It has been a particularly miserable summer for original movies. Elysium — the highly anticipated follow-up film from District 9 wunderkind filmmaker Neill Blomkamp — just opened with an estimated $30.4 million. That figure isn't awful; it's Matt Damon's best debut since 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, and Jodie Foster's best opening since 2002's Panic Room. But it is $7 million less than District 9's debut four years ago, and, more to the point, it is conspicuously lower than the debut grosses for movies seemingly aimed at the same audience, like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Wolverine.
Of course, all those movies were sequels, based on properties that audiences have known about for decades. But even World War Z, based on a bestselling novel from 2006 — and which faced an onslaught of bad press preceding its release — opened with $66.4 million, more than double Elysium's debut.
This is hardly a new phenomenon; original properties have been an endangered species in Hollywood for several years. But this summer's wide releases put that gulf into particularly stark relief. Take a look at the chart below:
Opening weekends for 2013 summer movies
Best domestic opening weekend: Iron Man 3 ($174.1 million); Man of Steel ($116.6 million); Fast & Furious 6 ($97.4 million)
Worst domestic opening weekend: R.I.P.D. ($12.7 million); Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters ($14.6 million); The Smurfs 2 ($17.5 million)
Best domestic opening weekend: The Conjuring ($41.9 million); The Heat ($39.1 million); Pacific Rim ($37.3 million)
Worst domestic opening weekend: Tyler Perry Presents Peeples ($4.6 million); The Internship ($17.3 million); Turbo ($21.3 million)
To a degree, this is not all that surprising. The common explanation used by Hollywood nowadays is that it is simply harder to convince someone to buy a ticket for a movie they've never heard of than for a film based on a familiar property. (Although, it also depends on one's definition of "familiar" — R.I.P.D. was based on a little-read Dark Horse comic that debuted 10 years ago.)
And even original films that became massive blockbusters like Inception and Avatar did not set any box office records for their opening weekends — though both those films did open with markedly better grosses than 2013's original films so far.
The real arena where original films are getting absolutely pummeled, however, is the global theatrical marketplace. Using figures from Box Office Mojo for movies that opened through July 5, 2013 (i.e., are reaching the top end of their global totals now), we can see just how bleak things are for filmmakers hoping to make a global impact with an original summer movie. Looking at this chart, it is hard to see why any studio chief beholden to stockholders would greenlight any original movies.
Global gross for 2013 summer movies
Best global total gross*: Iron Man 3 ($1.2 billion); Fast and Furious 6 ($771.4 million)
Worst global total gross*: The Lone Ranger ($176 million); The Great Gatsby ($330.8 million)
Best global total gross*: Pacific Rim ($297.2 million); Epic ($245.1 million);
Worst global total gross*: Tyler Perry Presents Peeples** ($9.3 million); The Internship ($75.5 million)
*All global totals are for summer films films that opened through July 5, 2013, and are up-to-date through Aug. 11, 2013.
**Only released in two foreign markets.
If there is a silver lining here for original films, it is their relative stability. In the preceding two charts, there is almost no difference between the average and median grosses for original films — whereas there is a significant spread between the average and median grosses for non-original films. Put simply: You have a better shot of knowing what you're going to make with an original movie than with a film based on something else. You just won't make nearly as much.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Elysium* — $30.4 million
2. We're the Millers* — $26.6 mhillion
3. Planes* — $22.5 million
4. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters — $14.6 million
5. 2 Guns — $11.1 million
6. The Smurfs 2 — $9.5 million
7. The Wolverine — $8 million
8. The Conjuring — $6.7 million
9. Despicable Me 2 — $5.7 million
10. Grown Ups 2 — $3.7 million