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Wednesday, May 23,2012

The screening room

The summer movie season is off to a startling start

by James Sanford

The summer movie season is less than a month old, but we’ve already learned a few valuable (and, for certain studios, financially painful) lessons about what audiences are looking for.

Here’s a hint: It’s not necessarily Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz or Jennifer Lopez — and it’s certainly not Taylor Kitsch.

More superheroes equal more money. By the end of the week, “The Avengers” — which brings together Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — will have surpassed the total box office of the “Star Wars: A New Hope”; by the end of the month, it will have grossed over $500 million. It’s already No. 6 on the list of the biggest domestic blockbusters of all time.

The movie’s success isn’t entirely due to repeat business from Marvel Comics fans, either. Thanks to excellent word of mouth, “Avengers” has brought in moviegoers that might not ordinarily run out to the latest superhero extravaganza. Compare the “Avengers” take to last summer’s Marvel epics: “Captain America: The First Avenger” amassed just under $177 million in its entire run, while “Thor” sold $181 million worth of tickets.

Not every piece of pop-culture can be turned into a blockbuster. Just ask Universal Pictures, which sunk more than $200 million into a big-screen version of “Battleship,” a would-be event picture inspired by the Hasbro/Milton Bradley game that’s been around in one form or another for almost a century. If last weekend’s opening was any indication, audiences are not terribly interested in antiques — or terrible films, for that matter.

Although industry tip sheets had initially pegged it to open with as much as $60 million, “Battleship” brought in only $25 million, torpedoed by a combination of scathing reviews and bad buzz. When it opened in international territories a month ago, “Battleship” managed to rack up more than $200 million, but that was in the days before “The Avengers” came to town; Universal will be lucky to get half that much business from the U.S. market, especially with “Men in Black III” and “Prometheus,” director Ridley Scott’s eagerly anticipated “Alien” prequel, set to steal away science-fiction fans.

It’s the second black eye in the space of three months for former “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch, who had the misfortune of also being the main attraction in Disney’s “John Carter,” another expensive box office bomb.

Not every piece of pop-culture can be turned into a blockbuster, The Sequel. The 22-year-long collaboration between Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton has yielded many hits, from “Edward Scissorhands” to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s unlikely “Dark Shadows” will be remembered as one of their greatest achievements, though. The horror comedy adapted from the once-popular supernatural soap opera from the late-1960s/early-1970s is off to a sluggish start with audiences, ringing up approximately $51 million in its first 10 days and dropping a worrisome 57 percent in its second weekend. 

Seniors rule. That’s not just a graduation day slogan. Last weekend, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez headlined a star-studded cast in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” a fluffy romantic comedy about prospective parents. But the veteran stars lost out to some genuine veterans: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, has become this year’s “Midnight in Paris,” pulling in $8.2 million while playing in less than 400 theaters nationwide. According to the Box Office Guru website (www.boxofficeguru.com), the per-screen average on “Expecting” (which indicates how much the movie made at each of its locations) was a very mild $3,476, while “Marigold” more than two and a half times that amount, averaging $9.181. “Marigold” expands to theaters nationwide, including Lansing, on Friday.

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