Way back in 2004, Paramount had one of its worst years ever. It released 14 movies which grossed approximately $600 million at the domestic box office. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was the high water mark, with a total of $118.6 million domestic and a shade over $209 million worldwide. It was the only movie the studio released that year to eclipse either figure.
For a frame of reference, 2004 was actually a pretty good year at the movies, with domestic grosses of $9.38 billion, up 1.5 percent from the year before. Shrek 2 was the top grosser, with an impressive $441.2 million domestically, a record for an animated film that lasted right up until this past weekend, when Finding Dory finally passed it. Twenty-three other movies cleared the $100 million mark that year, with five of those breaking $200 million and two of those flying past $300 million.
I mention all this because 2015 was the worst year the studio has had since then, and by a healthy margin. In 2005, it cleared $832 million domestically, a number it didn’t sniff again for a decade, as every other year following was well over $900 million, six of them were over a billion, including two year-end first place finishes, in 2007 and 2011. The latter of those saw the studio earn $1.957 billion, to that point the second highest total of any studio, ever.
In 2015, the studio grossed $674.7 million, with a market share of just 5.9 percent, and over $78 million of that coming from 2014 releases that carried over to the new year, which means the actual total was under $600 million and, therefore, even less than that lousy stanza 11 years prior.
So, basically, last year totally sucked.
Not that there weren’t some success stories, of course, with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water combining for a billion dollars worldwide, and Terminator: Genisys making up for its disappointing domestic gross with a total of over $440 million global, not to mention the surprising success of The Big Short and the final installment in the insanely lucrative Paranormal Activity series. Daddy’s Home also did very well, with over $150 million domestic and another $90 abroad, but well over half of that total came after the calendar turned to 2016. Which, incidentally, makes it the highest grossing film for the studio thus far this year.
Which is sort of a problem.
Now, it’s important to note that Star Trek Beyond could very well eclipse that number of $85.6 million just this weekend alone, but still, if you’d asked Brad Grey and his people in the executive offices over there on the east side, they would have scoffed at the idea that, halfway through the year, the highest grossing film thus far would be a Will Ferrell comedy released on Christmas Day. Of the previous year.
But that’s what happens when a studio foists an unwanted sequel like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows on an indifferent public. It doesn’t make the numbers the studio had hoped it would make, thus losing money and, quite possibly, once again killing a franchise that has already died at least twice before. Same thing with a Zoolander sequel that was 15 years in the making and ended up well into the red, and a Tina Fey war movie which only proved that, as brilliantly talented as the Emmy-winning actress and creator might be, she ain’t no movie star.
Michael Bay’s recent historical action thriller, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was likewise a pretty major disappointment, as was Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, though just like the last Terminator flick, Paramount didn’t actually finance that one.
The one genuine hit thus far this year was another sequel that came many years after the first film, and even then was only tangentially connected, but such is the strength of a title that has a key word like ‘Cloverfield’ in the title. 10 Cloverfield Lane cost just $13 million to make and cleared $108 million worldwide. That’s a nice little hit in a year when the studio badly needs one.
As of this moment, Paramount has released six movies and cleared $396 million at the domestic box office, for a market share of 6.5 percent and fifth place overall. Those numbers, however, are deceiving, because not only is Daddy’s Home’s impressive total subtracted, so is the $46 million that The Big Short made in 2016. Take those two movies away, and you’re looking at less than $270 million and sixth place, just a skosh ahead of mini-major Lionsgate. That would be cause for worry, but there are a couple extenuating factors at play.
For one, after Star Trek hits theaters tomorrow evening, there are nine other movies on the schedule for this year, including the big budget action remake Ben-Hur, a new Jack Reacher film from Tom Cruise, a reboot of the phenomenally successful Rings horror franchise, as well as some high concept fare from directors Denis Villeneuve and Robert Zemeckis. Plus, the Meryl Streep Oscar Bait flick Florence Foster Jenkins, the broad holiday comedy Office Christmas Party, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences and, oh yes, the long-awaited Martin Scorsese opus Silence, which is sure to be in the conversation for awards upon its release. With that in mind, if we have learned anything over the years, it’s that big awards talk leads to big box office.
So, even though Ben-Hur is not tracking well, all hope is not lost. There is reason to at least be hopeful, despite the fact that there is not immediate cause to celebrate or even believe that the studio has a shot of coming within spitting distance of the kids who are currently the biggest on the block, like Disney, 20th Century Fox and, Warner Bros.
Those three studios each have something, however, that Paramount does not: superheroes. In fact, Paramount and Universal are the only major studios in town without them, but Universal has the newly refurbished Jurassic Park franchise, as well as the Fast and Furious movies, the Minions films, the horror franchise Insidious, and the upcoming shared Monster universe featuring The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and more. While that last one is, of course, unproven, the first three are all worth billions and the Insidious films are low budget/high gross money machines.
Paramount, meanwhile, is not without its own major franchises, like the license to print money that is the Transformers series, as well as Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and SpongeBob SquarePants, but the latter three are all much smaller by comparison. Yes, the studio is making a real effort to turn Cruise’s Jack Reacher series into a mainstay, as well as rebooting the Friday the 13th series (again), and Vin Diesel’s xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, but those are no sure things. Nor, for that matter, is the upcoming World War Z sequel, which has a release date set for June of next year, but still doesn’t have a director attached to it.
In fact, it’s sort of tough to look too far into Paramount’s future at all. Aside from the uncertainty of its ownership (with the ongoing Viacom court case, the studio is in limbo), there is no film currently scheduled for release in 2017 after Transformers: The Last Knight comes out on June 23rd. The next film on the release schedule is Sherlock Gnomes, and that doesn’t come out until January 12th, 2018. In the interim, there is the long delayed Monster Trucks, which was first scheduled to come out in 2015, then March 18th of this year, and now January 13th of next, that Friday the 13th redo, the xXx sequel, as well as the drama Same Kind of Different as Me, and J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi flick God Particle, all set for release between the beginning of the year and the end of February.
Starting the last day of March, the big guns come out, with first Scarlett Johansson’s controversial Ghost in the Shell, and then the adaptation of Baywatch, starring Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. Both of those are potential franchise starters, but just like the ones mentioned above, neither is a sure thing. Nor, for that matter, is that World War Z follow up. While the first film succeeded in spite of all the problems it faced, to expect history to repeat itself is a risky endeavor.
While the studio has scheduled a new Transformers movie for the following two years, along with a new SpongeBob movie in 2019, and a just-announced Star Trek 4 featuring Chris Hemsworth at some point in the next couple years, the failure of the last Terminator movie to reboot the franchise leaves a pretty big hole. The lack of anything substantial on the release slate past next June means that there are going to be a lot of crossed fingers in the Paramount executive suites that at least a couple of these films do well enough to spawn brand new franchises and give the company a fighting chance.
It is a decidedly tough situation, to be sure, but that’s the nature of the film business these days. Tent poles and franchises and sequels and so on. It’s not pretty, but it’s how the studios have built it, and some of them are just better at it than others.
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.