Another Record Year

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In Focus

This past summer, the doomsayers in the media were at it again, lamenting the poor performance of warm-weather would-be blockbusters like Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and The BFG. Yes, these films and others fell decidedly short of studios’ high expectations, but those failures were offset by the likes of summer releases Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life of Pets, Suicide Squad and Jason Bourne.

As the renowned screenwriter William Goldman famously observed, “Nobody knows anything… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”

That terrifying uncertainty is partly what makes this such an exciting business: the unpredictability of the public’s tastes, and those wonderful occasions when a hit movie comes out of left field. Though superhero action movies and animated comedies are often a sure bet, in most cases the making of a movie success is like the proverbial capture of “lightning in a bottle.”

Overall, Hollywood caught lightning in a bottle once again in 2016. For the second year in a row, domestic box office set a new record: $11.37 billion, up 2.2% from 2015’s record $11.12 billion. A significant portion of that tally came from early 2016 breakout hits Deadpool, Zootopia, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Jungle Book. But the year also closed very lucratively with juggernauts Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sing, Moana, Fantastic Beasts andWhere to Find Them and Doctor Strange. Three films (all from Disney) topped $400 million, six more surpassed $300 million, and four others made more than $200 million. That’s a very, very impressive slate, one that disproves the notion that the growth of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon is diminishing the public’s appetite for seeing new releases on the big screen.

Once again, some pundits are pointing to the failure of January 2017 debuts like Monster Trucks and Underworld: Blood Wars, even though the month of January is well known as an “off” month for new releases. But there are two other films in wide release that are classic examples of “lightning in a bottle” capturing the public’s imagination.

Cannily marketed by Fox, Hidden Figures was the number-one film for the first two weekends in January and at press time had earned more than $60 million. At first glance, a period film about black female mathematicians working at NASA in the 1960s would seem to be a box-office gamble. But Theodore Melfi’s drama is stylish, energetic and irresistibly entertaining. It’s also a PG movie that appeals to many quadrants: black and white, women and men, young and old. It addresses the racial climate of the 1960s with both clarity and optimism. And it’s the sort of film any parent would want their young daughter to see, with its inspirational message about female capability and empowerment.

And then there’s the number-two film, Oscar frontrunner La La Land. Another gamble: an original musical that’s both old-fashioned and contemporary. Embraced by critics and winner of seven Golden Globes, it’s now working its magic on movie audiences and has already garnered $80 million.

For those exhibitors who remain nervous about “left field” movies, 2017 is looking like another amazingly strong year. Nothing is written in stone, but chances are nearly all of these upcoming releases will be huge box-office performers: The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Fifty Shades Darker, Logan, Thor: Ragnorak and, in December, Star Wars: Episode VIII. So many of these titles belong to very robust franchises; even Beauty and the Beast is part of a successful Disney strategy of reimagining its animated classics as live-action movies. With this formidable lineup, we’ll be very surprised if 2017 doesn’t set another historic record.