Forget weak box office: 2014 was vital summer for Hollywood

By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

Although the box office receipts may not agree, this was the most vital summer for big Hollywood pictures over the past decade.

There were no Avengers, no Batmen, no Pixar characters and no Katnisses to save the day in summer 2014. But luckily, it was also free of the boom-or-bust urgency of years past.

At the present time, only one movie has a chance of passing the light milestone of $300 million domestic. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a box office surprise on nearly all accounts. The brand was barely recognizable outside of comic die-hards, and it banked on Chris Pratt as a leading man, which, combined with the success of “The Lego Movie,” seems to be an easy argument to get behind — well, at least from a financial standpoint.

But Marvel’s hardly an underdog, so the success of “Guardians” offers little consolation for the underwhelming performances of “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and to a lesser degree, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which were consensus picks to be the top grossers of the summer. Franchise fatigue was unsurprising for the robot romp and critical punching bag, but “Dragon” and “X-Men” were expected to capitalize on an exploding young audience and a revitalized fan base for the merged-universe geek fantasy, respectively. That didn’t quite pan out.  

If “Guardians” fails to top $300 million, it will be the first summer without a release reaching the mark since 2001. Even the highest grosser from that summer (“Shrek,” $267 million) would have reached $385 million, when adjusted for inflation. Reaching $300 million used to be something for the record books, but in an era in which tentpoles can earn nearly $200 million in a single weekend, we shrug at a final figure around the three-century mark.

Even though this summer was without a bona fide hit, it was also mostly devoid of major flops. Aside from the horrifying debut of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” this past weekend ($6.8 million on a $70 million budget), there hasn’t been anything like the devastating bombs of 2013 that infamously included “The Lone Ranger,” “After Earth” and “R.I.P.D.” None of those tankers matched their mammoth $100-200 million budgets domestically, even though “Lone Ranger” and “After Earth” narrowly earned them back worldwide — not accounting for marketing costs.

Although this summer might seem rather risk-averse compared to last year’s, it’s just as easy to imagine a situation in which a few of the stunners could have been dead in the water. Without the universal acclaim for “Guardians,” or even a reception on par with “Thor: The Dark World,” we could be looking at the lowest-grossing Marvel picture to date. Aside from Angelina Jolie’s return as a top-billed superstar, “Maleficent” had a marketing campaign and trailers that were nearly indistinguishable from Disney’s past live-action fantasy retellings. And, there was absolutely no reason to believe that another live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” would have been a late-summer hit of its caliber, but the marketplace was just empty enough for it to work.

Years from now, the movie to best represent the summer 2014 anomaly won’t be the breakout “Guardians,” or even the stunning “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” but what was perhaps the riskiest blockbuster of them all, starring one of our riskiest current star properties — “Edge of Tomorrow.”

Even though we’re nearly a decade removed from his PR nightmares, Tom Cruise isn’t an easy sell. The past several years seemed to hint at a huge Cruise comeback, including a killer, gasp-inducing turn in “Tropic Thunder” and his return to globetrotting box office dominance in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” Following “Ghost Protocol,” Cruise took a few steps back with the unfortunate run of “Rock of Ages,” “Jack Reacher” and “Oblivion.”

When the first promos came out for “Edge of Tomorrow,” it had “flop of the summer” written all over it. Cries of “looks just like ‘Oblivion’” flooded the Internet, and it seemed destined to be another speed-bump in Cruise’s streak of duds. And yet, despite the tepid and on-the-nose “Live Die Repeat” (which will soon be the movie’s official home video title) marketing campaign, “Edge” ended up being the summer’s best major release.

The catchy tagline wasn’t advertising some derivative and overly serious sci-fi “Groundhog Day” gimmick, but a wickedly smart plotting technique that made for a breezy and often hilarious recycling of Cruise. Director Doug Liman keeps things loose and never lets the repetition grow stale, tapping into Cage’s (Cruise) frustration with needing to explain mankind’s dire situation every time he gains an extra life.

Much like the “Live Die Repeat” tagline suggested, “Edge” didn’t die easily at the box office. Despite starting out with an underwhelming $28.7 million from the first weekend, it has more than tripled its haul and will have crossed $100 million domestic by the time this story is published. That’s more than “Oblivion” earned, and it even turned a profit worldwide, earning an additional $264 million overseas.

Without a superhero in tow, “Edge” is a rare case that defies the frontloaded blockbuster phenomenon, and its leggy run shouldn’t just serve as a testament to its quality, but it also supports the idea that studios shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance on something that isn’t necessarily a guaranteed hit.

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