The myth about fading Hollywood stars and franchises

Summer 2010 is supposedly the year that Hollywood got a kicking for relying on stars and franchises so much. But has that actually proven to be the case, wonders Simon?

There’s been a lot of chatter, some of it on this very site, surrounding the fact that this summer’s blockbusters have proven that tried and tested isn’t always the best way for movie studios to go. And a quick glance at the US box office totals over the past few months offers ample evidence as to why.

The list of underperforming films isn’t short, with the likes of The A-Team, Knight And Day, Sex And The City 2, Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Robin Hood among those that simply haven’t generated the kind of money that Hollywood would have liked, and more to the point, was expecting (and to be fair, in some cases, the quality of the films has hardly been impressive).

But here’s the thing: not one of those films listed above – even those that haven’t managed to crack the $100m mark in the US – could yet be listed as a flop. Heck, some of them are proving to be sizeable hits. And it’s because, contrary to many of the conclusions we may have been reaching, those much maligned stars and franchises have been pulling their weight when it really matters.

For the clues to what’s actually been happening, the best recent example is 2009’s Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs. Because it might not be obvious, but the third Ice Age movie is actually the 17th most successful film of all time, based on box office takings.

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Seventeenth. Really. It’s made more money at the box office than Transformers 2, Revenge Of The Sith, The Lion King, Up, Twilight Eclipse and a whole host of other big names. And it did this with what was regarded by some as a disappointing US gross of $196m. That’s not a number to be sniffed at, but it’s hardly Shrek-like numbers.

However, what transformed the fortunes of Ice Age 3 (and saw it outgross three out of the four Shrek movies in the process) was the small matter of a $690m non-US take, bringing its overall gross to a staggering $886m, before DVD and Blu-ray revenues could be taken into account. There are Harry Potter movies that haven’t made that kind of cash in cinemas.

So, this summer, what’s being shown – even if it’s not very obvious – is that Hollywood ironically needs franchises and movie stars more than ever. Because, while the US box office has been rejecting the same old reliance on licensed properties and big names (and heck, we’re glad to see the back of some of them), the more lucrative non-US market can’t get enough of it all.

Let’s take some of those films we mentioned earlier. Robin Hood just about scraped its way to $105m in the US, a real disappointment given that Universal was looking to launch a new franchise. But outside of America, the film’s proven to be a sizeable hit, with added takings of $204.9m bringing the film’s total to $310m.

The same applies to Sex And The City 2, which has only got to $95m in the US, but has added $185m in other territories for a $280m total thus far. That’s good money by pretty much anyone’s reckoning.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary thus far this year of the non-US box office has been Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. $89.7m is not the US total that Disney and uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer would have been dreaming of, but the $237m raked in elsewhere on the planet have made the film a good, solid hit, with $327m in the bank and counting. That might even be enough to kickstart a sequel (although that’s unlikely, to be fair).

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And then there’s the films that have yet to fully roll out. Disney, for instance, will be hoping that international box office does the same job for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that it’s done for Prince Of Persia.

There are already signs that Fox’s The A-Team movie will move into hit territory courtesy of non-US box office, and the Tom Cruise-led Knight And Day is managing to bring home the proverbial bacon too. His star power may not be what it was in the US, but already Knight And Day – which is only just into its global roll-out – has added $110m to the $74.2m US gross. Expect it to be a $300m hit by the time global box office is ultimately totted up, and expect Fox to be glad it had Cruise on hand when it came to the international markets.

Interestingly, there’s a reverse effect, too. There are films that have been profitable successes in the US that just haven’t played as well elsewhere in the world. Date Night was a solid $98m comedy hit for Fox in the US, but it brought in $53m overseas in total, not aided by the fact that it’s led by two actors most famed for US sitcoms (albeit terrific sitcoms).

Likewise, Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups – as James Mangold noted in his interview with us yesterday – has been a massive US success, with a gross of $160m and counting. But few are expecting it to play anywhere near as well elsewhere in the world. That all ties into a problem with comedy movies, arguably, where they simply don’t travel as well outside of the States (Get Him To The Greek, for instance, has taken over 70% of its money in the US, and films such as Hot Tub Time Machine and Cop Out suffered similar fates).

But like it or lump it, movie stars and franchises do. So, while 2010 has undeniably been a commercially disappointing summer for Hollywood – and it’s certainly refreshing to see an original film of the ilk of Inception bubble up as well as it has done – it’s not been the disastrous one that it may at first appear. Because once a film has underperformed in the States, studios need those stars and recognisable names more than ever to ensure they can make their money back – and more – elsewhere on the planet.

Fortunately for many movie executives, they’ve managed to deliver, and have turned what could have been a disastrous summer at the box office into a half-decent one after all…

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