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
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.
Left: Ian Seabrook on the set of Jungle Cruise. Top and bottom: Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in scenes from the film. Courtesy of Ian Seabrook; Walt Disney Pictures
In a climactic sequence in Jungle Cruise, Emily Blunt’s Lily Houghton and Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff are tasked with diving down from their boat to solve an underwater puzzle, which proves more difficult than anticipated. Lily becomes trapped in the puzzle, fighting for air, and it takes some clever thinking to force it open and drain the water so the pair can access a secret cave. Filming a scene like that requires an expert, which came in the form of underwater director of photography Ian Seabrook. Seabrook, known for his work on films like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, stepped in to help director Jaume Collet-Serra ensure that the underwater scenes were shot as seamlessly as possible.
Watching the underwater scene in Jungle Cruise is stressful, but Seabrook tells Observer that shooting it wasn’t. It’s all about that believable illusion created for the screen.
“Oftentimes when you watch scenes that are underwater the tendency is to try to hold your breath for as long as the characters do,” Seabrook laughs. “Even though, if you’re an avid filmgoer, you know ‘Oh yeah, they’re cutting around that.’ That’s not actually how long they held their breath for.”
It’s not like you’re rolling right away. She has to get set in position, so there’s even more time to hold her breath.
Filming the sequence took a week and a half in the midst of production, in September of 2018, with the underwater unit working simultaneously to the film’s main unit, as well as its second unit. Because scheduling was tight and Johnson and Blunt couldn’t always be present for the underwater unit’s shots, Seabrook and his team filmed several days with their stunt team. Anything filmed from behind or from far away could use a stunt double instead of the main actor, although Johnson and Blunt did a lot of the sequence themselves.
Ian Seabrook, on the aquatic set. Courtesy of Ian Seabrook
“They were great in the water,” Seabrook says of the actors. “Emily Blunt is a woman of all trades — she can do an action stunt, she can do the acting. She’s very good at everything, because not everyone can pull that off. And then Dwayne’s got a long history of being physical onscreen. The pair of them were quite good. She had to hang onto his shoulders as he was doing the breaststroke, and he’s got a pretty powerful breaststroke on him.”
To complete the sequence, the filmmakers used two tanks at Blackhall Studios in Atlanta. One was an exterior tank built in a parking lot for the boat to sit in and the other was an interior tank, which held 177,000 gallons of water, to shoot everything under the surface.
“The interior tank was better for visibility and for keeping the temperature of the water regulated,” Seabrook explains. “Usually when you’re shooting in the open ocean or a lake or in nature, the visibility will be dictated by whatever the weather conditions are or the water conditions — any of that kind of stuff. You’re fighting the elements. You’re fighting current. And the talent in the water may or may not be comfortable. So the tank environment is a controlled environment. You can control the lighting. You can go slower with the talent if they’re not comfortable in the water.”
You may only get one take out of people. So everything has to be ready. The first take almost has to be perfect. I have to forget my diving skills entirely and concentrate on the four corners of the frame and what’s inside it.
While the sequence makes it look like Blunt is holding her breath for several minutes as she’s trapped underwater, attempting to solve the puzzle, in reality the filmmakers usually only keep the actors under for short spurts of time. The takes averaged between 10 and 15 seconds, occasionally up to 30 seconds. Seabrook says it’s rare for an actor to have to do a take for an entire minute (although he remembers Ryan Reynolds doing a 90-second underwater take on Deadpool 2).
“A lot of times if it’s them swimming down they’ll have to get their breath on the surface and then they’ll basically just swim past camera,” Seabrook explains. “That’s maybe five to seven seconds. But for something more intricate, like where Emily’s character is trying to solve that puzzle piece, a large portion of that was done by her stunt double, Lauren, who was very good.”
He adds, “And it’s not like you’re rolling right away. She has to get set in position, so there’s even more time to hold her breath. There’s another seven to 10 seconds of fiddling before we actually roll. That gives you an idea for her stamina for that kind of work. And that set for Jungle Cruise had an overhead environment, so you had to slip into the set. We had escape routes for her, but it wasn’t like she could go straight out. She had to navigate her way out of that.”
“Emily Blunt is a woman of all trades — she can do an action stunt, she can do the acting,” Seabrook says. “Not everyone can pull that off. And then Dwayne’s got a long history of being physical onscreen.” Walt Disney Pictures
As an underwater cinematographer, Seabrook is, of course, with the actors in the water, in diving gear. He’s typically the first person to go down into the tank in order to set up the shot — similarly to how a cinematographer would set up a shot on land. Once he’s ready, a safety diver brings the actor or stunt person into the tank.
“On something like this you may only get one take out of people,” Seabrook notes. “So everything has to be ready. The first take almost has to be perfect. On my end, I have to make sure the lighting is correct and the set is ready. I have to forget my diving skills entirely and concentrate on the four corners of the frame and what’s inside it. So when the talent comes in the focus is completely on them.”
To communicate with the director, who remains outside the tank, there’s a loudspeaker positioned underwater. The director can call “Action!” via the speaker or ask Seabrook a question. The cinematographer replies by “nodding” or “shaking no” the camera, which the director can see on the monitors. “It’s a director’s fantasy of a one-way communication,” Seabrook notes. “They talk and no one answers back.”
The biggest challenge came at the end of the sequence in Jungle Cruise, as Blunt’s character solves the puzzle and the water drains away. To create the illusion of the water level going down, the filmmakers raised the set out of the tank with a crane. Getting the shot right meant that Seabrook had to be lifted out of the water at the same time while balancing the underwater camera.
Cinematographer Ian Seabrook, on holding an 80-pound camera rig: “When the set’s being lifted up, all that pressure is pushing down, so you’re holding the camera and it’s pulling you down and you still have to maintain the shot. You can’t bail on the shot because it’s too heavy — you have to really brace yourself.” Ian Seabrook
“Basically the set is lifted out of the tank by the crane and then I’m on the set holding the camera, which, at that point when it comes out of the water, is about 80 pounds,” Seabrook recalls. “And you’ve got a camera housing that’s negatively buoyant in the water, so it doesn’t drop when it’s submerged. It’s no different from a Steadicam, or any kind of camera that’s on a platform that needs to be stabilized or balanced. So when the set’s being lifted up, all that pressure is pushing down, so you’re holding the camera and it’s pulling you down and you still have to maintain the shot. You can’t bail on the shot because it’s too heavy — you have to really brace yourself.”
Shooting this sort of sequence is a typical day’s work for Seabrook, who is one of only a few working cinematographers who specialize in underwater filming. Recently, he’s worked on everything from It: Chapter Two to Army of the Dead to M. Night Shyamalan’s latest effort, Old. He typically shoots underwater units, but is also a second unit director — Seabrook took on both roles for the upcoming Francis Lawrence film Slumberland. The underwater sequences in Old, Seabrook’s second collaboration with Shyamalan after Glass, were shot in the Dominican Republic at Pinewood Studios, which has an infinity tank. There were also 60 feet of tunnels meshed together, which the cast had to free dive through for a scene at the end of the film.
“The actors did it in stages, but still,” Seabrook says. “That was done in the tank. They had done some shooting in coves around the Dominican, around the beach where the story takes place, and they got walloped by a lot of surf. I think they were trying to do it themselves and didn’t have a specialist there and it was a bit of a nautical disaster for some of the equipment. It’s why you hire a cinematographer who’s a specialist.”
He adds, “I would say there’s maybe five people who specialize in it with sizable credits. It’s something people go ‘Oh, I could do that. I could put a camera in the water and get in there.’ And it’s more than just that. It’s a specialty.”
Jungle Cruise is in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access now.