On Sunday, The Hunger Games quietly passed the domestic $400 million mark on its 80th day of release, and the box office may never be the same. Most movies would be happy to make it to $100 million domestically, but in an era when studio tentpoles can cost twice that, the goalposts for success have moved significantly, and 2012 may usher in the biggest change yet: If The Dark Knight Rises grosses more than $400 million this summer — and it’s likely to, since its predecessor earned $533 million — it will join The Hunger Games and The Avengers at the top of a year where three different movies passed $400 million, the first time that’s ever happened.
The worldwide box office has goosed grosses considerably, but still, $400 million is an eye-popping new domestic benchmark … and to judge from history, an inevitable one. Each decade has redefined the outer limits that a box-office blockbuster must reach, ever since $200 million became the new standard in the nineties. Prior to that, you’d get an occasional mega-grosser, but there were still long stretches where no film would earn more than $200 million, like the period in the late eighties when Top Gun, Three Men and a Baby, and Rain Man each ruled the box office in their respective years (yeah, things were a little different back then) and each topped out below $180 million.
In the nineties, that all changed. Only one year lacked a $200 million grosser (1995, when the first Toy Story crested just below that benchmark) and most years had at least two. By the end of the decade, 1999 could boast four such powerhouses: The Phantom Menace (which grossed a mega $431 million), The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, and the Austin Powers sequel, all solidly in the $200 million range.
That wasn’t enough for the aughts, though: With franchises and comic-book movies ruling the roost, $300 million was the new high watermark. Every year but 2000 (topped by The Grinch) would bring one new grosser at more than $300 million, and as ticket prices and tentpole budgets continued to balloon, seven of those years produced multiple movies to blow past that figure, like in 2007, where the first Transformers movie and the third installments of Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spider-Man all topped it.
And now, in the 2010s, we arrive at the new normal of $400 million (and it didn’t take long, either). Can 2013 keep pace? Potentially, since it boasts another Hunger Games movie and a 3-D aided The Hobbit. Still, $400 million doesn’t come easy: The Hunger Games padded its grosses with IMAX surcharges (as will Dark Knight Rises), while The Avengers underwent a post-conversion to dim 3-D that added countless extra dollars to its coffers. What’s more, the studios are littered with films like Battleship and John Carter that aspired to $400 million and couldn’t even gross half that, with the latter’s poor performance leading to the firing of Disney’s head executive Rich Ross.
In an age when the standards of success are this high, then, the failures seem even steeper. Still, the allure of the $400 million blockbuster is so strong that studio executives continue to chase after it, no matter the peril; meanwhile, the midrange movies that could score them a solid double or triple are ignored in the pursuit of a home run. While there’s plenty to celebrate when three of this year’s films could make history, studios should be wary of ramping up for a box-office arms race, lest it turn into mutually assured destruction.