Transformers: Age Of Extinction And The $100 Million Question

There are conflicting reports on how much Transformers 4 made its opening weekend. But why is it so important to the industry?

“There’s eventually going to be an implosion,” said Steven Spielberg, the great progenitor and benefactor of the Hollywood blockbuster age, on the subject of modern summer movies.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing to the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Harrowing words from a filmmaker who knows the blockbuster business better than almost anyone. While this doomsday scenario for the current industry model and its vital summertime CGI extravaganza pillars seems a little nihilistic, there is no denying that the Jaws and Jurassic Park filmmaker is on to something.

Could we even be seeing the faintest shades of it from this past weekend for a “mega-budget movie” franchise that he’s been executive producing since before 2007?

This weekend, Transformers: Age of Extinction was the first movie in all of 2014 to cross $100 million during its opening weekend in the U.S. Well, at least that is what Paramount might want you to believe when they rushed to get that printed with its studio estimates on Sunday morning—and again in the alleged actual box office tallies for the following Monday. And with headlines like ForbesTransformers 4 Scores $100M Weekend” and The Wrap’s Transformers 4 Thunders to Year’s First $100 Million Box Office Opening,” it is easy to see why.

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The entire industry is at the moment holding its breath, praying to the movie gods that at least a Michael Bay franchise that has sacrificed Shia LaBeouf on the same altar as Megan Fox will be enough for $100-plus million boffo glory. And even if the Monday number of supposedly $100.04 million is inaccurate, Transformers: Age of Extinction is still an unbridled hit that could rocket into the billion dollar club if the international movie gods are as generous as they were last week when China helped push Transformers 4 to an international cume of $300 million.

So, why is controversy blowing up with online Hollywood trade site Deadline accusing Paramount of straight up inflating and misreporting its numbers? In fact, Deadline persuasively broke down in their box office coverage, first in print and then in video, that Transformers: Age of Extinction could very likely have “only” earned $97 million to $98 million this past weekend—a number that would still gel with our own headline of it being the biggest opening of 2014.

The reason to inflate that number, beyond the awesome headlines the movie enjoyed on Sunday, is that like every other branded blockbuster before Transformers this year, the numbers are good…but they’re not as good as last year or the year before that. If Deadline is correct that means more than a few studio hands could be looking at the growing trend of 2014 and its total drop of 0.9 percent from last year’s annual box office with a staggering 14.9 percent decline from last summer—when Iron Man 3 cleared $174 million in its opening weekend and Man of Steel devoured $116 million in three days (the latter of which is considered a disappointment!)—and there is a shiver of Spielbergian prophecy running down their accountants’ spines. Indeed, it could even appear like Paramount is whistling past the graveyard.

To date, there have been five consecutive big budget, all-in studio ventures based on established brands with massive teenage boy appeal that have opened in 2014, four of which premiered in the appropriate “summer” months of box office tradition (first weekend of May to second weekend of August); not one of them is opening as big as Shrek 2 did 10 years ago or as big as the non-3D The Hunger Games did two years ago. In March. Way behind summer juggernauts The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.

Now granted, the internal franchise and arithmetic logic of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Transformers: Age of Extinction varies greatly, and almost all of them can be considered massive successes. But none of them are wowing at the U.S. box office either. And in an industry where Sorkin-like wisdom states that only “a billion dollars is cool” these days, it can be a bit disconcerting.

The film this is most apparent with is The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The more recent installment, which opened to $91 million in the prime box office real estate spot of the first weekend of May, should at first glance cause the champagne to be uncorked. However, it is unlikely that anyone at Sony Pictures was in a celebratory mood, least of all someone who has to spend shareholder meetings answering to Daniel Loeb. Because with a budget of at least $255 million to its credit, the fact The Amazing Spider-Man 2 only crawled past the $200 million mark in the U.S. and $700 million worldwide this last weekend borders on embarrassing, particularly for a franchise that announced a $100 million weekend was a thing when Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie crushed $114 million during the same weekend frame in May 2002. Without 3D, IMAX, and 12 years worth of inflation to its advantage.

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Even the much maligned Spider-Man 3 still killed the first May weekend in 2007 when it became the first movie to open over $150 million in three days. Conversely, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not only the smallest grossing Spidey movie in the U.S., it’s also the smallest grossing Spidey movie ever with international grosses nowhere near The Amazing Spider-Man’s $757 million, which is still nearly $150 million less than the web-slinging picture before that!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is surely the only true disappointment of these five 2014 movies that all opened between $90 million and $98 million* in the U.S. And that disappointment is mainly due to the fact that the movie is meant to be the kick-off to a shared, multi-franchise Spidey movie universe, but is now a possible harbinger of the public’s eroding interest in the character. Nonetheless, with $700 million and counting to its worldwide gross and DVD/Blu-ray sales yet to be reaped, Sony will turn a profit—if a diminished one for a movie that cost well over $300 million to produce when marketing is accounted for.

In contrast, nearly all the other franchise films on the block are either growing from previous installments like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or rebuilding and rebranding a tarnished logo like Godzilla (when compared to the 1998 remake) and X-Men: Days of Future Past. And other than Godzilla, which wisely kept its costs down with an “economical” $160 million budget, they all have or will cross $700 million worldwide. Even a billion dollars is still on the table for Transformers 4, which was all but conceived with the growing Asian markets in mind.

So, why again does it matter if a movie does or doesn’t cross $100 million in a single weekend? The answer is in the round of self-congratulating applause that Hollywood and the entertainment media that covers them (ourselves included) wanted to bestow the first movie to do so in 2014. Otherwise, the fear that this business model is unsustainable, and that spending $210 million on a single picture (the official studio production budget for Transformers 4) might one day prove financially irresponsible, will again emerge from the back of our collective consciousness—especially in a Michael Bay franchise that to date has grown substantially by over $100 million with each passing installment in international grosses (Transformers 3 tapped out at $1.12 billion).

Even if TF3 only earned $352 million in the U.S. market, down from TF2’s $402 million for its U.S. total, it still opened to $162 million for its five-day gross (debuting on a Wednesday). Conversely, Age of Extinction could very well be the first Transformers movie to not cross $300 million domestic, just like The Amazing Spider-Man was the first web-head flick to reach that dubious milestone in 2012.

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And if Transformers 4 really did fail to cross $100 million this weekend, it means that no movie will likely pull off that hat trick until NOVEMBER when The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 graces American cinemas on the weekend of November 21. Yet, therein may lie salvation in more than one way for what is shaping up to be a mediocre year at the box office for big budget studio fare.

While the production costs of the two Mockingjay films have not yet been officially released by Lionsgate, we know that last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which won the U.S. box office race with $424 million, only cost $130 million to produce. And that was the studio getting extravagant after the $78 million budgeted Hunger Games of 2012 earned $408 million in the U.S. Both movies were expensive with the second being lavishly so. But for all the money that went to building its “only in the movies” CGI, futuristic dystopia, it all played second fiddle to the movie’s focus on its characters and their narrative conflict. Much hay for example was made about how the last third of Catching Fire was shot in IMAX after the shaky cam-heavy first installment, yet for more than two-thirds of the film, director Francis Lawrence was content with keeping the story’s emotional heft carried by Jennifer Lawrence’s mostly stoic face. The action was not only secondary, it was a tightly controlled progression of the plot instead of its driving force.

The takeaway from this isn’t that all big budget movies should be Young Adult adaptations (though judging by Divergent’s success there is a market for that, too); the takeaway instead might be that American audiences are reaching a saturation point, a ceiling, for CGI spectacles and homogenized sequels that pummel viewers with all the collapsing buildings that a quarter-billion dollars can buy twice a month all summer long. To make big money in the U.S., you don’t have to destroy Hong Kong or San Francisco; you don’t even have to spend $150 million if you have a strong enough story, cast, and other enticements beyond explosive spectacle.

The Steven Spielberg prophecy has nowhere near come to pass. Marvel Studios proves that with their highly successful studio brand, which after The Avengers pushed the Captain America “rah-rah-rah” logo to $710 million worldwide mark (the first Cap picture couldn’t even muster $375 million). And with its relatively modest budget of $170 million, the movie is still arguably the most admired 2014 blockbuster to date by general audiences. It also probably would have been just as loved critically and financially if Marvel didn’t feel the need to tack on the relatively superfluous and disappointing third act climax that showcased three CGI “Helicarrier” leviathans crashing into landmarks around Washington D.C. Even if that explosive computer sequence had not occurred, the movie would have still featured the most talked about scenes (Cap fighting pirates, Cap fighting Crossbones in an elevator, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson laying down the path of the righteous man on Robert Redford’s head), and probably could have cost under $150 million.

Perhaps in our post-Avengers world, singular franchise spectacles will find it harder to cross $300 million or $400 million, or especially $500 million in the U.S. market. But a ceiling wouldn’t mean the sky is falling; it could just mean that if $95 million is the opening average, maybe the money should go toward the story and talent, and not the digital effects.

If that could be the new, real status quo, 12 months without a $100 million opening is quite the movie godsend, indeed.

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