Superheroes Continue to Save Fox, Allowing Them to Balance Their Content (Studio Series)

deadpoolAll images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Who knew? Who would have predicted this ridiculous character from a horrible movie would end up fronting one of the most successful superhero flicks ever made? Sure, there were lots of fans from the character’s time in the comic books, but come on, plenty of times over the years those “fans” didn’t translate into good box office, simply because the quality wasn’t there so they didn’t bother to show up or, if they did, they weren’t enough to make a dent.

Ah, but there’s the key word when it comes to Deadpool — because you knew that’s the movie I was talking about — “quality.” In Ryan Reynolds, it had a producer-star who understood the character and what the fans wanted, found writers and a director who also got it, and the team worked on a relatively low budget (under $60 million, which might as well be peanuts for this genre) to produce a movie that grossed over $780 million worldwide, with over $360 million of that here at home.

Take away those numbers, and Fox would have had its worst showing in years, which makes the movie about the “merc with the mouth” the year’s MVP. No other single film was nearly as important to any studio’s success than Deadpool was to Fox’s. (Yes, one could make the argument that The Secret Life of Pets was a similar boon to Universal, but I would respond with two factors against that argument: it was animated, and it was released right after July 4th, peak of the Summer Movie Season, which meant that the studio was expecting the monster hit it got and wasn’t remotely as surprised by the film’s success as Fox — and, let’s face it, pretty much everyone else — was by Deadpool’s.)

One can scoff at the superhero movie trend, but it is impossible to ignore the enormous good fortune the studio has wrung from it. The whole thing began 17 years ago with Fox taking a chance on Bryan Singer’s vision to bring the X-Men to the big screen, and that movie’s resounding success (almost $300 million worldwide on a $75 million budget, in the year 2000, when international numbers were nothing close to what they are now), not only kickstarted the surge into the comic book world, but also, in retrospect, hammers home what an incredible deal Fox made with then bankrupt Marvel Comics back in the 90s for the rights to some of its characters. While nobody has ever really been able to figure out what to do with the other major property purchased at the time — the Fantastic Four — the X-Men franchise has been worth billions to the studio, not only in box office, but in all the ancillaries that go along with it.

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Several times over the years, in fact, as the studio has done spinoffs and reboots and re-imaginings, a bunch of mutant heroes have returned as saviors to the film division’s bottom line. Even with the killing off of arguably the most popular character in that world — earlier this year in Logan — there is no end in sight for the franchise, with three more X-World flicks set for release in 2018. First up is another spinoff, The New Mutants, followed by the Deadpool sequel over the summer, and, just in time for Thanksgiving, a new X-Men tale called Dark Phoenix. That’s output to rival what Marvel has been doing with its cinematic universe, and far surpassing DC, which means that it’s hard to argue that anyone is doing more with what they have than Fox is.

If that were all that Fox had on its plate, of course, it would be something, but there is a lot more. The stunning success of Hidden Figures, as well as another shocking hit with the DreamWorks Animation comedy The Boss Baby, has already set the studio up for a solid year, even though only three movies have been put into wide release (Hidden Figures is technically a 2016 release, as it hit New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, so as to qualify for Oscar consideration, though nearly 99 percent of its domestic gross came from 2017, as it went into wide release on January 6). Those movies combined have almost been enough to make people forget what happened with that third movie, A Cure for Wellness, and how badly it flopped. Almost.

The thing is, though, no matter how awful Wellness performed (and it’ll end up costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million), a Hidden Figures will cure a lot of ills, and not just financially. Making a movie like that, and seeing its worldwide box office appeal, reminds studios that there’s more to this than the latest tentpole and that audiences are hungry for genuine stories about genuine people. It gives us hope that all is not lost and that the mid-range drama is not dead, though it certainly is on life support. With Disney and Warner Bros. seeming to phase themselves out of that business, it sort of falls on the shoulders of 20th Century Fox to be one of the torch bearers in that area, especially with Sony and Paramount in so much trouble (but we’ll get to them soon enough).

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That doesn’t mean that the studio isn’t neck deep in the tentpole business itself, obviously, as the reason why we’re focusing on Fox this particular week is because, in just two days, it’s going to unleash the latest entry in the Alien franchise with Alien: Covenant, which is a sequel to the dreary 2012 film Prometheus, or perhaps a prequel to the original 1979 flick Alien, or maybe a mix of the two, it’s often hard to keep up. Either way, it’s expected to make plenty of money, a week after Snatched did $17.5 million at the box office, which is not as high as hoped and which means there is a long way to go for it to become profitable. Regardless, following up a movie that might turn out to possibly barely break even with a big, monster sci-fi horror flick that should end up in the black despite middling reviews won’t do anything to slow down what is already a strong year.

(Quick aside, the jury is obviously out on the latest in the Wimpy Kid saga, The Long Haul, also out this weekend, which could end up doing nice family business, or could end up lost in the shuffle, we’ll have to check back on Monday about that.)

The rest of the year is fairly busy, with at least eight more movies on the way. Next month, Fox is counter-programming against Wonder Woman with the animated Captain Underpants from DreamWorks Animation, which has a distribution contract with the studio. The $120 million price tag is high, to put it mildly, but even if it has an opening below $30 million — which is where the tracking has it pegged — this is still a piece of branded entertainment, an animated one no less, and thus should have legs to last a while domestically, while also potentially bringing in a fair amount globally. Still, it’s a sizable gamble, though not one in which Fox has nearly as much invested as DWA does. There are the marketing costs, of course, but it’s DreamWorks Animation that has more to lose than the studio.

After that, things get a bit simpler. The third movie in the rebooted Apes trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, hits theaters July 14, a week after Sony’s latest Spider-Man reboot, and a week before the double-barreled threat of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which is going to put a serious dent into any blockbuster’s profits. Even considering that, it’s hard to argue against the franchise movie aping the success of its predecessors.

That’s the last movie the studio has this summer, but the final quarter of the year is awfully busy. The Kingsman sequel hits the third week of September, and it’s a movie in which Fox has a lot of confidence, especially after the first one did more than $400 million worldwide on a budget of around $80 million. A month later comes the romantic drama The Mountain Between Us, starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, and therefore serves as the studio’s first real Oscar-bait movie of the season. The second week of November gives us Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express remake, and then there is a trio of December films, one week after the next.

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The same weekend as the new Star Wars film, Fox is giving us the animated Ferdinand, about the famous bull. The comedy adventure story from DWA and Blue Sky Animation features the voices of Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Bobby Cannavale, and, as the title bull, John Cena, but it’s still curious why anyone would want to put up anything against The Last Jedi. Clearer is the decision to put Steven Spielberg’s untitled Pentagon Papers drama, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, a week later. While Ferdinand could be seen as having a similar audience to Jedi, it would be tough to make the same statement about the Spielberg movie.

Same goes for the studio’s Christmas Day release, The Greatest Showman on Earth, aka Fox’s Big Push to Get Hugh Jackman an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor. Jackman is playing P.T. Barnum in the musical biopic, perhaps the part he was born to play, but quite frankly, he’s going to have at least a little competition in the awards conversation from… well, himself, actually. His final turn as the mutant X-Man Wolverine in March’s Logan was something of a crowning achievement, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that got more play. Either way, the Christmas Day release can’t hurt, as the last time he fronted one, Les Miserables, it brought home worldwide box office to the tune of $442 million.

With just 11 movies being released this year, it’s a little astonishing that there are at least 18 set to come out in 2018. Yes, 18. Now, three of them are the aforementioned X-Men movies and three more are DWA/Blue Sky flicks, but that’s still an enormous amount of content intended for theaters. Among the other dozen is the final installment in the Maze Runner trilogy, delayed because of the on-set accident that injured star Dylan O’Brien, a new Jennifer Lawrence-Frances Lawrence team-up in the thriller Red Sparrow, Robert Rodirguez’s long anticipated adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel, Shane Black’s The Predator, Steve McQueen’s period crime drama Widows, an untitled movie from über-TV guru Greg Berlanti, and, on Christmas Day, Bryan Singer’s Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody.

Beyond that, there are only two movies currently set for 2019 (one of them is another Fox Marvel film), with, of course, four Avatar movies coming from James Cameron starting in December of 2020, though even I have to admit that it’s hard to count too strongly on sequels that will hit theaters almost a dozen years after the initial film did.

But those are issues to come. There’s still more than half of this year left to go, lots of movies to see the light of day, and a serious shot to finish second behind Disney in box office grosses and market share. That, it would seem, is the most important thing on the agenda — for now, at least.

Next week, things take a tragic turn, as we turn our lonely eyes to Paramount, with Sony on deck.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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