Summer blockbusters 2015, and what’s defined as a hit

Ant-Man hit, Terminator: Genisys failed, yet both made around the same amount of money. So what actually is a hit movie?

If the hive mind of Twitter is to be believed, then summer blockbuster season 2015 has given the world some very distinct hits and misses. It’s fairly obvious that Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, and Avengers: Age Of Ultron have all been sizeable successes, not least because each of them has grossed over $1.3 billion, and stands in the top ten movies of all time at the global box office.

Furthermore, Terminator: Genisys and Fantastic Four are the lucky recipients of the term “box office bomb” this season. Right?

Well, maybe. But it’s not quite as clear as that.

It’s a sign of the times that the measure of success of a movie is determined by its instant box office takings first and foremost. By such a measure, movies such as Austin Powers and The Bourne Identity, that became massive successes primarily on home formats, would not be seen as the huge hits they were. Furthermore, there’s a rush to denote films as a hit or miss. Even today, for instance, Waterworld is regularly referred to as a ‘box office bomb’, when in fact it’s gone on to make a tidy profit for Universal. That’s not so clickbait-y a story, though.

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What’s clear from this summer’s blockbusters is that more than ever, it’s takings outside of America that are defining the financial success or otherwise of cinema releases. Again, this is a snapshot, as the bulk of a film’s cash still comes from other sources of revenue, such as home releases, merchandise, and tie-in products.

Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that for a Hollywood studio, it tends to take a smaller slice of the ticket price on seats sold outside of America. So while something like Pacific Rim made $101 million in the US and $309 million elsewhere, Warner Bros and Legendary still would have done well to return $100 million to their collective coffers once the distribution network had taken its cut. Given that the film cost $190 million to make, and another nine figures to market across the globe, then it’s a good job Pacific Rim shifted so many discs.

It explains too why Sony would have been so disappointed with the takings for last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, incidentally. It took just over $700 million worldwide (over $500 million of which came from outside of America), yet the film’s likely to have cost in the region of $250-350 million just to make, market and release. It’s hard to call any film that sells over $700 million worth of tickets a bomb, but it was certainly a disappointment.

But it all points to the fact that we never see the full spreadsheet. We never see which companies get which slice of the pie, and just how much a film actually cost to make. So let’s take a look at some numbers for films that were released this summer:

Spy

$233 million global box office (reported $65 million budget)

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Ant-Man

$326 million global box office (reported $130 million budget)

Mad Max: Fury Road

$368 million global box office (reported $150 million budget)

Terminator: Genisys

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$322 million global box office (reported $155 million budget)

Fantastic Four

$59 million global box office (no reported budget, but around $150 million is a decent guess)

Pixels

$131 million global box office (reported $88 million budget)

I’ve picked those six examples for the simple reason that the top three are regarded as big successes, and the bottom three as big flops. One caveat of course: four of the films are still playing in general release (and Fantastic Four has only been playing a week), and there are territories where the likes of Terminator: Genisys hasn’t opened yet. So the numbers are set to grow.

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But in truth, which of these is actually a flop?

The truth is we don’t actually know. That Terminator: Genisys and Ant-Man made similar money at the box office is both surprising, but also not telling us too much. Ant-Man was far better received, and has been seen as a success for Marvel. But in simple cash terms, its two dimensional outlook isn’t that far removed from the Terminator sequel.

The difference, and this is telling of the modern blockbuster movie, is that – off the back of the reaction to the respective films – more people are likely to turn up for an Ant-Man 2 than a Terminator 6. That too is likely to be the challenge faced by Fox when deciding where next to take the Fantastic Four movies. It’s little secret that Paramount and Fox were both looking to springboard new takes on the respective franchises with Terminator: Genisys and Fantastic Four, but we’d suspect that some pretty difficult meetings have been taking place since both films were released.

And yet will either, ultimately, prove to be a box office bomb? Will they lose money? Almost certainly not in the long term, although the annual and quarterly accounting practices of movie studios – and the ability to write down losses on specific projects – would lead the world to believe otherwise. Disney infamously wrote down somewhere between $100-200 million on John Carter, but few genuinely think it’ll ultimately see the studio out of pocket in the long run.

Terminator: Genisys is likely to climb somewhere close to $400 million by the time it’s done and dusted in cinemas, and while it’s one of the most expensive films to make, release and market on that list above, it’s not on the Excel spreadsheet where it’ll have done the most damage. There’s a sporting chance that, when everything is totted up at the end of the cinema run, it’ll have made more money than the pretty much universally acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road.

But then that’s the problem with box office being the pure indicator of a film’s success. The true test of a movie is how it endures, and whether any of it sticks in the mind, for the right reasons. All six of those films I listed above are likely to eventually break even. But how many will we retain interest in buying a 20th anniversary disc edition of in 2035? As Trainwreck director Judd Apatow recently said in a Guardian webchat, “as time goes by most people forget the box office of movies, and they just decide if they like it or not. None of that really matters when you’re sitting home alone watching a movie in your underwear.”

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Don’t be surprised, ultimately, if Terminator: Genisys for one crosses the line needed for Paramount to greenlight that sequel (never forget that Transformers: Age Of Extinction grossed $300 million in China alone last year, although there’s a story and a half there). And don’t necessarily believe any box office report that instantly declares something a profitable film or a loss-making one. There’s a sporting chance that even posh Hollywood accountants aren’t entirely sure of the difference, after all…