When was the last time you looked up the list of new movies coming out in April? Just don’t. It’s a depressing exercise, one that forces you to then look up which new Netflix shows drop in April because, dangit, you want something good to watch. After Hollywood stuffed everything into March as the unofficial earliest start to the summer blockbuster movie season in history it has pretty much yielded all of April to The Fate of the Furious. Surely one of March’s various blockbusters would have been better served coming out in late April.
Then again, maybe not. At the start of March, I observed that the month was so overstuffed with big budget movies and notable mid-budget movies that we were looking at yet another month where Hollywood’s recent habit of stack scheduling leads to a handful of winners but a bunch of losers. A funny thing happened, though. Almost every single blockbuster, from Logan to Boss Baby, did better than expected. The actual number of blockbusters proved to be less important than the sequence in which they were released, with a R-Rated comic book movie (Logan) followed by a PG-13 monster movie (Skull Island) followed by a PG family movie (Beauty) followed by a PG-13 action movie (Power Rangers) followed by an R-Rated sci-fi movie (Ghost in the Shell) and PG animated movie (Boss Baby), with Spring Break sandwiched somewhere in-between.
Of those, only Ghost flat out bombed, although competition and poor word-of-mouth quickly caught up with Power Rangers.
So, what have we learned?
1. It’s Either Go Big or Go Home (or Be As Good As Get Out)
Sorry Before I Fall ($12m after 5 weeks), Table 19 ($3.6m and already out of theaters), The Belko Experiment ($9m after 3 weeks), CHiPS ($14m after 2 weeks), Wilson (just $600K after 2 weeks of limited release) and The Last Word (just $1.4m after 5 weeks of limited release). In other months, you coulda been contenders, but when theaters are flooded with blockbusters they not only hog all the screens they also suck up all the oxygen in terms of film advertising. As a result, most people probably don’t even known what The Last Word is, or that it stars Shirley MacLaine, Anne Heche and Amanda Seyfried.
The exceptions to the rule were Get Out, Jordan Peele’s February-released micro-budget indie that is now one of the highest grossing horror movies in recent memory, and The Shack, a faith-based filmed which held its own on the way to a respectable domestic gross ($53m).
2. Quality Still Wins Out, But Nostalgia Helps
It’s not as simple as big vs. small, though. Before I Fall, Table 19, Belko Experiment, CHiPS and Last Word all received middling-to-scathing reviews. Meanwhile, the big blockbuster winners of the month – Logan ($211m domestic/$585m worldwide), Skull Island ($147m domestic/$477m worldwide), Beauty and the Beast ($395m domestic/$876m worldwide) – all happened to either be beloved by critics and moviegoers alike or at least moderately liked by the former and adored by the latter. The clear losers, Life and Ghost in the Shell, were greeted less kindly and performed accordingly.
The exception here is Power Rangers, which critics despised but opening weekend audiences kind of liked. However, even there quality eventually won out, causing Power Rangers to plummet a staggering 64% in its second weekend, turning what had been a promising box office start into a suddenly desperate need to play big in Japan and China or else risk being yet another one-and-done wannabe franchise starter.
It’s tempting to look at the month and conclude that nostalgia was the currency of the day. Logan drew on our two decades of good will toward Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Skull Island reminded us how much fun a King Kong movie if it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Beauty and the Beast’s a sometimes shot-for-shot remake of a beloved animated classic that’s not actually that old. Power Rangers owed much of its big opening to people my age who grew up on the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the early 90s.
There’s certainly plenty of merit to that, but nostalgia alone cannot sell or carry a movie. If it did, Power Rangers wouldn’t have plummeted on par with a DC comic book movie, and Ghost in the Shell wouldn’t have bombed quite as hard as it did. It doesn’t always happen this way, but in March 2017 it was the best movies that managed to thrive. Merely inviting us to remember that one thing we used to like back in the day doesn’t quite cut it.
3. Except For When You’re the First New Animated Movie In Over a Month
Families and little kids were already well served in March by Beauty and the Beast and holdover business for Lego Batman Movie. However, Hollywood is now on a schedule of providing approximately one new mid-to-large budget animated movie per month, or if not per month then at least every other month. Many parents have long since noticed the pattern and now anxiously look up to see when the next animated movie arrives because they just know their
brat kids little sweetheart children are going to demand to see it, especially with the non-stop advertising they will have been exposed to on kids TV or YouTube or elsewhere. As such, it often doesn’t matter if the movie is good or bad or terrible. It’s a new cartoon, dammit. Parents are going to take their kids to see it, especially if it comes from a known brand like Disney, DreamWorks or Illumination.
Thus, I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise to see Boss Baby massively outperform expectations, debuting to $49m this weekend instead of the $30m which had been predicted. Now, to simply write off its success as “families are sheep, and Hollywood again gave them a new animated movie to flock to” is too simplistic. Alec Baldwin’s post-Trump SNL trendiness certainly helped as did the clever Beauty and the Beast-specific trailer which aired before Beauty opening weekend screenings. Plus, the central metaphor – to an only child, suddenly getting a younger sibling feels like you’re in a corporation which has just been taken over by a domineering new boss – is relatable and easily communicated through trailers.
Yet, really, a $49m debut is the going average for a DreamWorks movie these days. Home had a nearly identical opening ($52m) on the same exact weekend two years. The only recent DreamWorks movie to not at least make $41m in its opening weekend is 2014’s Penguins of Madagascar, a franchise spin-off which bottomed out domestically ($25m debut, $83m total) but slayed overseas ($283m). So, it didn’t really matter that Boss Baby was neither liked by critics (49% RottenTomatoes) nor particularly loved by audiences (just 65% RT reader’s rating). It more mattered that it was there, and came from a brand known to deliver at least a minimum level of quality.
Now, for some nonsense reason Sony has its animated Smurfs reboot due out next week.
4. ‘Twas Alien that Killed Life
Why did Life come out this month? There was no reason for Sony to drop its Gravity-meets-Alien mash-upReview: Life is a Solid, But Unspectacular Marriage of Gravity and Alien in the same month as Logan, Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers and Ghost in the Shell. Given a little more space to spread out and vie for attention perhaps a decent little sci-fi horror film starring Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson could have found a bigger audience, at least make more than a mere $22m after its first two weeks.
Maybe. The ho-hum reviews likely suggest otherwise. However, Life was always at a disadvantage coming out in the same year as Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, meaning for months people have been seing the trailers for both movies and mixing them up.
This, in the end, turned into a classic case of release date wars. Life was originally supposed to come out May 26, 2017 opposite the new Pirates of the Caribbean (which, according to CinemaCon attendees, doesn’t totally suck). However, then Covenant was moved up from August 4 to May 19, more or less forcing Life to move. There’s no way Sony could let their Alien knock-off come out the week after an actual Alien movie, but they still wanted to be first to market. So, they took their chances in March, underestimating, as did everyone else, the big business of Logan, Skull Island and Beauty and the Beast and enduring success of the similarly R-rated horror flick Get Out. Life only cost $58m to make. So, it’s no big loss. But in a more traditional March Life would have, um, found a way. In this March of peak blockbuster, though, it had to be something truly special to stand out, and it just wasn’t.
5. Whitewashing, Not So Much Good For Business (except for when it is)
Ghost in the Shell was supposed to make $30m this weekend; it made $19m. Moreover, it was released 50 international markets and only mustered $40m for a worldwide debut of $59m on a $110m budget. Combine this with the recent domestic failure of Matt Damon’s The Great Wall (which netted just $45m after 7 weeks) and the obvious conclusion is that whitewashing doesn’t pay, as the resulting controversies surrounding both films didn’t produce the kind of free advertising that led to increased ticket sales.
But what about Doctor Strange, one of Marvel Studio’s highest-grossing origin story movies? Or the critically derided Iron Fist, which actually became the most binge-watched premiere on Netflix this year? How can we conclude that Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall are signs that whitewashing is bad for business when there are two recent success stories which suggest otherwise? Perhaps the greater takeaway is that the more indebuted a project appears to be to Asian culture (such as Great Wall and China and Ghost in Shell and its futuristic Tokyo and anime flourishes) the tougher it is to sell to American audiences, regardless of what the main character looks like.