a bottle since (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy have run it close, though). The Avengers changed the goalposts so much though that even a generally lesser-liked sequel such as Age Of Ultron (it’s still liked, just not as much) is comfortably on its way to $1.5bn. These were unthinkable numbers for comic book movies back at the start of 2012. Now? Warner Bros for one will be expecting something close to that level for Batman V Superman next year. If that lands at under $1bn, it may even – staggeringly – be considered a disappointment. That’s how far the goalposts have moved, with Simon Pegg recently admitting that Paramount was wondering why Star Trek Into Darkness only grossed half a billion dollars.

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And finally…

The big lesson of summer 2012 is that well planned movie universes can work. And inevitably, distilling a field of films down to a few points overlooks the other lessons learned (Tim Burton and Johnny Depp doesn’t always equal gold, Sacha Baron Cohen could use a new idea or two). But still: both overtly and less obviously, summer 2012 has had ramifications, and looking at the slate of movies we’re being presented with this year, it’s hard not to feel some degree of knock-on effect.

If everything flops? Expect summer 2018 to be very different, as three years seems about the minimum time required to react fully to trends. If it all hits? This is the new working manual through until the end of the decade at least…