It’s August, the time of the summer movie season when blockbuster fatigue sets in after months of various monsters, aliens, robots, and comic-book heroes pounding audiences into numbing submission. This particular summer has been notable for several box-office disappointments — like The Lone Ranger, After Earth, Pacific Rim — that arrived with high price tags, high expectations, and big-name stars or directors. Each was conceived as a new franchise that could fill studio coffers for the next decade and each failed to live up to the hype for one reason or another.
Increasingly, though, American audiences don’t get the final say on whether these characters live to fight another day. The international market now represents nearly 70 percent of the global box-office, so if China, Russia, and Brazil team up to decide that Pacific Rim — which reportedly cost about $190 million but has only grossed $87 million domestic — gets a second round, it will be done. Yesterday, Guillermo Del Toro’s robots-versus-monsters spectacle opened to packed houses in China, earning an impressive $9 million in its first day in theaters there, according to Deadline. That raises the global box office for Rim to $227 million (if Warner Bros. and Legendary can get the Chinese Film Group to pay up), with the movie still slated to open in Japan, Spain, and Brazil. Should Rim finish in the the high-$300 million neighborhood — not an unreasonable goal — Del Toro should get an opportunity to bring his sequel ideas to life.
Pacific Rim isn’t the only “disappointment” that might be rescued by the international audience. Brad Pitt’s World War Z dodged some pre-release bad buzz to earn more than $193 million at home, but it’s the extra $280 million it hauled in abroad that clinched a sequel or two. Will and Jaden Smith had to eat humble pie when After Earth crashed at the box office in June. But since then, their science-fiction franchise-starter has grossed $182 million in foreign territories. That might not be enough to secure a sequel for the poorly-reviewed movie, but that pile of cash will certainly cushion their personal disappointment. American audiences turned up their noses at the final Hangover comedy, but it soaked up $239 million abroad, more than twice what it made here. If the Wolfpack change their minds and decide to cash in again, the audience is still there. You can also expect another Die Hard, G.I. Joe, and even an Oblivion if Tom Cruise wants to. All three movies were legitimate hits abroad, justifying their big budgets.
One movie that likely won’t be rescued by the rest of the world is The Lone Ranger. As popular as Johnny Depp is, the trainwreck of a movie suffers the added disadvantage of being a Western, a genre that has never traveled well. The reboot has failed to earn back its reported $215 budget, and will likely not ride again.
As Hollywood looks to launch new franchises (Man of Steel) to replace old ones (Harry Potter), there is a growing concern that the center cannot hold. George Lucas and Steve Spielberg recently agreed that the industry is on the precipice of disaster and that it would take just a handful of these giant tentpoles to fail for an “implosion” to occur. The international box-office, which still has an old-school reverence for “stars” and a craving for CG mayhem, remains that firewall, preventing such a calamity from happening — for now.
But what Hollywood needs to do — and is already doing in some cases — is embrace The Fast and the Furious model. The latest chapter has grossed more than $740 million globally, and not only does it have its own niche approach to casting, but it’s based on a 2001 franchise-starter that cost only $38 million to make. Even The Hunger Games, which was a can’t-miss hit for Lionsgate, cost only about $80 million in 2012 to launch a billion-dollar franchise. See, blockbusters don’t necessarily have to be priced as blockbusters. It’s the reason you likely won’t see Tonto back in the saddle, but you’re going to witness another Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Both were critically reviled, but Paramount made the latter for only $50 million. Sure, it barely made its money back in North American ($55.7 million), but it cleared another $170 million abroad.
“Poor” Jeremy Renner. The Oscar nominee is handed the keys to the Bourne franchise, and brought along to play with the Avengers and the Mission: Impossible crew. But he’s going to be best known around the world as Hansel. How Grimm.