Beyond the expected hits like Rogue One and Finding Dory (and the year’s biggest flops), there were a number of unexpected box-office successes in 2016, or movies that made more than anyone expected. Here are a few lessons we can learn from their success.
Worldwide, Deadpool grossed $90 million less than Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($873 million to $783 million), but it cost $190 million less to make ($250 million to $58 million). What’s more, promoting Deadpool came at a fraction of the cost, thanks to viral marketing. Deadpool is what happens when filmmakers are given the freedom to make the superhero movie they want to make without being constrained by the demands of a larger overall universe (despite a loose connection to Fox’s X-Men films). It wasn’t just the biggest success of 2016, it was the second highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, falling just behind The Passion of the Christ. Deadool is proof that a superhero film doesn’t need an extended universe, expensive effects, and a huge marketing budget: It only needs a compelling character and an original (for a superhero movie) script.
In 2014, TriStar tried to reach out to moms with Patricia Heaton’s faith-based Moms’ Night Out. It grossed $10 million. With Mother’s Day, Open Road Films tried to throw Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts and a bunch of big stars at moms. It grossed $32 million. It turns out, moms aren’t as interested in hearing how great they are, but in commiserating over the difficulties of parenting. The R-rated Bad Moms remained in theaters for 13 weeks over the summer and fall and capitalized on moms going out en masse for drinks and a movie to become one of the biggest sleeper hits of the year, grossing $180 million worldwide (and $113 in North America) on a scant $20 million budget. The film demonstrates that moms — like superhero fans — just want to be spoken to on their level, and that 14 years later, the spirit of The Sweetest Thing finally cashed in at the box-office.
Deadpool was the first major R-rated superhero film, and Bad Moms sought to appeal to mothers with an R-rating, Sony took a chance and decided to see what would happen if they let Seth Rogen make the first major R-rated computer animated film. The gamble paid off. Sausage Party, which featured an actual food orgy, earned $140 million worldwide on a $19 million budget. It’s possible, however, that no lesson can be learned from this because the novelty of an R-rated animated film may only work once, and even if someone did attempt to make another, there’d be no way to outmatch the raunch and filth of Sausage Party.
Duncan Jones’ Warcraft was a domestic bomb, an afterthought in America. The $160 million film made a meager $47 million stateside. Plans for a sequel seemed to evaporate after its sluggish opening weekend. But more than any other film this year, Warcraft demonstrated that American audiences no longer dictate what is and is not successful. Warcraft would go on to gross $433 million worldwide. 89% of that came from international audiences, and over half came from China, where it was the third highest-grossing film of the year. Plans for a sequel are currently up in the air, but one thing is for certain: If there is one, it will be cheaper and it will be geared toward Chinese audiences.
Disney and Pixar get most of the attention and accolades, but Illumination Entertainment has proven in recent years that an animation studio need not spend $150 to $200 million to make a splash. Disney’s Moana ($150 million budget), Pixar’s Finding Dory ($200 million budget) and Disney’s Zootopia ($150 million budget) were three of the biggest films of the year, but Illumination’s Secret Life of Pets ($875 million worldwide) and Sing ($277 million worldwide, and counting) did just as well on half the budget ($75 million). Reviews weren’t as stellar for the Illumination films, but the studio behind the Despicable Me/Minions franchise demonstrated that it could be a contender by providing kids with formulaic, crowd-pleasing movies that need not break the bank.
Central Intelligence is not only proof that Dwayne Johnson can sell tickets, it’s proof that original movies can succeed when they don’t overspend. The box-office figures for Central Intelligence were nearly identical to another summer action comedy, Ghostbusters ($127 million and $128 million domestically, respectively, and $217 million to $229 million worldwide). Central Intelligence was seen as a big hit for Warner Bros., while Ghostbusters was considered a major disappointment for Sony. The difference? The budget for Ghostbusters was $144 million. The budget for Central Intelligence was $50 million. Director Rawson Thurber kept costs under control on Central Intelligence and let Johnson and Kevin Hart replace some of the effects budget with their natural chemistry.
10 Cloverfield Lane
J.J. Abrams understands how the market works, so he took a low-budget horror film called The Cellar and changed the name to align it with a well known property. He called it a “spiritual successor” to Cloverfield, although it wasn’t a successor as originally conceived. The actors didn’t even know it was a sequel to Cloverfield until a few days before the trailer was released. No matter. The name recognition created interest, and a good horror movie and solid word of mouth turned it into a hit. The Cellar probably wouldn’t have made more than $30 million at the box office. The same movie with Cloverfield attached to its name, however, churned out $73 million domestically and $108 million worldwide. Not bad for a $15 million film which let its title do most of the marketing. Expect to see spiritual successors to Cloverfield for many more years to come.
I was dumbfounded by the success of Sully, which made $124 million domestically and added another $100 million worldwide on only a $60 million budget. It’s a modestly entertaining, efficiently made Clint Eastwood film, but there was nothing exceptional about it. Nevertheless, older audiences turned out in droves to see Tom Hanks turn a 90-second event into a 100-minute movie. I’m not sure what that proves except that people still love Tom Hanks, and that older audiences were starving for something besides tentpole movies in September.
Don’t Breathe / The Shallows
It doesn’t take big stars, dazzling special effects, and huge advertising campaigns to sell a good horror film. Sometimes, all it takes is a few million dollars, a tight script with a strong hook, and solid word of mouth. Don’t Breathe came out at the tail end of August, where movies are often dumped before Labor Day. It was the best horror film of the year, and audiences paid attention. Based on a simple premise (blind man tries to kill home invaders), the film — made for less than $10 million — earned $153 million worldwide. Likewise, The Shallows was built around a simple hook: Blake Lively fights a shark. Even though it opened against the Independence Day sequel, it earned back its $17 million budget on opening weekend and went on to earn $119 million worldwide.
Me Before You
Me Before You borrowed from a 2014 lesson: A weeper is a good way to break up the summer blockbuster season. In 2014, The Fault in Our Stars made over $300 million worldwide on a $12 million budget. In 2016, Emilia Clarke’s Me Before You opened on the same June weekend, and while it wasn’t quite as successful, it did manage to make $207 million worldwide on a $20 million budget despite mediocre reviews. Sometimes, moviegoers just want to cry, and they don’t even need a good movie to justify it.
Briefly, here’s what we learned from the box office successes of 2016: The R-rating is the new PG-13. Brand recognition continues to be important, but production budget matters more. Two blockbusters can make the same amount of money at the box office, but one can be considered a success while the other a disappointment, depending on the price tag. Moreover, worldwide appeal is just as important, or in some cases more important than stateside appeal. Finally, star power isn’t as relevant to the success of a movie as brand recognition, but Dwayne Johnson and Tom Hanks can still sell a lot of tickets.