Today is April 19, which means we are in serious countdown mode before the Summer Movie Season starts up, two weeks from Friday. That’s just 16 days from now, which is good if you’re Disney and you’re opening up the whole shebang with the sure to be enormous (as in, like, $150 million domestic) Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but less so if you’re pretty much anyone else, thanks to all the inherent risks that go along with the releasing of tent poles and counter-programming.
Actually, that last paragraph isn’t entirely accurate because Disney has plenty on the line, too, above and beyond the Marvels and the Pixars it’s got coming out, because it, too, has a fairly risky proposition headed our way in the coming months, just as so many others do.
See, this is a heady time in Hollywood: These 18 weeks are when fortunes are made and lost, careers are built and destroyed (unless you’re a white male, in which case you’ll almost certainly get at least two or three more chances to succeed), and audiences grab opportunities to take some time out from the heat for a couple hours to see lots of stuff blowing up and special effects doing battle with each other.
It really is the most wonderful time of the year.
But for some, it’s also an incredibly stressful time, especially when it comes to big budget films that don’t just have a nine-figure investment on the line, but also potentially billions in franchise dollars, not to mention ancillaries and merchandising. A win means a studio head’s corporate overlords are happy and will lay off the pressure for a while until the next Big Risk comes along. A loss? Well, then it might be time to update that resumé.
With that in mind, below are five movies this summer that have especially large question marks beside them, one of them, in fact, coming from the Mouse House, a company that has been all but infallible over the last 16 months, but with all good things, this too must end at some point. The question is, will it be this summer?
Before I start talking about ghostly buccaneers and the fading star leading them, though, we need to discuss…
Warner Bros. Pictures
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
This is a movie I’ve mentioned previously in this space as a flick that has trouble written all over it. Not necessarily because of quality, mind you (I think it actually looks pretty good), but rather because of the riskiness of the endeavor. Guy Ritchie was brought in to direct, fresh off the failure that was The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a leading man in Charlie Hunnam who, while certainly talented, is not exactly a movie star, and a budget of over $100 million for yet another take on the Arthurian Legend, with plans for a six-movie franchise, should this first one take off.
Add in the crummy year that Warner Bros. is having, and the fact that studio topper Kevin Tsujihara is allegedly already planning his escape route, and you’ve got a lot riding on this. Wonder Woman should be a pretty big hit for the studio, but if the company’s summer starts out with King Arthur landing with a thud (and it certainly doesn’t help that it’s coming out on May 12, just a week after Guardians, which will still be reigning supreme), you’ll be able to smell the fear rising in the Warner executive suites all the way from Santa Monica.
Walt Disney Pictures
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Which brings us to the fifth (and final? Maybe?) installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, two weeks later, on May 26. Sure, it’s Memorial Day Weekend, which is always a big one for movies, but this is the fifth movie in a series that has, from the beginning, been almost entirely about diminishing returns. And that doesn’t just go for the movies, but also for the man who has starred in all of them.
I hasten to point out, whenever the Pirates movies are mentioned, that the first one is actually quite good, and that Johnny Depp well deserved his Best Actor nomination for his first time as Captain Jack Sparrow. My defense of both the series and Mr. Depp, however, ends there, as it’s become pretty clear to just about any observer — experienced or otherwise — that he has been mailing it in and collecting big paychecks for quite some time now.
It’s true that the second installment in the series was more successful than the first (Dead Man’s Chest did over $423 million domestic and surpassed $1 billion worldwide in 2006, three years after The Curse of the Black Pearl did $305M/$654M), numbers three and four both fell off sharply from the one before, and Depp’s star has likewise fallen. If you doubt it, look at the poor numbers that the Alice in Wonderland sequel did last year ($77M/$299M, on a $170 million budget, after the first film went over $1 billion worldwide), or that the last time he was the front man in a movie that cleared $100 million domestic was six years ago with … want to guess?
If you said the last Pirates movie, On Stranger Tides, in 2011, six years ago, score yourself a point. Which means that he needs this hit, just as Disney needs this movie to succeed if it’s going to continue to go on this lucrative ride for a sixth time.
Two weeks after that, you’ve got a new attempt at launching yet another franchise for America’s Sweetheart Tom Cruise, on the one hand, and a major effort to launch a brand new cinematic universe by the studio, on the other. Honestly, I’m not sure which of those two entities has more at stake.
Okay, let’s say it’s Universal, which has at least one of these Monster Universe movies coming out over the next three years and is attempting with The Mummy to pull an Iron Man, by establishing a world in which a bunch of different movies all exist in the same reality. While Cruise could use another non-Mission: Impossible winner after the failure of his second Jack Reacher movie last fall, Universal has literally billions on the line, with remakes of Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Van Helsing and The Wolf Man all in some form of development, and talent like Cruise, Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem and, yes, Johnny Depp all signed up.
The footage I’ve seen of The Mummy looks rather fun, but with a budget that is probably in the $150 million range, do people care enough about these monsters anymore? When there are so many real life monsters around who are so much scarier? I’m not so sure.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Skipping forward to July 21, we have STX Entertainment and Europa Corp’s entry. There’s a fair amount at stake for both companies, here, because while the bulk of the financial risk lies with director Lucy Besson’s production company, STX is distributing and promoting Valerian, and the company could use the hit. Yes, it’s still young, and yes, any company has growing pains, but perception is important, and it would be nice for everyone involved if this movie actually has a good box office run.
Working against it, aside from the $180 million budget, is that it’s opening against Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, and that while it’s based on a comic book, that book isn’t exactly Batman. Still, if there is any movie this summer that looks like a genuine thrill ride, with amazing action and effects that actually help the story, rather than take the place of it, with a scope and breadth befitting the subject matter, Valerian would be it. Let’s also not forget that Besson’s last movie, Lucy, was released on the same weekend three years earlier and was a spectacular, huge, monster hit, and, finally, that there will be a good-sized number of people who won’t want to venture back to World War II with Mr. Nolan, which makes this quality counter-programming.
The Dark Tower
Finally, there’s the long, long, long-awaited adaptation of the 1982 Stephen King book, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, from Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, and a beleaguered Sony, which needs this to be a hit fairly badly. Yeah, it’s got a bulletproof Spider-Man movie in July, and that Emoji Movie looks like it’ll get some butts in the seats, but come August 4, it’s going to really, really, really want this movie to be the first in a new franchise that would allow the studio to adapt each of the seven books in King’s original series, in what has been labeled as a combination of TV series and movie installments (if that’s even still the plan, because I’m honestly not sure).
The budget is manageable, at just $60 million, but the early response at CinemaCon wasn’t the friendliest, and while it’ll be a litmus test for Elba’s drawing power, as well as McConaughey’s, it’s also a very important movie for Tom Rothman. If it fails, it’ll be yet another misstep in his thus far disappointing run at the top of Sony’s movie division.
If I was forced to make predictions, I’d venture that The Mummy will do just fine, Valerian will be a surprise smash, Pirates will probably do just well enough to justify a sixth installment in 2020 or so, Dark Tower will draw enough curiosity to squeak into profitability, and King Arthur will get lost in the jet fuel of Guardians, even though I hope I’m wrong about that last one and will be first in line to see it.
There are some sure things in Hollywood every summer — a superhero movie, for instance, or something involving a Transformer — but for everyone else, there’s a lot of suspense, and almost all of it happens off screen.