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Lucy Laid The Smack Down On The Rock, But What Does That Mean for The Future of Action Heroine Movies?

Over the weekend, Scarlett Johansson laid the smack down on The Rock’s candy ass, sending him straight to the heartbreak hotel (Yep, those are a couple of The Rock’s old catch phrases; in a former life, I was a huge WWF fan), scoring an impressive $43.8 million debut for Lucy vs. a not-great sub-$30 million for Hercules.  This is being dubbed by the likes of BoxOfficeMojo as the victory of brains over brawn, which, of course, simply refers to Lucy‘s plot revolving around a woman who gains access to 100% of her brain which turns her into a bit of a super-smart, super-powered bad-ass.  I see what they did there, brains vs. brawn.  However, don’t let that fool you into thinking that Lucy is some high-falutin, brainy thriller.  It’s not.  It’s oh so dumb, only marginally more nuanced than The Rock’s foolish bet that we all wouldn’t laugh at the sight of him wearing a lion’s head atop his giant noggin in Hercules.  Lucy, after all, comes from the same guy (Luc Besson) who gave us Liam Neeson’s particular set of butt-kicking skills in the Taken series.

And that’s totally okay.  It doesn’t so much matter if Lucy is nothing more than a dumb, fun action movie.  It matters that it’s a dumb, fun action movie with Scarlet Johansson in the lead role, and it just made a crap-ton of money, needing a mere 3 days to make back its $40 million budget.  Moreover, this wasn’t a comic book movie.  This wasn’t based on some obscure graphic novel.  This was an original screenplay with Johansson out front and center, showing off how easy it would have been for Marvel Studios to have made a low-budget Black Widow film just like this one.

Lucy‘s opening weekend audience was evenly split between men and women.  That’s going to get a lot of press.  It already has, such as inThe Hollywood Reporter, “As male-fueled tentpoles like Transformers: Age of Extinction have failed to reach the same heights as in previous summers, females have powered some of the summer’s biggest hits — think Maleficent ($230 million domestic) and The Fault in Our Stars ($122 million domestic on a $12 million production budget).”  Basically, men  aren’t turning out to see movies this summer in nearly the same numbers as they have in the past whereas female attendance has remained steady, ergo, Hollywood should start trying a little harder to give female audiences something to care about, right?  Chasing the male dollar has resulted in business being down by as much as 20% year-to-year.

However, you know what the audience split was for Luc Besson’s ultra-masculine Taken 2 two years ago?  Exactly the same as Lucy.  That means Lucy appealed to men and women just as much as Taken 2, one of the bigger (non-comic book) action film in recent history!  There wasn’t necessarily some great surge of women supporting Lucy for tokenism reasons (that sure didn’t happen for Besson’s last action heroine film, Columbiana starring Zoe Saldana) nor was there some great rejection of it from men.  There was simply a movie which was marketed well, keenly playing off our collective familiarity with Johansson’s Black Widow persona from some of the biggest comic book movies of all time.  They debuted in a weekend against relatively soft competition, and it put up the 15th best opening weekend of the year.  Audiences seemed split on whether or not they actually liked it, a C+ CinemaScore grade indicating it could see a big drop-off in the coming weeks.  However, this is still the biggest opening for an action heroine film not based on a video game (Tomb Raider) or young-adult novel (Hunger Games, Divergent).  Well, kind of (and before you adjust for inflation).

Mr Mrs Smith
Mr. and Mrs. Smith technically qualifies as an action heroine film, and it had a much bigger opening weekend ($50 million) back in 2005.

I’ve previously run down the top 20 grossing action heroine films of all time (you can read that article here).  Let’s re-visit that from a slightly different angle.  Here are the top 20 opening weekends for action heroine films, adjusted for inflation:

  1. The Hunger Games$156 million
  2. Hunger Games: Catching Fire — $154 million
  3. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — $68 million
  4. Mr. and Mrs. Smith — $64 million
  5. Terminator 2 — $61 million
  6. Charlie’s Angels — $60 million
  7. Divergent — $55 million
  8. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — $50 million
  9. Lucy — $43 million
  10. Alien 3 — $38 million
  11. Salt — $36 million
  12. Underworld: Evolution — $33 million
  13. Kill Bill Vol. 2 — $32 million
  14. The Fifth Element — $30 million
  15. Resident Evil: Apocalypse — $30 million
  16. Kill Bill Vol. 1 — $29 million
  17. Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life — $29 million
  18. Underworld — $29 million
  19. Alien: Resurrection — $29 million
  20. Resident Evil: Afterlife — $28 million

Source: BoxOfficeMojo

They don’t technically qualify as action heroine films, but for the record Gravity opened with $55 million and The Heat with $39 million

What does all of this mean?  Lucy is such a unique example.  It’s from the guy who made the Taken films.  It stars the girl doing a lot of the same kind of stunts we already saw her do on hugely successful comic book movies Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  That’s a lot of solid brand recognition.  Plus, it has a premise which is easy to explain (even if doesn’t actually make hard scientific sense).  It’s a bit of stretch to look at all of that and now assume that a Wonder Woman movie will be an instant hit, or that someone like UFC fighter Ronda Rousey should be getting her own action films instead of the creaky old guard like Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill.  However, what it does do is it helps us chip away at Hollywood’s pile of excuses for why certain types of films don’t get made.  We can’t guarantee that Lucy‘s success can be replicated.  However, we can say that Lucy succeeded even though the common wisdom is that no one really wants to see an action heroine film unless, maybe, it stars Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, or (if you go back far enough) Sigourney Weaver.

Here’s the latest Box Office Top 10:

Top 10 Actual Domestic Totals (7/25-7/27)

1. Lucy (Opening Weekend)

Lucy ScarJo

  • Weekend Gross=$43.8 million
  • Budget=$40 million

Foreign: Only played in North America.

2. Hercules (Opening Weekend)


  • Weekend Gross=$29.8 million
  • Budget=$100 million

Foreign: $28.7 million from just over 25 territories this weekend, most notably Russia, for a worldwide debut of $58.5 million

Just to be clear, a $30 million opening for a movie that cost $100 million to make isn’t quite good enough (it’s roughly what Ender’s Game did last year just with a bigger budget).  Still, know your role, jabroni, and smell what the Rock is cooking: there’s no way this movie should have even made this much in its first 3 days.  Not after audiences already rejectedThe Legend of Hercules and Pompeii earlier this year.  Not after the trailers made the film looked dreadful.  Not after recent ho-hum biz for Pain & Gain and Snitch showed The Rock is not guaranteed money in the bank.

So, yes, The Rock just got his candy ass kicked by Scarlet Johansson, possibly making retired female wrestlers like Lita and Trish Stratus proud, but he worked damn hard to get that $30 million for his movie, endlessly promoting Hercules through traditional media and through his massive social media following.  Plus, it managed to make almost as much overseas despite not playing in any of the really big markets other than Russia.  It’s a not-good-enough start at home, but a very impressive start everywhere else.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 



  • Weekend Gross=$16.7 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$172.4 million
  • Budget=$170 million

Foreign: $54.5 million from 60 territories this weekend for a total international haul of $181.9 million and worldwide total of $354.3 million

Dawn is now only around $4 million away from crossing Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘ entire North American total ($176 million), though it still has a bit more to go to catch up worldwide ($481 million).

4. Purge: Anarchy 


  • Weekend Gross=$10.4 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$51.8 million
  • Budget=$9 million

Foreign: $6 million from over 20 territories this weekend for a total international haul of $6.7 million and worldwide total of $58 million

This is a 65% drop for Purge: Anarchy, more or less the going average for a horror movie these days.  Some don’t fare so well, like, for example, the first Purge which plummeted 76% in its second weekend.  So, Anarchy actually opened lower than the first Purge, but didn’t decline nearly as bad in its second weekend.   The result is that its 10-day domestic total is now identical to the first Purge, which ultimately topped out at $64 million domestic.

5. Planes: Fire & Rescue 

Planes Fire Rescue

  • Weekend Gross=$9.5 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$35.3 million
  • Budget=$50 million

Foreign: $6.9 million from 30 territories this weekend for a total international haul of $21 million and worldwide total of $56.1 million

The first Planes was simply supposed to be a direct-to-video Cars spin-off, but putting it into theaters proved to be a shrewd move, grossing $90 million domestic/$219 million worldwide against a modest $50 million budget.  The problem is no one actually seemed to like Planes, and there wasn’t a whole lot of demand for a sequel just one year later.  The result is Planes: Fire & Rescue failing to launch.  Wait.  I can do better than that.  It looks like this is one movie that needs its own fire…and rescue unit.  I take it back.  I couldn’t do better.

6. Sex Tape  

Sex Tape

  • Weekend Gross=$6 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$26.9 million
  • Budget=$40 million

Foreign: $6.1 million from nearly 20 territories this weekend for a total international haul of $10.2 million and worldwide total of $37.1 million

Sex Tape is officially a box office dud.  This is just what Cameron Diaz does.  She puts out something that tanks causing us to write her off until she improbably comes back with a big hit, like Bad Teacher ($216 million worldwide against a $20 million budget) in 2011 or The Other Woman ($194 million worldwide against a $40 million budget) earlier this year.  Jason Segal, on the other hand, hasn’t really had a hit since 2011’s The Muppets ($165 million worldwide against a $45 million budget), and how much of that being a hit was because of him?  However, this is a good time to point out that the movie that put Segal on the map, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, wasn’t actually a ginormous hit either, $105 million worldwide against a $30 million budget.

7. Transformers: Age of Extinction 


  • Weekend Gross=$4.7 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$236 million
  • Budget=$210 million

Foreign: $37.5 million from nearly 60 territories this weekend for a new international/worldwide split of $730/$966.4 million.

This is going to be the first summer in nearly a decade in which no single movie managed to gross $300 million at the domestic market.  Our last real hope to do so, Transformers: Age of Extinction, has been the franchise’s worst performer to date, at least domestically.

As a point of comparison, Age of Extinction has now crossed $300 million in China.

That makes us look bad, doesn’t it?  China has exactly one more $300 million-grossing film this summer than we do.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, China’s taking over everything, but Age of Extinction is the first film to ever gross $300 million in China.  North America’s had 47 films do that.  Take that China.

8. And So It Goes (Opening Weekend)


  • Weekend Gross=$4.6 million
  • Budget=They’d rather not say

Foreign: No international box office yet

This is already a higher gross than what director Rob Reiner’s last two movies (The Magic of Belle Isle, Flipped) made combined (less than $2 million) from their entire run.  He remains the guy who directed classics like Princess Bride, Misery, When Harry Met Sally but now struggles to get his films into theaters.  The poor reviews for his recent efforts surely don’t help, but it’s mostly that he continues making the movies he’s always made while Hollywood isn’t so much interested to be in that kind of business anymore.

9. Tammy

  • Weekend Gross=$3.4 million
  • Total Gross to Date=$78 million
  • Budget=$20 million

Foreign: Currently, it has an international gross of $6.1 million from limited release for a worldwide total of $84.3 million.

10. A Most Wanted Man (Opening Weekend)


  • Weekend Gross=$2.6 million
  • Budget=They’re not telling

Foreign: No international box office yet

This is the best opening weekend in distributor Roadside Attractions history.  Technically, The Conspirator made more ($3.5 million), but it opened on nearly 350 more screens than A Most Wanted Man (707 vs. 361).  The closest comparison, then, is to Mud, which opened on practically the exact same number of screens as Most Wanted and posted a $2.2 million debut.  It went on to earn $21.5 million domestically whereas The Conspirator topped out at $11.5 million, still the two biggest hits in Roadside’s history.  Will A Most Wanted Man follow in their tracks, or is this debut merely a reflection of fans rushing out to see one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final movies?

What Fell Out of the Top 10?:

22 Jump Street (#7 to #11), How To Train Your Dragon 2 (#8 to #12), Maleficent (#10 to #13), and Earth to Echo (#9 to #16).  Maleficent’s $715 million worldwide gross is enough to land at #3 on the list of 2014’s biggest worldwide earners, passing Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($713 million) but still trailing Days of Future Past ($739 million) and Age of Extinction ($966 million).

What’s Up Next?:

Guardians of the Galaxy and Get On Up both open wide.



  1. I have a few comments about Lucy.

    One, it didn’t open in any foreign markets? It seems like the sort of film that could do very well internationally, as they bring in a lot of foreign locales and people – what I mean to say is, it happens in an international world and seems like it should have an international audience. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays once it does.

    Second, it cost as much to make as Sex Tape? They did something very right with Lucy, or something very wrong with Sex Tape. Or both.

    Third, I’m a little sad by your opinions of Luc Besson – he’s one of my favorite movie-makers. Also, as Holly kept pointing out to me, it’s harder to give him credit for movies like, say, Taken, where he was one of several writers; really, the directorial roles are the most “his,” and in that short list is Lucy, Leon, La Femme Nikita, The Messenger, and The Fifth Element. I like that list. If we want to talk mindless action with Luc Besson’s name attached, I think instead The Transporter, which is some of the finest of mindless action in my opinion.

    In Lucy, instead, I saw science fiction – I saw a question asked, and I saw an attempt at answering it both in words and in visuals. And in the end, to tie back into the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune – about a movie which spawned a comic which sued The Fifth Element for copying it (there’s a long thread, but whatever)… Lucy ends just like Jodorowsky’s Dune was supposed to end. So for me, I found it fascinating for tapping back into this. It shows another example of what the science fiction genre would be like if Dune had come out before Star Wars (instead of not coming out at all…)

    Oh, and I guess some action happened. But I wouldn’t call it an action movie.

    1. “One, it didn’t open in any foreign markets? It seems like the sort of film that could do very well internationally, as they bring in a lot of foreign locales and people – what I mean to say is, it happens in an international world and seems like it should have an international audience.”
      Lucy doesn’t start expanding its international roll-out for another 2 weeks. Luc Besson’s movies are all made through his European production company Europa, with studios like Relativity and Universal handling domestic distribution and a bunch of other companies handling international distribution. As a result, a lot of his movies debut overseas before they make their way here. So, it is a bit strange for Lucy to give North America the exclusive here. However, it’s probably just continued spill-over from the World Cup. The last time the World Cup was around the US studios took a beating at the international market. So, this year they’ve been staggering their international releases in World Cup-crazy regions like Europe and South America. Here in the US we’ve had Transformers 4 and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for at least a couple of weeks now, but a lot of European countries are just now getting them. Europa obviously thought it best to let some of those blow over a bit before putting Lucy out there. Hercules went a similarly conservative route. It did premiere overseas last weekend, but it did so in a more limited, slow roll-out fashion.
      “Second, it cost as much to make as Sex Tape? They did something very right with Lucy, or something very wrong with Sex Tape. Or both.”
      Very true. All of Besson’s movies only cost between $20-40 million to make. His most expensive recent release is 2010’s From Paris With Love, with its $52 million budget. As for Sex Tape, my best guess would be that a lot of that budget was simply devoted to bigger paychecks for the film’s principle talents. It’s pretty much made by the same people who did Bad Teacher, and since Diaz and Segal guided that $20 million film to over $200 million in worldwide gross you’d guess they were due for a raise in Sex Tape. They probably had to pay up to get Diaz to show so much skin. Even then, given everything I know about that movie it does seem strange that it somehow cost as much to make as Lucy.
      “Third, I’m a little sad by your opinions of Luc Besson – he’s one of my favorite movie-makers”
      I love Luc Besson the director. You simply cannot argue with his run in the 90s of La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element. It’s more that ever since he turned into a kind of low-budget mega-producer through Europa he is not really associated with the movies he directs but instead by the many that he produces, and they seem to come off a bit of an assembly line. So, he’s the guy who gave us the Transporter and Taken films as well as Columbiana, 3 Days to Kill, Brick Mansions. Ever since the first Taken all of his films are sold as coming from the guy that gave us “Taken.” So, I was really referring more to marketing notion of the Luc Besson brand of film than anything else. While I probably have more admiration for something like Fifth Element than Taken I’m also not trying to completely write Taken off as crap. I actually got a real kick out of that movie the first time I saw it. Hell, I grew up on 80s/90s action movies. I loves myself a mindless action film when it’s done right.
      Lucy is a bit of a strange beast. The critical consensus from what I’d read seemed to be that it had some interesting ideas that failed to completely gel, placing it at its best when it was just throwing together fun action sequences. However, I dig your take on it. Actually, in general, the “action heroine” label is a bit confusing to me. Lucy isn’t purely just an action film nor would something like Terminator 2 due to its heavy sci-fi elements, but I was going off of BoxOfficeMojo’s categorization. I think to them any movie with action-y elements and a female in a lead role qualifies as an “action heroine” film regardless of how you’d otherwise categorize its genre.

      1. If I were actually going to reply and recommend a movie to you know, it’s actually the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, so there you go 😉 Once you’ve seen that, and winding through the thought process of the impact that project had on film, and especially on science fiction… then I think you’ll really enjoy Lucy!

        I think the most annoying thing in the advertising, that made us cringe a bit, was the whole “We only use 10% of our brain!” thing which as a concept (and not a very accurate one, at that) has been done. However, the point was more than that – not just about brain percentage use, but the number of neutrons used, about the whole neural system. So, able to control her metabolism, she could probably have stopped her own heart, or decided she needed some adrenaline. And then it goes from there. She doesn’t have to throw a punch, but she beats everyone. And, to bring it back to Dune, I think in some ways it’s an attempt to show/tell what it would be like to be the Kwisatz Haderach. Or The One. Or Dr. Manhattan. But at least, that’s how my blog post on the movie is going to read 😉

        One of the best scenes was her on the phone with her mom, trying to put into words what was going on, trying to make her mother, at least, understand. Scarlett Johansson!

        So is this a proof of concept of female-led action movies? Maybe not. Is it a proof of concept for a Black Widow solo film? I would green light that, yes.

        As to Europa, I didn’t realize the extent to which that was Besson’s studio… there’s some good stuff mixed in with the not so good, movies like District B-13, or the Transporter or Taken… but yeah, it does just seem like an action-movie factory. So it’s worth noting Besson directed Lucy. Maybe that makes all the difference!

      2. I look forward to checking out your post on the topic.

        “So is this a proof of concept of female-led action movies? Maybe not. Is it a proof of concept for a Black Widow solo film? I would green light that, yes.”

        Exactly. You summed it up perfectly.

        “So it’s worth noting Besson directed Lucy. Maybe that makes all the difference!”

        He’s been so busy producing and finding financing for his films along with his various business partners that he doesn’t direct all that often anymore, only stepping behind the camera for 5 films since 1999, two of them (Angel-A, The Lady) being ones that practically no one saw in theaters. However, he did direct last year’s De Niro flick The Family, and wrote and directed Lucy. His name has been so continually linked to the Taken/Transporter action films that a lot of people probably don’t realize he didn’t actually direct those. Heck, until looking it up I know I had somehow thought he at least directed the first Taken.

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