2011 Box Office So Far: Major Profits, Minor Originality

Thankfully, we’re still a couple of months away from the annual feeding frenzy of articles scrutinizing the year’s box-office figures for trends. However, as we transition out of the early fall, traditionally a period when lackluster flicks are dumped onto audiences before holiday blockbusters and Oscar-season movies get unleashed, it’s worth taking the pulse of the year’s box office to date because the numbers reveal something more than a trend: They reveal that Hollywood’s preoccupation with recycling seems to have spread to audiences.

As of the end of the October 14-16 weekend, only one original film is among the year’s Top 10 moneymakers, according to Box Office Mojo. Furthermore, that original film is pulling up the rear. We could debate whether Bridesmaids is really all that original, since it’s a chick-flick variation on the raunchy-comedy theme, but in today’s creatively bankrupt Hollywood climate, the fact that the picture features characters viewers haven’t previously met qualifies as fresh cinema. Yet Bridesmaids, the most successful original film of the year thus far, didn’t even crack the $175-million mark at the U.S. box office, which is an accomplishment every other movie in the Top 10 can claim.

Yep, even Rise of the Planet of the Apes made more than Bridesmaids. Surprise!

The movies at the top of the list are predictable. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon squashed all competition; each soared over the $300-million mark. Surprisingly, The Hangover Part II (No. 3 on the list) squeaked past Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (No. 4), even though Pirates seemed to print money at an insane pace despite withering reviews.

Another high-numbered sequel, Fast Five, occupies the No. 5 spot (how appropriate!), having exceeded expectations by generating a gross over $200 million during the summer. The last Pixar movie of the Steve Jobs era, Cars 2, tailed Fast Five to claim the No. 6 spot with $190 million, a respectable haul for most movies but a disappointment given Pixar’s normally stellar profits. Still, the fact that the six biggest hits of the year were all sequels says something: As much as critics and the public bitch about Hollywood’s lack of imagination, people are buying tickets to recycled movies en masse.

After the clutch of sequels comes a trio of male-oriented fantasy pictures, including Thor (No. 7), Captain America: The First Avenger (No. 8), and the aforementioned Rise of the Planet of the Apes (No. 9). Finally, there’s Bridesmaids, the $169 million gross of which puts the picture just $4 million ahead of the year’s No. 11 performer to date, Kung Fu Panda 2.

You read that correctly: But for the difference of $4 million, the year’s entire Top 10 to date would comprise sequels and comic-book adaptations. Yikes.

Before stating the obvious by fretting about the sorry state of the Top 10, it’s worthwhile to cite the movies that haven’t made the top bracket. The Help, arguably the most talked-about movie of the summer and certainly a major contender for this year’s Oscar race, is lingering at No. 12 on the list. Super 8, the summer favorite for nostalgic fanboys, is all the way down at No. 16. Even with the help of rapturous reviews, the grown-up romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love. is way down the list as the year’s No. 28 performer to date. All of these movies will fall further down the yearly ranking once returns for holiday-season blockbusters are reported.

Films that critics embraced more wholeheartedly than audiences include Contagion (No. 32), Moneyball (No. 40 and not likely to climb much higher), and Midnight in Paris, which now hovers at No. 42 for the year even though the picture is the biggest moneymaker of Woody Allen’s entire career. Think about that for a moment. The biggest moneymaker of Woody Allen’s entire career has made just $55 million at the box office, which (by my questionable math) is about 14% of what folks paid to see the eighth Harry Potter adventure. Not an encouraging statistic for intellectuals.

Putting all of this information together, it seems that Hollywood’s relentless barrage of remakes, sequels, and superhero movies has finally worn down the resistance of the American public. It’s true that a lot can happen in the last few months of the year, and it’s true that some great original movie could become a breakout hit over the holidays. However, the fact that George Clooney’s well-reviewed political drama The Ides of March has an anemic cumulative box-office figure of $22 million (to date) doesn’t bode well for thinking-person’s cinema. Lest we forget, The Smurfs made $139 million over the summer, which means The Smurfs 2 will get greenlit a whole lot faster than Clooney’s next smart movie for adults.

Why does all of this data seem alarming? Because unless something changes in the last three months of the year, the box-office figures for 2011 will paint a depressingly homogenous picture. To provide comparison, the Top 10 moneymakers of 2010 included four original movies (Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Inception, and Tangled). The biggest movie of 2009 was an original (more or less), a little picture called Avatar; in total, four of the biggest moneymakers of 2009 were non-remakes and non-sequels.

More to the point, in recent years, original hits like The Hangover (2009) and Inception (2010) had already come and gone at the box office by mid-October.

And yet here we are in mid-October 2011, with just one original movie residing in the year’s Top 10. Considering how tenuous a place Bridesmaids occupies in that list, it’s certain Bridesmaids will be knocked out of the Top 10 by surefire holiday blockbusters including Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part One). Looking over the releases for the remainder of the year, the most likely contenders for slots in the year’s final Top 10 box-office list are all sequels and remakes (and comic-book adaptations like Tintin), although it’s possible Adam Sandler’s latest insult to worldwide intelligence, the cross-dressing comedy Jack and Jill, could earn the impressive financial returns he customarily delivers.

With all due respect to Sandler and his fans, if Jack and Jill that ends up being the year’s most profitable original film, then we’re really in trouble.

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