When Baby Driver debuted last Wednesday, the $34 million heist movie was enjoying good reviews in keeping with the reputation of its widely respected, and cultishly adored, director Edgar Wright. But it couldn’t possibly do more than $20 million by the end of the weekend, according to rival studios. Even Sony seemed to expect a base hit instead of a home run. Instead, Baby Driver has currently cleared $34 million.
This number is surprising for several reasons, including the fact that it allowed Baby Driver to outgross Transformers: The Last Knight in its second week of release. That audiences were tiring of the franchise, at least in America, was obvious; the last entry made $100 million in a weekend in the US, but only $243 million total. But it took the fifth entry more than a week to stagger across $100 million, and $200 million seems a remote possibility at best. Worse, foreign audiences seem sick of the robots too.
According to Hollywood’s current conventional wisdom, this shouldn’t have happened. Audiences, it’s assumed, love sequels and original ideas just won’t sell. Films matching the latter description — especially ones that cost under $100 million even if they’re headlined by big stars — are often destined for Netflix premieres, the fate of movies like the Brad Pitt-starring War Machine and the forthcoming Bright, led by Will Smith. Hollywood calls these “mid-budget” movies — films made by studios at a cost too great for an indie but considerably less than a blockbuster — and they’re harder to make and market now than ever. In the past, many mid-range movies were made profitable by DVD and Blu-ray, but as home video revenue has shifted from selling each customer a $20 Blu-Ray to getting a tiny sliver of the $10 a month consumers pay to Netflix, Hollywood’s model has shifted to making money globally, and mid-budget movies are seen as less profitable and harder to sell.
Meanwhile, the sequel and its cousin the remake, have increasingly come to be seen as the safe bet, particularly in recent years. Sequels are “proven.” They have audiences built in who will go to see the movie, at least in theory, and they have international appeal. The fourth Transformers movie, for example, grossed a billion dollars overseas, four times what it made in America. As a result, 2017 will see almost 40 sequels, remakes, and reboots hit theaters. But Hollywood’s increasing conservatism when it comes to greenlights and the need to make a movie that can play in Jakarta as easily as Peoria has led to a problem: audiences are starting to walk away from them.
There have been a few highlights this year; Logan, Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine, was an enormous hit. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is inching up on Avengers territory in its box office. Resident Evil, the oddly durable action-horror franchise, went out on a high note. But that’s about the end of the good news.
Most of the sequels released so far in 2017 have box office disappointments, at least domestically, and in many cases worldwide. Formerly reliable smaller-budget action franchises like Underworld couldn’t even crack $100 million. Alien: Covenant, after inflation, can only boast better box office than Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and grossed half of what Prometheus pulled in worldwide. Even sure bets, like kids’ movies saw Smurfs: The Lost Village and Diary of A Wimpy Kid, struggle to meet fairly modest expectations.
Meanwhile, contrast that with this year’s box office surprises. Baby Driver seems likely to hold up well over the summer. Get Out, a $5 million horror movie from Jordan Peele, broke records. Wonder Woman, a period picture starring a superheroine, was supposed to be a huge financial risk according to Hollywood’s conventional wisdom; instead, it ended the July 4th weekend as the most popular of DC’s recent movies.
To be fair, July is supposed to redeem the sequel. Spider-Man: Homecoming has been enjoying great reviews and will likely make $100 million in a weekend. War For the Planet of the Apes is expected to rake it in at the box office as well, although the latter seems to illustrate two points at once. It’s the third in a franchise, but that franchise has been a radical reinvention of the Apes movies, avoiding remaking the original in favor of offering new takes on the lesser-known, and lesser-loved, later movies.
In the end, Hollywood may be cheating itself by trying to revive every last franchise. As Wright himself pointed out, every sequel is just a followup to an original idea. Even titanic franchises like Star Wars started not as calculated “international plays,” but rather a studio gambling on the vision of an original filmmaker. Hollywood needs to take more chances on original ideas or it may find that even the most patient audience won’t put up with sequels forever.