Nothing Went As Expected At The Box Office This Summer

Sep 2, 2013
Originally published on September 2, 2013 3:55 pm

This has been the summer of some spectacular bombs at the box office, most notably “The Lone Ranger.”

But receipts overall were up. In fact, the box office gross is expected to set a record of $4.7 billion and films like “The Heat” and “The Conjuring” did surprisingly big business.

We look at the summer that was with Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr.


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And this was the number one movie at the box office over the weekend.


LOUIS TOMLINSON: (Singing) Would he say he's in L-O-V-E? Well, if it was me, then I would...

Right from the start, we were always very vocal. We couldn't follow the boy-band stereotypes choreographed dance routines and everything's the same.

Here we go.

HOBSON: "One Direction: This Is Us" took in $17 million from Friday to Sunday. It's about the English-Irish boy band One Direction. Coming in second was "The Butler," the drama about a White House butler and his civil rights activist son. And the strange pairing of top movies over Labor Day weekend caps a summer in which nothing turned out as expected at the box office. To explain, we're joined by Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr. Welcome, Ty.

TY BURR: Thanks, Jeremy. Nice to be here.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk first about the strange weekend at the box office. What's going on here over Labor Day weekend?

BURR: Well, I mean, we're at the end of August, and that's traditionally the dog days at the box office. And what you're seeing is this weird confluence of kind of niche programming, which really defined the summer as a whole where Hollywood released almost half again as many blockbuster kind of movies, movies that cost more than $75 million to make. And it was a really crowded marketplace, and they ended up making a lot of money, but very few films ended up being genuine blockbusters.

And with - now we're getting into the end of the summer. You see "The Butler," which is really kind of an Oscar season kind of movie, getting released a little early. and the One Direction movie is just, you know, a pure niche play to those - the audience that wants to turn out for it.

HOBSON: Going after the niche consumer just as, it sounds like, the way that cable now, you have an option for every possible thing you could want rather than focusing on just the five networks, really.

BURR: Absolutely. And, you know, some people said, well, you know, the One Direction movie was directed by a well-known documentarian, Morgan Spurlock, but I think that's besides the point. I really doubt that 13-year-olds are saying, you know, hey, mom, dad, that new Morgan Spurlock movie is playing at the box office.


BURR: I want to go see it.

HOBSON: Now, overall, this summer, revenues are projected to be a record-breaking $4.7 billion, but attendance down 3 percent. And some of the highly anticipated films like Johnny Depp's "The Lone Ranger" tanked. So who was going to the movies?

BURR: A lot of different constituencies. You did have a lot of star vehicles which didn't actually do all that well. It's - once again, it's proved that stars don't drive the economy of Hollywood movies the way they used to. Brad Pitt's an exception. "World War Z" was a movie that actually everybody was expecting it was going to be terrible, turned out to be pretty good.

Pitt actually, at this point, is one of the few people who actually can draw in an audience. But as we saw with Will Smith in "After Earth," Johnny Depp in "Lone Ranger," it's not working as much as it used to.

HOBSON: What about "Elysium" with Matt Damon? Did that do well?

BURR: It did decently. A lot of movies did decently. And that's part of the problem when you have a crowded marketplace with a lot of not terribly original ideas. "Elysium" is - it's not a sequel, but it is very much in a genre we're familiar with, the "Soylent Green" genre, you know, the dystopia future genre.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk briefly about one of the films that did meet expectations: "Iron Man 3." It grossed over a billion dollars. Robert Downey Jr. returns as billionaire Tony Stark, who also happens to be the superhero Iron Man. I don't think I'm giving away anything from that. "Iron Man" is challenged by the Mandarin, a villain who claims responsibility for a number of terrorist bombings. Let's listen to this scene where Stark uses the media to respond.


ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Tony Stark) Here's a little holiday greeting I've been wanting to send to the Mandarin. I just didn't know how to phrase it until now. My name is Tony Stark, and I'm not afraid of you. I know you're a coward, so I've decided that you just die, pal. I'm going to come get the body.

HOBSON: And "Iron Man 3," Ty Burr, is one of the many sequels that are topping the box office this summer. I noticed that of the top 10 grossing films of the summer, four were sequels: "Iron Man 3," "Despicable Me 2," "Fast and the Furious 6" and "Star Trek Into Darkness." What about this? It's the summer of sequels.

BURR: Did you include "Monsters University?"

HOBSON: Which is a prequel. Right, yeah.

BURR: Right, exactly. This is what summer is about, and it also reflects the new global audience that Hollywood is selling to. These are presold properties that - and people know, to a certain extent, what they're going to get.

And the reason, I think, that "Iron Man 3" is at the top of the list is that, again, this is one of the rare cases where star quality is important. You know, people go to that movie expecting, for a superhero movie, a reasonably smart movie with a smart performance by a smart actor, Robert Downey Jr. But Hollywood makes most of its money overseas these days.

And it's worth noting that "Despicable Me 2" made $350 million here, but made $800 million worldwide. Same with "Fast and Furious." These are presold properties that everybody around the planet knows, and the marketers don't have to do the work. They just put them out there.

HOBSON: They're established brands...

BURR: Right.

HOBSON: ...and when they come and say, will you fund this movie, it's a lot easier probably when there's a built-in audience for it.

BURR: Absolutely.

HOBSON: Well, let's listen to one sequel that did not do well. This was the third installment of "The Hangover" series where Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis return as the Wolf Pack, a trio that always seems to get into trouble when they get together. Let's hear a clip when Alan - this is the Zach Galifianakis character - is going into rehab, but Phil, the Bradley Cooper character, doesn't think it's such a good idea.


BRADLEY COOPER: (as Phil) They should just save their money and send him to a fat camp.

GILLIAN VIGMAN: (as Stephanie) Phil.

COOPER: (as Phil) What? He should lose some weight and find a woman. That's what he needs. The dude's lonely.

JAMIE CHUNG: (as Lauren) Well, if he's so lonely, why don't the two of you spend more time with him?

COOPER: (as Phil) No, trust me, you don't want that.

ED HELMS: (as Stu) No, you definitely don't want that.

HOBSON: Ty Burr, why didn't "The Hangover 3" work in the category of sequels?

BURR: Well, aside from the fact that it's a dreadful, terrible movie, a couple of things.


BURR: It's a sequel, yes, but the sequels that play well to global audiences, of course, for better and largely worse, in my opinion, are overloaded with special effects, digital effects. They're all about sensationalism. This was a comedy. It's a character comedy. The other thing is that the third, as often into the case when they're running out of ideas, they departed from the set up that had worked for the first film very well and arguably for the second film. It's a different kind of plot, and it was, again, a lousy movie.

HOBSON: One of the movies that we talked a lot about and we haven't mentioned here, but we talked a lot about earlier this summer is "The Heat." Where do you put that? Where do you place that in terms of this summer of movies?

BURR: There's a case of character comedy that works, where you've got one known quantity, Melissa McCarthy, who - redoing sort of what she did in "Bridesmaids" and playing very well with another actress, Sandra Bullock. I mean, the chemistry - a lot of these movies, especially with character-driven comedies and dramas, it's about the chemistry between the leads. And those two had real chemistry. They were fun to watch. I mean, it was a broad, sloppy, silly comedy, but it was funny, and they were fun to watch.

HOBSON: What was your favorite movie of the summer?


BURR: Well, are we talking big box office or are we talking, you know, art house because it was a very, very good summer for under-the-radar, alt, kind of art house movies. I mean, you had "Blue Jasmine" coming in at the end of the summer, one of Woody Allen's best, with an incredible performance by Cate Blanchett. You had this great documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" about the backup singers of the '60s and '70s, which everybody I know who'd seen that movie is just over the moon for it. You even had a good Shakespeare movie. You had "Much Ado About Nothing," you know, shot in a Hollywood mansion, that works. A lot of the smaller movies really delivered on just plain straight-up entertainment and food for thought in a way that the big dinosaurs of the multiplexes did not.

HOBSON: OK. Well, give us something to look forward to this fall. What do we know is coming out, and what will you be excited about?

BURR: Well, yes. We are into Oscar season. The Toronto Film Festival is about to start, and that's sort of the official opening gun of the award season, important movies that are good for you. I am looking forward to a lot of things. There's a new Coen brothers movie called "Inside Llewyn Davis" that's supposed to be terrific. "August Osage County," the Tracy Letts' play, is being brought to the screen with a cast that's out of this world - Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts. Tom Hanks is playing in a film called "Captain Phillips" as a captain of a ship hijacked by Somalian pirates.

It looks to be an interesting year. Emma Thompson's in two movies. She hasn't been around for a while, and both of them sound really, really good. And there's a "Hobbit" movie.



BURR: You know, they - that's the counterprogramming in the Oscar season. It's a big, you know, digital effects, special effects extravaganza.

HOBSON: Ty Burr is the film critic for The Boston Globe, also author of "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame." Ty, thanks as always.

BURR: Thank you, Jeremy. Nice to be here.



And as we're listening here to the soundtrack from the first "Hobbit" film. The second "Hobbit" movie comes out in December.

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.