silver linings

The Summer of Almost No Flops

Photo: Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

When Hollywood historians look back on this pandemic popcorn-movie season from some distant vantage point to cooly appraise 2022’s supply-chain-decimated batch of blockbusters, the prime narrative will of course be Top Gun: Maverick roaring off as summer’s most successful film — grossing a Tom Cruise all-time best of $1.423 billion worldwide and snatching the season’s top box-office gross from the presumed heavyweight champion Jurassic World: Dominion. But while the 35-year-gestating, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” sequel has come to be viewed as almost singularly responsible for a certain the-movies-are-back-baby!, back-slapping mentality around Hollywood these days, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Over the span of this year’s hottest months, Top Gun 2 carved its outsize market share in large part because there were 37 percent fewer movies hitting the multiplex than over the same period in 2019. In the absence of a normal slate of studio fare — with old-timey titles like E.T. and Jaws hitting wide release in lieu of new Hollywood product, and Everything Everywhere All at Once returning to theaters these last few weeks — nearly every major release delivered profits at the box office. Unlike just about every other summer on record, there were no nine-figure-budgeted tentpole disasters, no event films that arrived stillborn at the cineplex (although there were, to be fair, a couple of underperformers). Which is all to say that the summer of 2022 can be fairly understood as the Summer of No Flops — a silver lining for a beleaguered industry as it plans to survive the next two months of very few big-studio releases in theaters.

“Usually when we’re talking about summer box office, we’re talking about winners, losers, and massive flops,” says Jeff Bock, senior media analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. “And we just didn’t see that this summer. We didn’t see a catastrophic failure like we usually see coming off the studio line: something that costs $100 million, $150 million, $200 million. We’re used to seeing at least one of those films come out and utterly and epically fail. And that just didn’t happen this summer.”

Among the most notable summer failures on record: 2009’s Land of the Lost (budget: $100 million, box-office gross: $69.5 million), director Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (budget: $175 million, amounting to $139.6 million in ticket sales — thereby derailing an intended King Arthur Cinematic Universe in 2017), 2013’s The Lone Ranger (budget: $250 million, gross: $260 million — a major money loser when you factor in Disney’s big-ticket costs of prints and advertising), and the craptacular 2002 Eddie Murphy sci-fi romp The Adventures of Pluto Nash (reported budget: $100 million, gross: $7.1 million).

By contrast, Universal had its summer of summers this year, taking in a shade under $1 billion with the poorly reviewed, franchise-concluding Jurassic World Dominion (which reportedly cost somewhere between $165 million and $185 million to produce); $869 million for Minions: The Rise of Gru, the $80 million fifth entry in the surprisingly durable computer-animated Despicable Me franchise; and $157 million for The Black Phone, an Ethan Hawke horror flick carrying a $16 million production budget. (The studio’s animated animal comedy The Bad Guys was released in March but continued to play strongly through the summer, grossing $245.7 million globally versus its $80 million budget.)

Jordan Peele’s $68 million third directorial effort, Nope, stands as Uni’s only less-than-stellar release for the season, having grossed $149 million to date, just about one-fifth of that from international audiences. “That was his most expensive film by leaps and bounds, and it’s certainly not going to come close to what he did with much less budget on Get Out and Us,” says Bock. “He has a very exuberant fan base, and they are going to show up opening weekend. It’s still great that original films are grossing $100 million. But it certainly comes down to the box office and that Jordan Peele doesn’t have much draw overseas. This is not an epic failure, but certainly a gray zone in terms of how much money it is going to make for the studio.”

Marvel’s twin multiplex entries, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (the summer’s No. 3 film) and Thor: Love and Thunder (No. 5) were predictably massive, respectively grossing $955 million and $747 million worldwide (despite neither being provided a release scheme in China, the world’s top movie market). But the relative dearth of cinematic product made surprise hits out of Baz Luhrmann’s impressionistic Elvis (which has taken in $277 million to become the second-highest grossing jukebox bio-musical ever) and Sony’s literary adaptation Where the Crawdads Sing, which overcame a 34 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and a din of controversy surrounding Crawdads’ wanted-for-murder author Delia Owens to draw in an overwhelmingly female audience — a testament to the studio tying its marketing to producer Reese Witherspoon and her $900 million–valuated production company, Hello Sunshine.

If there can be said to exist one outright flop in the Summer of Almost No Flops™, it is widely thought to be Pixar’s prequel Toy Story spinoff Lightyear, which cost a reported $200 million to produce and at least $75 million to market but has only taken in $226 million worldwide. The computer-animated origin story is on track to become the reliably blockbuster-manufacturing Pixar’s lowest-grossing film to date, well underperforming The Good Dinosaur, which earned $332 million in 2015. Still, as Bock sees it, Lightyear doesn’t fit the classic summer failure-to-launch criteria and can even be viewed as something of a win through the lens of its Disney corporate overseers by virtue of its merch-boosting potential for legacy IP. “Disney and especially Pixar operate on a different level; box office is not the be-all end-all,” he says. “We’re talking about merchandising that now will keep growing for years because of this film. And that’s an ancillary market most of these films don’t have. Lightyear is not the super-size failure that we’re used to seeing.”

In the underperformer department, that only leaves the late-inning Summer of Almost No Flops entry Bullet Train — the Brad Pitt–led ensemble action-comedy also featuring Bad Bunny, Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry, and Andrew Koji as train-bound assassins with competing agendas — which hit theaters August 5. It has grossed $174.9 million worldwide (versus its $100 million price tag and at least $50 million in prints and advertising-related costs) to just squeak into profitability, narrowly avoiding becoming its distributor Sony’s first money loser since Peter Rabbit 2 in June 2021. There’s no way to say Bullet Train didn’t come up financially short, but as Bock sees it, this is still no Pluto Nash.

“Yes, Sony was certainly expecting a lot more out of this film and it’s not going to pull any sort of Top Gun,” Bock says, referring to how the Tom Cruise sequel is now poised to potentially reclaim the top spot at the box office this weekend as newly released movies squeeze to a halt. “It’s not an outright bomb. Again, it’s in the gray zone. They at Sony have a deal with Netflix. So I’m sure it’ll be No. 1 on Netflix in a few weeks.”

The Summer of Almost No Flops