After two years of pandemic-induced doldrums, the summer blockbuster season returned with a bang this year.
We’ve seen Tom Cruise break his box office opening record in Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis outperform all expectations for a musical biopic and Nope smash records for an R-rated horror.
Of course, there’s more to the cinematic year than summer blockbusters. With autumn now well underway, David O Russel’s Amsterdam has stepped up to offer a reminder that, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, for every box office smash, there’s an equal and opposite flop.
Here are some of the year’s biggest.
Amsterdam seemed to have everything required for huge commercial success. It was Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle director David O Russell’s first big-screen outing in seven years. It featured an all-star ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, Taylor Swift and Robert De Niro, among many others, and it opened on a weekend when its biggest competition came from a singing cartoon reptile in Lyle, Lyle Crocodile.
Pre-release, critics were unconvinced by the quirky film’s non-traditional structure, sometimes confusing narrative and overall lack of an obvious purpose, and audiences voted with their feet. The $80 million film made a little over $18 million at the box office.
It seems harsh to class Robert Eggers’s big-budget debut as a flop. Critics loved it, cinephiles flocked to their local art house cinema to gush over it and it’s almost guaranteed to feature highly in many end-of-year "best of" lists. Unfortunately critics, cinephiles and lists don’t pay the bills for a $90m production, which saw indie horror darling Eggers switch to a Shakespeare-inspired Viking epic for the big screens.
The directing was impeccable, the cast top drawer (Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Willem Defoe, Anya Taylor-Joy et al), the script faultless (can you go wrong with Norse mythology and Macbeth as your starting points?). The box office, however, was dismal. The film took back around two-thirds of its estimated budget.
'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'
Anecdotal research suggests that Nicolas Cage features in around half of all internet memes currently doing the rounds on social media, so when it was revealed that the prolific, and much-loved, star would be appearing as a fictionalised version of himself in Tom Gormican’s self-mocking, satirical comedy the web was predictably ablaze.
The film was a riot, featuring fractured father-daughter relationships, post-modern nods to Cage’s rollercoaster career, arms dealers, kidnapping, incompetent CIA agents, and Paddington. None of this translated into admissions, however, and the film fell short of recouping its $30m budget globally.
It possibly wasn’t helped by its release date, which saw it competing with another high-budget indie in the shape of The Northman, and came at the height of Everything, Everywhere All at Once’s breakout success cannibalising indie audiences. In its favour, it’s the kind of film that could have a successful second life on streaming, which is perhaps where it would have been better released in the first place.
It’s rare to find a Marvel feature on this sort of list, even more so when that movie is part of Sony’s all-conquering Spiderverse. Jared Leto’s superhuman vampire Morbius, however, represented something of a bump in the road for the franchise.
On paper, the film doesn’t appear to be an out-and-out flop. It topped the North American box office on its release weekend, with a $39m opening haul, and it grossed more than $160m globally — more than double its production budget. These figures need some perspective, however.
Following that healthy domestic opening, it suffered a 74 per cent drop off in its second week, the worst of any big-ticket superhero movie to date. As for that $160m-plus figure, we should bear in mind that cinemas typically take up to 40 per cent of admission fees, distribution doesn’t come free, and big movies, and big superhero movies in particular, often spend at least as much as production again on marketing the film. Studios don’t break these figures down for the general public as a matter of course, but Morbius seems likely to have broken even at best.
There was a time when the combination of Liam Neeson and a mid-budget action flick with lots of shooting was a guaranteed recipe for box office success. Specifically, that time was for a few years after the release of Luc Besson’s 2008 genre classic Taken. It is not, it seems, 2022.
In Blacklight, Neeson stars as an FBI fixer who wants to retire to spend more time with his family. Naturally this desire coincides with him becoming entangled in a web involving a rogue agent and a massive government conspiracy. Shooting ensues, but audiences failed to respond.
To be fair, the film just about met expectations on its opening weekend, banking $3.5m at the domestic box office while tracking had predicted an opening $1 to $5m. Thereafter, however, it promptly sank without trace, suggesting Neeson’s very particular set of skills may have outlived its usefulness.
Roland Emmerich has made a successful career of big-budget, set-piece blockbusters. That’s great for studios’ bank accounts when it works, such as with Independence Day ($817.4m global gross in 1996, or over $1.5bn adjusted for inflation in 2022) and The Day After Tomorrow ($522.6m in 2004, or $821m today). When it doesn’t work, its eye-watering.
And it definitely didn’t work in his latest alien invasion yarn, which bombed at box offices around the world in February. With a production budget of almost $150m, the film pulled back a mere $59.1m from audiences. Factor in the marketing, cinema cuts and other costs and we could be looking at losses in the region of $300m, giving the film an unwelcome seat at the table among the biggest box office bombs of all time.