Which films remaining in 2021 will outperform their box office expectations? Barry Wetcher/WB
Ryan Reynolds’ 20th Century video game comedy Free Guy is unexpectedly over-performing at the box office with nearly $60 million in the United States in its first two weeks. Paramount’s Paw Patrol took in a decent $13 million in its opening weekend despite also being available on Paramount+. Dwayne Johnson’s Disney adventure Jungle Cruise is cruising (sorry) toward $100 million domestic.
Despite the warranted pessimism surrounding the box office at the moment, there have been a few pleasant surprises here and there. So rather than focus on the doom-and-gloom of the lumpy theatrical recovery (the 2021 year-to-date box office is still 70% off of 2019’s), let’s instead look toward a future of hopeful breakouts.
Which upcoming films stand the best chance at over-performing at the box office?
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore
In the new normal Hollywood currently finds itself, Dergarabedian is reluctant to examine cinematic success in such binary terms. He sees multiple paths that exist outside of just raw dollars and cents.
“Over-performing can take many forms right now,” he told Observer. “Even if a movie has a soft performance in theaters, it could be kicking ass on streaming. Consider that an over-performance can be a metric that ties together multiple elements of an ecosystem of sentiment that’s layered in and around the sheer numbers of streaming and box office.”
“Over-performing can take many forms right now. Even if a movie has a soft performance in theaters, it could be kicking ass on streaming.”
Any film that is well-received by critics, embraced by audiences, but doesn’t necessarily do all that great at the box office under these unprecedented circumstances can still be an overall win. (Here’s looking at you, The Suicide Squad.) But in terms of sleeper candidates that may be flying under the radar, Dergarabedian sees Dear Evan Hansen, Many Saints of Newark, Halloween Kills, Jackass Forever, Last Night in Soho, House of Gucci, West Side Story and Sing 2 as reasonable lottery tickets.
“One movie that is not a slam dunk is The Matrix 4,” he warned. “It’s been a long time since The Matrix franchise. But if it’s really good, there’s no reason it can’t reach $100 million domestic.”
Perusing the upcoming film lineup, the box office expert was impressed with the volume and scale of the features on the horizon: “With this lineup of movies, it feels like summer in the fall.”
Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Marvel Studios
Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro
Due in large part to the current age limitations of vaccines and higher caution among parents, Robbins sees a clear absence from the calendar of family-skewing movies with appeal to younger kids. In that void steps a number of high-profile branded biggies that could potentially soak up big box office totals—if all goes well.
“Considering the audiences who are showing up right now, films like Shang-Chi, No Time to Die, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Halloween Kills, and Dune each stand out to me,” he told Observer.
With the lack of family friendly biggies, the larger tentpole movies and their compatriots will have to endure some heavy lifting to expedite theatrical recovery. The hope is that a logjam of blockbusters will spur more consistent ticket sales the rest of the year.
“The movie business is still at the mercy of elements beyond its control, but it certainly isn’t alone in that challenge.”
“Still, those aforementioned movies are the best bets for the industry right now and they would provide healthy lead-ins to similarly targeted blockbusters like Eternals, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Top Gun Maverick, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the fourth Matrix as they’re currently dated through year’s end,” Robbins said. “For audiences that have already shown a willingness to come back, these are the kinds of movies that can generate a strong draw for the communal theatrical experience.”
These are all films that appeal to a young male demographic, and as it continues to venture out to theaters, these blockbusters need a healthy global marketplace to thrive. That’s one of the downsides to nine-figure budgets. Robbins explains that the industry is now at a point where studios are asking themselves if the risk-reward ratio of partial box office runs from a fractured global distribution favors the current plan to release them under status quo conditions or to delay anything again to later in the year or even into 2022.
“The movie business is still at the mercy of elements beyond its control, but it certainly isn’t alone in that challenge,” he said.
Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Sony Pictures Entertainment
Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations
Bock also sees a demo-specific surge that offers both opportunity and limitation to the current movie marketplace.
“The pandemic has been a return to ’80s filmmaking where seemingly every other successful was tailor-made for 13-year-old boys,” Bock told Observer. “When we look at the films that have had unexpectedly large openings—Mortal Kombat, Demon Slayer, Godzilla vs. Kong, Free Guy—a majority of them point to men 35 and under making up a sizable audience. So, for the time being, and since horror films have been really the only genre that has been pandemic-proof, it seems this trend will continue through the fall.”
“The pandemic has been a return to ’80s filmmaking where seemingly every other successful was tailor-made for 13-year-old boys.”
As a result, he highlights Malignant, Jackass Forever, Halloween Kills as films that have a clear path to success. At the same time, he sees larger films that demand adult audiences such as Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune as likely stragglers. Then there’s Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which was recently delayed (again) until Oct. 15.
“Venom 2 is an interesting dilemma; on one hand it caters to young men, but to truly bloom at the box office, it will rely heavily on families just as its predecessor did,” Bock said. “So, depending on how these COVID counts shake out this fall, it might not be the last move Sony makes with their superhero flick.”
Which films remaining in 2021 will outperform their box office expectations? Barry Wetcher/WB
(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Marvel Studios
It shouldn’t be possible. None of it. Not for this long at least. And yet here we are on the verge of yet another dynamite go-around. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will introduce Marvel’s first new lead character since 2019’s Captain Marvel and serve as the MCU’s first linear origin story since 2015’s Ant-Man, puts to bed any concern fans might have had about a drop off in Phase IV of the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the MCU is the single-most consistently successful creation in Hollywood history. No other series or franchise has enjoyed the same uninterrupted string of critical and commercial victories. Thirteen years, 24 feature films, $23 billion at the worldwide box office and the superhero genre’s first-ever Best Picture nomination. It’s like Mount Olympus and Mount Rushmore combined forces for pedestal supremacy.
Yet after the decade-in-the-making Infinity Saga culminated in Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time, a resetting of expectations was the only logical next step. Not every title could be a billion dollar grosser or an Oscar nominee. As we moved away from Iron Man, Captain America and the other founding members of the MCU, it’s only natural that interest would wane for new characters. Momentum is a finite resource.
But Shang-Chi is shockingly good, emphasizing a deep commitment to themes of family and inherited legacy, while also perhaps being the funniest Marvel movie since 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (Awkwafina is a scene-stealer start to finish). Steeped in martial arts and mysticism, it boasts the best fight choreography this side of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Daredevil. Marvel’s pedestrian action sequences can often leave you waiting impatiently for the next quip to be fired. But like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler before him, director Destin Daniel Cretton infuses the set pieces with a real sense of style and fluidity (though Shang-Chi is plagued by some shoddy CGI). Star Simu Liu gives Marvel a homegrown non-powered human ass-kicker that needs to be trotted out for punch ’em ups on a regular basis starting now.
Refreshingly, Shang-Chi allows its characters to be flawed and hide shameful secrets without bending over backwards to fix our heroes or ameliorate their mistakes. It also features the single weirdest third-act climax in Marvel history. In a sea of sameness, this critic respected a swing-for-the-fences move in the pursuit of something new, but it’s sure to lose certain viewers.
The script doesn’t do Shang-Chi the character many favors, doling out the best lines and bits to his surrounding compatriots. But by doing that, it also uses the character as Marvel’s best audience surrogate in recent memory. There is a hilarious dynamic to be further mined from Liu’s bewildered badass playing against other familiar MCU heroes used to the daily grind of abnormal shenanigans.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021.
Most importantly, Shang-Chi continues to defy expectations for Marvel. It closes out an unofficial trilogy of groundbreaking new solo lead films that began with Black Panther, a touchstone of blockbuster representation with a predominately African American cast, and continued with Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first female-led superhero title. Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first Asian-led film. Beyond the much-needed infusion of diversity, it helps prove Marvel’s knack for character and world-building. Just when we thought momentum might slip with core characters threatening to overstay their welcome, the MCU crafts a compelling new hero that firms the support beams of the future.
Much like serialized television, it’s difficult to introduce new characters after a couple seasons in and earn the same level of audience affection and critical acclaim that the originals accrued. Yet Marvel keeps rolling out successful new iterations of our hero archetype, each with their own unique backstory and characterization. Instead of growing stale with its constant self-reference and inward exploration, the MCU manages to twist and recreate that dynamic by balancing it on the edge of a new character that brings something fresh to the franchise. In this case, the mysticism of Shang-Chi promises further inviting adventures that will intersect with other corners of the series in exciting ways.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t just a good movie (it is). It’s a thesis statement for the post-Infinity Saga Marvel universe. As long as new would-be franchise-starters can be this creative and entertaining, we need not worry about Phase IV and beyond.
Despite what you may have heard, Disney isn’t buying Sony’s roster of Marvel characters. Sony
A quick perusal around the internet over the last 24 hours will reveal a juicy yet baseless rumor making the rounds: Disney is going to buy Sony Pictures specifically to acquire the remainder of the Marvel Comics character library. As enticing as this gossip may sound for comic book obsessives who would love to see the Disney-owned Marvel Studios complete its collection, logic has other plans.
Here’s every reason why Disney will not be buying out Sony when it comes to Marvel.
Sony isn’t for sale
Sony Pictures has long been a source of speculation when it comes to Hollywood’s ravenous merger and acquisition appetite. Sony Group, which was once rumored to be eyeing an exit from Hollywood to better focus on its core businesses, could make a pretty penny on the open market by dangling the entertainment division. But in May, CEO Yoshida Kenichiro shot down that possibility by reaffirming that Sony Pictures is not for sale. Definitively.
The CEO is happy with Sony Pictures’ position as the lone major content arms dealer in Hollywood, which has led to big money licensing deals with the industry’s biggest studios. Speaking of which…
Sony and Disney have already struck a licensing deal
Back in April, Sony and Netflix agreed to a massive Pay 1 window licensing deal rumored to be worth $3 billion. Two weeks later, the company struck a Pay 2 licensing pact with Disney. You simply don’t lock in those two long-term agreements if a sale is in the near-term future. (You also don’t go out and spend $1.2 billion to acquire anime streaming service Crunchyroll, as Sony did in April, if you want to rid yourself of your entertainment division). It’s just not a sound strategy and would further complicate a future sale, not expedite it.
And if you’re Disney, you don’t fork over a massive licensing sum for the less valuable Pay 2 window if you’re angling to buy the joint. Double dipping may be common at Super Bowl parties, but not at the corporate executive levels of Hollywood.
Disney probably couldn’t buy Sony
Disney has become known for its splashy acquisitions during the Bob Iger era. This include Pixar ($7.4 billion), Marvel ($4 billion), Lucasfilm ($4.05 billion), and Fox ($71 billion). Sony Pictures Entertainment could fetch around $30 billion, a tall order after such a spending spree over the last 15 years, even for a company with a market cap of $315 billion. While Disney isn’t going to turn away from a competitive advantage, the company doesn’t appear to be in the market for a major addition at the moment.
More importantly, the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission would have a conniption if such a move was proposed. Disney has already absorbed one major studio in Fox. Would regulatory powers really allow the company to acquire a second? Chair of the FTC Lina Khan has been vocal about her desire to crack down on monopolies. Though she’s mostly focused on big tech companies such as Amazon and Apple, a Disney power play of this magnitude would elicit backlash.
Sony is banking on its Marvel roster
The other reason Disney is unlikely to buy out Sony and acquire its roster of Marvel characters is because Sony is, uhh, using them! The studio is all in on its terribly named Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters (SPUMC).
Tom Hardy’s Venom somehow earned $856 million worldwide back in 2018, Jared Leto’s Morbius and Venom: Let There Be Carnage are due out in the near future despite COVID-related delays, and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man may very well be reclaimed exclusively for Sony’s burgeoning continuity. Plus, there’s a Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sequel in the works.
In 2019, Sony tapped Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to create a Marvel TV universe for the studio with a five-year, nine-figure deal. Amazon Prime Video is expected to be the on-screen home for the upcoming deluge of series.
Spider-Man: Far From Home ($1.1 billion) is Sony’s highest-grossing film worldwide of all time. The studio isn’t throwing away its most prized asset(s) in a one-off deal when it can instead leverage them for lucrative recurring revenue and value long-term. As the lone high-profile third-party film and TV provider to an industry desperate for streaming success, Sony finds itself in a unique position cushioned with payment potential.
Dwayne Johnson is among the highest-paid stars in all of Hollywood. Frank Masi/NETFLIX © 2021
The entertainment industry is currently trapped in a vortex of attention, skepticism and hard fought negotiations as it pertains to talent compensation, but its highest earners are still cashing colossal paychecks. As the ways in which major studios distribute their biggest products changes, so too must the ways in which Hollywood’s biggest stars are paid. In the pandemic, that has forced both sides to navigate the ever evolving landscape of shortened theatrical windows, premium video on demand, straight-to-streaming, and hybrid releases. This has led to some high-profile headlines surrounding Warner Bros.’ decision to send its entire 2021 film slate to HBO Max and Scarlett Johansson’s ongoing lawsuit against Disney over Black Widow.
But what does the actual top-tier A-list hierarchy look like in terms of Hollywood salaries? From the outside looking in, pretty darn comfortable! The envy-inducing totals these highly paid stars receive may sour your mood for the rest of the day. But thanks to Variety‘s reports on the biggest film and TV salaries, we at least have an understanding of modern talent compensation at the highest levels. Here’s the Top 10 for both mediums.
Daniel Craig ($100 million for two Knives Out sequels)
Dwayne Johnson ($50M for Red One)
Will Smith ($40M for King Richard)
Denzel Washington ($40M for The Little Things)
Leonardo DiCaprio ($30M for Don’t Look Up)
Mark Wahlberg ($30M for Spenser Confidential)
Jennifer Lawrence ($25M for Don’t Look Up)
Julia Roberts ($25M for Leave the World Behind)
Sandra Bullock ($20M for The Lost City of D)
Ryan Gosling ($20M for The Grey Man)
(Note: these sums include streaming backend buyouts)
Netflix’s $469 million acquisition of two Knives Out sequels from filmmaker Rian Johnson netted Daniel Craig a mind-boggling windfall. Who would have thought Benoit Blanc might out-earn James Bond? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has often been among Hollywood’s highest-paid stars and his upcoming universe-building collaboration with Amazon, the Christmas-themed Red One, is no exception.
What’s interesting to note about the film list is that five titles — Knives Out sequels, Don’t Look Up, Spenser Confidential, Leave the World Behind, The Grey Man — all belong to Netflix. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Netflix Model of talent compensation, large upfront sums that buyout the backend, are becoming the norm across the industry.
Chris Pratt ($1.4M per episode for Terminal List)
Jeff Bridges ($1M per episode for The Old Man)
Bryan Cranston ($750k per episode for Your Honor)
Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis ($650k-$750k per episode for And Just Like That…)
Kate Winslet ($650k per episode for Mare of Easttown)
Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Gillian Anderson ($600k per episode for The First Lady)
Pedro Pascal ($600k per episode for The Last of Us)
Steve Martin, Martin Short ($600k per episode for Only Murders in the Building)
Alec Baldwin ($575k for Dr. Death)
Brian Cox ($400k-$500k for Succession)
Not a single series among television’s Top 10 salaries hails from broadcast. Instead, the list is dominated by streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video (Terminal List), Hulu (The Old Man) and HBO Max (And Just Like That…) as well as premium cable such as HBO (Mare of Easttown, Succession, The Last of Us) and Showtime (The First Lady). It goes to show you where the small screen power lies these days. Variety also reports that Robert Downey Jr. is rumored to have earned $2 million per episode for A24’s Vietnam War thriller The Sympathizer on HBO, though the outlet did not include this on its official list.
Titan A.E. is an obscure 2000 animated movie that is ripe for a re-do two decades later. Disney/Fox
Pop culture public discourse has devolved to the point that people often respond to a headline without actually taking the time to read the story. No doubt that will be the case here. I can already see the chorus of Film Twitter avatars sniping in the replies. While it’s absolutely true that animation is a universe of potential that can stand on its own and not every feature needs the reboot treatment, a live-action Titan A.E. actually makes sense. Bear with me.
The adage that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em is more prevalent in Hollywood today than ever before. As the entertainment industry continues to recycle its own libraries ad nauseam, reboots and remakes are inevitable. You stand a better chance fighting against the ocean tide than you do audience’s nostalgia-driven obsession with the past. But recently, I argued that instead of consistently remaking Hall of Fame classics that already occupy unimpeachable perches in the pantheon of entertainment, we should be looking to concepts and IP with potential that, for whatever reason, didn’t fully coalesce the first time around. Titan A.E., an $80 million film that failed to break $40 million at the box office and currently holds a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6.6/10 on IMDb, and a 48 on Metacritic, certainly qualifies.
The film—which takes place in the year 3028 when humanity is set adrift among the stars after the destruction of Earth—is far better than its aggregate scores would have you believe. The narrative and character beats may be cobbled together from sci-fi predecessors; shades of Star Wars cast over the archetypes and Blade Runner‘s steampunk attitude informs the tone. But just because Titan A.E. is somewhat expected doesn’t mean it isn’t deserving. The reason no one reinvents the wheel is because wheels already work.
Functionally, Titan A.E. is a fast paced vision with a distinctive aesthetic comprised of traditional animation and computer generated imagery. It’s the type of anime-adjacent eye candy that may actually provide the same endorphin-igniting sugar rush when translated to the big screen in live action—assuming the right filmmaker is tapped to shepherd such such a bombastic space opera. (My editor, an animation expert, notes that it’ll be hard to replace director Don Bluth’s singular style). It’s enticingly sci-fi, but not exclusionary in its genre bent. Just enough to hook you in with space battles and evil aliens.
As a premise, it doesn’t get much more timely than threats of extinction, refugees searching for a home, and a race of beings driven by hatred and fear. Critic complaints levied against the movie at the time of its release suggested it was as deep as a Saturday morning cartoon. At worst, that sounds like an enjoyable swashbuckling adventure through the stars. At best, borrowing Titan A.E.‘s darker and more mature sensibilities—which touch on abandonment issues, the question of whether humanity is even worth saving, and pseudo caste systems among intelligent species—would give the broad appeal blockbuster something to say. (A welcome treat in a summer drowning in the likes of Snake Eyes and Space Jam 2).
Titan A.E. Disney Fox
Titan A.E. was the last film under Fox Animation Studios before it shuttered. After Disney’s acquisition of Fox, the property falls under the Mouse House’s ownership. Ironically, this is an opportunity, not an impediment. As I wrote recently, Disney is in dire need of new live-action franchises outside of Marvel and Star Wars. They’ve tried and failed, at great expense, to conjure up new hits with the likes of John Carter, Tomorrowland, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Tron: Legacy, The Lone Ranger, A Wrinkle in Time, Prince of Persia, Oz The Great and Powerful, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice over the last 15 years (which is why Jungle Cruise is so important).
Instead of de-emphasizing the 20th Century banner, Disney should greenlight a PG-13 live-action remake of Titan A.E. under the studio. Fox was known for its successful adult-skewing franchises such as Kingsman, Deadpool and Alien while Disney is betting big on James Cameron’s Avatar series still being a draw for 20th Century. Titan A.E. can exist at the intersection of these tones and styles, maintaining commercial appeal and a slight edge that doesn’t fit with Disney’s family friendly mandate. It’s not as if Bob Chapek and company are going to stop trying to develop much-needed new live-action franchises, so the creatives might as well tap into a dose of experimentation.
Titan A.E. is a better movie than it’s initial reception gave it credit for. But it isn’t some paragon of pop culture that is immune to tweaks and improvements. We’d rather see an updated live-action crack at this high-upside concept and overlooked pedigree than 2 Taxi 2 Driver.