Summer 2011 continues this trend, differentiated by a few more superhero movies and comedies than normal, a 3D onslaught (15 titles, more than doubling last year) and the highest number of sequels to $200-million-plus movies yet (six, compared to the previous high of five in both 2007 and 2009).
So much franchise fare may be less risky than more original fare, but less risk also means less potential reward. Therefore, the overall summer box office should be business as usual and not game-changing. It's those major sequels that seem poised to lead, but the somewhat wobbly start for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a reminder that audiences don't always go for rote.
As boring as it sounds, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part Two) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon appear to be vying for the season's top gross honor. The last two times the franchises occupied the same summer, 2007 and 2009, Transformers grossed more, but Harry Potter's now packing final movie mojo. As sequels to popular animated movies, Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2, shouldn't be counted out, while The Hangover Part II and Pirates of the Caribbean are in the mix for the Top Six. If all six movies pass $200 million, that would be in line with the recent summer average, adjusted for ticket price inflation (the highest amount of $200-milion-plus movies in a single summer is eight, last seen in 2007, which was an up year). Wild cards include Super 8, Green Lantern, Zookeeper, Captain America: The First Avenger and Cowboys & Aliens, and it would be a welcome respite to have a non-sequel break up the monotony.
Below is an extended forecast of Summer 2011's top-grossing movies, based on historical antecedents, marketing campaigns and other indicators.
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part Two) (July 15) - $350 million
Finally, the drawn-out battle between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort comes to an end, but the tepid-by-franchise-standards showing of the penultimate Potter adds an air of concern. At $295 million, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 made less than its predecessor and ranked as the least-attended Potter yet. With such a long-standing and enormously popular franchise, though, a disappointing entry isn't necessarily the end of the world: for example, Star Wars rebounded with its final movie Revenge of the Sith after hitting a low with Attack of the Clones. Deathly Hallows Part Two marks Potter's first foray in the 3D illusion, and 3D might be the only way to see it for many people as the trailer closes with this ominous line: "Complete the journey in 3D. 2D in select theaters." Bottom Line: It would be disappointing if this isn't the highest-grossing Potter yet, though its attendance is likely to rank much lower.
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1)—$320 million
This looks like more of the same, featuring more space discovery of the Transformers and yet another long-lost Transformer. The promise of the Decepticons finally taking over the world and the slickness of the slo-mo robo-spectacle seem to be the movie's stand-out features. More of the same after a mixed reaction to predecessor Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($402.1 million) may not cut it this time. Sure, director Michael Bay and company have publicly tried to make amends for Revenge of the Fallen, saying they'll get it right this time, and there's the addition of 3D, but so what? That doesn't mean much to audiences: it's how they felt about the last movie, combined with how the new movie looks. Bottom Line: Running on franchise fumes could get this sucker past $300 million.
3. Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 26) - $285 million
At $215.4 million, the first Kung Fu Panda grossed less than the first Cars, but DreamWorks Animation went all out with it and created a crowd-pleasing family movie. The sequel could benefit from that good will, shorter wait time than Cars 2 (three years versus five) and more natural continuation than Cars 2 to win the summer's animation race. DreamWorks has seen a second movie over-perform before with Shrek 2, though it has also seen a second-movie dip with the Madagascar franchise (but the norm now is for an animated sequel to out-gross its predecessor). A major concern, though, is that much of Kung Fu Panda 2's early advertising effectively took a "we're back!" angle as opposed to upping the ante (similar to Iron Man 2's problems last May), and two different messages were sent regarding the plot: the trailer introduced a new villain threatening kung fu, while television ads were about the titular panda searching out his birth origin. DreamWorks Animation, though, usually takes a ubiquitous shotgun approach to its marketing. Bottom Line: This has the markings of an ascendant franchise after how well the first movie was received, but it could be held back by some confused and bland marketing.
4. Cars 2 (June 24) - $270 million
This marks Pixar's first sequel to something other than Toy Story, but while the first Cars supposedly appealed to young children, it wasn't beloved by everyone else. People weren't clamoring for a sequel like they were with the Toy Story movies, but Cars 2 exists, in part, due to the merchandising success of the first movie: Cars may be fundamentally off-kilter because it's the only Pixar movie not set within a human context, but it was tailor-made for toy-making. Cars 2 offers more toy possibilities, but it shifts genres, from the first movie's change-of-pace, Doc Hollywood-type comedy to globe-trotting spy comedy, making it a bit reminiscent of Speed Racer and perhaps even more geared for little children than before. Relatively speaking, Cars 2 seems to recall Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs more than Toy Story 2. It also seems like the first time that Pixar hasn't tried to push the animation envelope, but it's hard to bet against them, given their best-in-class box office track record. Bottom Line: Pixar's winning streak should continue, but the gross could be average by the company's standards.
5. The Hangover Part II (May 26) - $255 million
The first Hangover was a tremendous crowd-pleaser, grossing a genre-busting $277.3 million, but comedy sequels rarely live up to their predecessors, particularly when they repeat the same premise in an artificial, contrived way. Sure, some comedy sequels have swelled (Austin Powers 2, American Pie 2), but their predecessors didn't reach the saturation level of the first Hangover. On the surface, Part II looks like it's going the Sex and the City 2 route, and it's offering the same set-up but different location (Bangkok instead of the more relatable Las Vegas). In the trailer, the characters literally say "It happened again?" The first movie, though, was driven by its mystery storyline, and the sequel continues this angle, which may make Hangover a different beast than other comedy franchises. The first movie also brings an enormous amount of audience good will, though one wonders if Due Date spent some of that capital with its Hangover 2-like marketing. Director Todd Phillips was quoted as saying that the "Part II" in the sequel's title was a nod to The Godfather movies because he thinks the Hangover sequel lives up to or is better than the first movie. So perhaps he'd also be happy with a drop-off in grosses like The Godfather Part II experienced? Bottom Line: Do people want to go on another debauched adventure with the Wolf Pack? Hell yes, though not as many in the long run. If a third movie gets made, look for that to see a more severe drop-off.
6. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20) - $230 million
With its $90.2 million opening weekend, this supernatural swashbuckler fell short of the forecast and, more importantly, fell far short of the last two Pirates movies, so its projected final tally was downgraded from $270 million. After the damage done by At World's End and Dead Man's Chest and natural franchise fatigue, On Stranger Tides was destined to gross less than its predecessors. Exacerbating matters was how On Stranger Tides looked like just another Pirates movie and lacked spectacle in its ads. Bottom Line: The "threequel"-to-"fourquel" drop-off looks like it will be similar to the fall from Shrek the Third to Shrek Forever After.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22) - $200 million
Captain America is the most mainstream superhero making a big screen debut this summer, giving this movie an advantage over Thor and Green Lantern. The marketing has taken great pains to make the character relatable, focusing on his origin as a physically-weak-but-earnest soldier, but, if Captain America is just a buffed-out super soldier, then the wow factor will be muted. As well-known as the character is, his powers have always been unclear to the uninitiated. But if the movie's marketing is sufficiently rip-roaring as the release approaches, this could be the retro adventure of choice over Cowboys & Aliens. Bottom Line: An above average superhero should yield above average grosses.
8. Thor (May 6) - $180 million
Though it opened in the shadow of Fast Five, this Marvel Comics adaptation still cashed in on its early summer advantage, debuting as forecasted, and it held relatively well in its second weekend. Bottom Line: Very good showing for a B-list superhero.
9. Super 8 (June 10) - $180 million
J.J. Abrams is playing coy again, like he did with Cloverfield and his television series, and, this time, the effect is not only Spielbergian (obviously) but prime Shyamalanian. Super 8's being marketed as a monster movie in the sense-of-wonder style of Steven Spielberg's '70s and '80s movies, only without providing a glimpse of the monster. "It has escaped. It has a plan. On June 10, find out why it's here," the television ads beckon, showing eye-catching, real-world effects, such as a car twirling in the air. It's good to see a clearer picture forming, because previous ads were too mysterious, going for a nostalgic mood via the theme music from Cocoon and relying too much on Abrams' and Spielberg's names. But, after all that build-up, Super 8 would be a letdown if it's just a kid-friendly Cloverfield in a small town. Like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Super 8's long-term success hinges on how audiences react once the secrets are revealed, but a large opening weekend should be in store. Bottom Line: Instead of straight-shooting, Abrams and company are getting everyone ginned up to find out what "it" is and what's going on. So the pressure's on for Super 8 to deliver the goods more so than any other movie this summer. If it does deliver, boy, look out. It'll be a contender.
10. Zookeeper (July 8) - $170 million
Transparently cynical combination of Doctor Dolittle, Night at the Museum and Hitch (the animals replace Will Smith), or brilliant move for Kevin James and company to build on Paul Blart: Mall Cop's success? A little of both. Like it or not, talking animal movies are popular (even Yogi Bear made $100 million), and James is reprising the sort of character audiences have lapped up before. This movie's trailer hits all the beats people want in this type of movie. On the down side, some of that Paul Blart momentum was lost in the two-plus years it took for Zookeeper to hit theaters since it was announced. Would have made a great one-two punch for James. Bottom Line: Seems wrong that a movie this derivative might score so highly, but lamer things have happened. A standard "2D" family movie may be just what the doctor ordered mid-summer.
11. X-Men: First Class (June 3) - $155 million
Prequels may be the bee's knees in the comic book world, but they're trying the patience of the mainstream. They often amount to fanboy fantasias, because, if these back stories were so essential in the first place, then that's where the franchises should have started. The story needs to progress, not regress. First Class looks like it's mining territory that was sufficiently covered in the previous movies, namely the back stories and conflicting views of Professor X and Magneto. Thankfully, First Class is not as redundant as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was a franchise low in attendance, but it does lack the star of the series, Wolverine. First Class's slick, new direction may be enough to sustain some interest after the mixed viewer reactions to Wolverine and X-Men: The Last Stand. Bottom Line: Outside of serious X-Men fans, why should anyone care? It would be surprising if this is as big as its predecessors.
12. Green Lantern (June 17) - $130 million
Every week a new Green Lantern trailer seems to spring up, which reeks of desperation. With the movie's makers perhaps fearing a total fanboy affair, the latest trailer finally, if unsubtly, explains some of what the bejesus is going on via narration (at the expense of Ryan Reynolds' lead character), but this movie still looks like goofy sci-fi fantasy mumbo jumbo, riffing on Star Wars with its "force" talk and computer-generated alien characters. Green Lantern's power still isn't clear (apparently he can conjure whatever he wills?), and he seems to lack vulnerability. A clear, strong villain is also absent (beyond an amorphous "yellow" force), and that's a key ingredient to superhero movie success. Green Lantern seems most reminiscent of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, only less grounded. Green Lantern may be big in the DC Comics universe, but he's not mainstream, and it can't help to have The Green Hornet released recently. Reynolds' character looks like an attempt to duplicate Robert Downey Jr.'s from Iron Man with a dash of Superman. Warner Bros.' sheer force of will may drum up a decent sampling. Bottom Line: Green Lantern's light doesn't seem bright enough.
13. Bridesmaids (May 13) - $125 million
Prior to release, this comedy was pegged as a likely solid mid-range performer, but it has exceeded expectations from its $26.2 million first weekend to its exceptional second weekend hold. It's not clear, though, how The Hangover Part II might affect it. Bottom Line: Summer's most impressive movie at the box office to date.
14. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 5) - $125 million
Looks like I, Robot with apes instead of robots and without a star (James Franco has none of Will Smith's drawing power). Demonstrating the franchise's might, Planet of the Apes (2001) had a massive debut almost exactly ten years earlier, and it ended its front-loaded run with the equiivalent of $250 million adjusted for ticket-price inflation. However, it was a remake of the incredibly iconic original Apes movie, whereas Rise seems like a remake of one of the original's less well-known sequels. The mixed reaction to the Apes remake won't help Rise, but Rise is angling to be a franchise reboot, making its prequelness more forgivable. Bottom Line: Looks thrilling enough to score solid numbers and could evolve into something greater depending how its marketing pans out.
15. The Smurfs (July 29) - $120 million
This is Alvin and the Chipmunks crossed with Enchanted and seems even more derivative than Zookeeper. Similar live-action/computer-generated-critter adaptations have recently had a winning track record, including The Chipmunks, Garfield: The Movie and even Yogi Bear. When it comes to talking C.G. creatures, small is more popular than big, so there's another advantage. Bottom Line: While The Smurfs is not likely to replicate The Chipmunks' success, brand recognition and fun ads could make blue the new green.
16. Cowboys & Aliens (July 29) - $95 million
On paper, an action spectacle directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), starring Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones/Han Solo) and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg dazzles. But Cowboys & Aliens seems to dig a deeper grave with each ad. Sure, it looks more polished than Green Lantern, but the ads continually reinforce a sense that Cowboys & Aliens is a half-baked Western and a half-baked alien-invasion movie shoe-horned together. And that doesn't add up to a complete movie. The movie's title, which is a riff on "cowboys and indians," is catchy, but it may have a Snakes on a Plane effect: title tells all, no need to see the movie. Perhaps part of the intent was to raise the stakes on the typical alien invasion movie by having even lower-tech humans, but that's contradicted by giving Craig an alien weapon from the start. The marketers have tried to mitigate the potential silliness of the premise by taking a serious approach and presenting the Western portion first. There's a lot of the unproven Craig not saying much (in a nod to Clint Eastwood?) in a cliche Western and a little of a grumpy Ford (though none of the Ford that audiences love), and then aliens randomly attack. Ads rely on the gimmick of watching cowboys fight aliens, instead of contextualizing what's going on. What's more, hybridized Westerns often fail, including Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and The Warrior's Way ("Cowboys and Ninjas"), regular Westerns generally don't reach mass audiences (the True Grit remake being an exception) and the usually-popular alien invasion sub-genre hasn't fared so well lately (Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline). Still, there's time to improve, if the movie has the goods. Perhaps as a nod to its current standing, the latest commercial features the line "We have one advantage. They underestimate you." Bottom Line: If this overcomes the odds, look for Cops & Robots next summer.
Other movies in contention:
Jim Carrey back in Liar Liar mode, but what an odd duck for June. Feels more like a holiday movie.
Steve Carell in perhaps a more mature version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Looks like it will be a strong adult option in the late summer. Could have more upside than Tom Hanks' Larry Crowne.
Jason Bateman, this movie combines the popular ribald relationship and body-switching comedy sub-genres and is the major comedy release of August.
Julie & Julia/Eat Pray Love August position.
Disturbia angle in its marketing.
Horrible Bosses (July 8) - These dark comedies have been getting heavy ad pushes lately and counter-program family movies (Cars 2 and Zookeeper, respectively), but dark comedy usually yields mid-range grosses at best.
• Summer Foreign Forecast
• 2011 Grosses
• All-Time Grosses