Box Office Round Up – October 14 – 16, 2016

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Get behind the numbers of last week’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer investigates why the current top ten movies at the box office are $131 million away from simply getting their budgets back. Hubris and self-preservation are involved.

by Chris Neumer

Ben Affleck’s latest, horribly-reviewed action movie, The Accountant, hit theaters this weekend and, as is somewhat par for the course, didn’t make any real waves at the box office. It earned $24 million. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the film’s budget is a very modest $44 million. Sometime in the next two weeks, it is just a matter of time before The Accountant makes its budget back and a sizeable chunk more in the domestic market. I mention this because it is not a statement that many other studios will be able to make about their current releases.

When you scroll down the list of the weekend’s top ten, the one thing that becomes apparent is that, save for Warner Brothers, no one seems to be making money at present. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Deepwater Horizon both had budgets of $110 million and, combined, have not earned that figure back. Storks has a $70 million budget and a $59 million total box office and The Magnificent Seven has a $90 million budget and an $84 million total box office.

There is one major outlier in this scenario that I’ll get to in a minute. Save for it, though, every film out there is struggling get much beyond its budget in the domestic market.

Kevin Hart: What Now?, The Girl on the Train, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life and The Birth of a Nation are the only films in the top ten to have earned back their (miniscule) budgets and, combined, they have only managed to earn about $11 million more than that. The Accountant should be able to do that by November! And it’s not anything that anyone considers to be a huge hit! Lest we forget, Affleck’s film 2003 film, Paycheck, had a cumulative take of $54 million and that was considered a huge flop. And all signs point to The Accountant ending up within sneezing distance of that total.

The one film that’s out right now and doing everything a film should do is Clint Eastwood’s drama, Sully. It was made for $60 million, earned more than half of that back opening weekend and now sits perched at a $118 million cumulative total.

But here’s the funny thing about Sully: there’s not a whole lot that can be taken away from its success. Not because there isn’t any information present, mind you, but because everything that could be gleaned from Sully’s romp through the September and October box office is already incredibly obvious and well known. Sully’s formula is this: a talented veteran director made a very good movie with a likable lead (and) actor for an incredibly reasonable sum of money.

Somehow—somehow!—that formula seems to be working for it. Who would ever have guessed?

Interestingly, despite the ‘No duh!’ elements of this formula, it isn’t often trotted out. In the last two years, there were only two other works that fit the Sully formula: one was Eastwood’s last project, American Sniper and the other was Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

The combined budgets of the three? $158 million. Their combined domestic box office takes (so far)? $540 million. Just for laughs, compare those numbers to the numbers for Marvel’s latest Avengers movie: Age of Ultron. Age of Ultron’s budget was $250 million and its box office was $460 million.*

* A fourth film that came close to earning this label was Sony’s The Equalizer. It featured a semi well-respected director, Antoine Fuqua, a likeable lead in Denzel Washington, didn’t really get decent reviews (60% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and was made for a very reasonable sum of money, $55 million. Gone Girl and Argo would both have been included had they been released in the last two years.

If you choose to look at the three like one movie, it’d be another The Dark Knight. Or, in other words, the sixth highest grossing movie of all time.

When the worst-case scenario from following this formula is a film that is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that almost doubles its budget domestically like Bridge of Spies did, it’s hard to fathom why more studios aren’t trying to follow this model.

Hollywood has a somewhat interesting relationship with quality in its movies. Come award season, the powers-that-be all pay lip service to making good films and films that matter. They highlight the two or three movies that they released during the last calendar year that didn’t weren’t based off of video games, aimed at young children or than didn’t feature superheroes and then they talk positively about how Hollywood is determined to make art and make film relevant. Then they go ahead and release Dirty Grandpa.

Critics have long complained that the studios only care about money and that they’d release a homemade snuff video if they thought it’d make money. And I accept that as being 100% true. If it were mathematically possible for something to be more than 100% true, I would accept this fact on those terms too.  I don’t judge it in any manner, shape or form. What I judge is when a business like Hollywood specifically decides to avoid releasing the types of films that have been proven time and again to do well at the box office.

What strikes me as funniest about this is that the formula I’m suggesting the studios follow is simply common sense. Get talented people to make good movies without breaking the bank! A ten-year old would be able to lay out that strategy for you.

My guess is that the studio executives, interested in rapidly catapulting up the corporate ladder are not particularly enthused about doing anything other than hitting huge home runs.   Championing an enormous break out hit like Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool will guarantee you a position of power for the duration of your career. Fighting hard for Bridge of Spies and Lucy will get you a pat on the back, but won’t instantly nab you that corner office you were looking for.

I think it ultimately breaks down to a matter of who gets the credit on these films. In the event that the $120 million hit was directed by Eastwood and starred Hanks, it’s doubtful that many people would ever think: “Hey! We should promote the studio executive who worked on this! He’s the reason that it succeeded!”

If there’s no veteran director or huge star attached to the project, the success then can be attributed to the executives and producers. Thus, we are presented with a situation where there is, somehow, a reward for studio executives to not work with well-respected, talented directors and bonafide stars and leading men and women.

Which brings me full circle to the fact that the studios spent $73 million more to make the movies that are in the top ten currently, than the movies have brought in. (And that number would be $131 million if it weren’t for Sully’s contributions). It’s not a great place for a field that cares only about money to be in.

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