Time to wrap up 2021 with a look at the box office for the year. As usual, the list comes from Box Office Mojo.
Getting the obvious out of the way first, Marvel superheroes are represented by half the films in the list. Blockbusters are well represented on the list. With theatres opening up in 2021 thanks to vaccines and masking mandates, pandemic precautions were reduced and, in some areas, rescinded. That gave studios a chance to bring out the big guns they had waiting. Of course, the re-opening may have been too soon, with restrictions looming once again.
As can be seen on Box Office Mojo’s domestic yearly box office list, the gross at theatres is up by double over the previous year. That’s a start, but considering that 2020 saw a massive drop in theatre revenues thanks to pandemic lockdowns, double isn’t much. It’ll take time.to get people back in seats.
Back to the list, there’s an original work, Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds. The last time an original work was in the top ten was 2016’s Zootopia. With Free Guy, Reynolds is the draw. He has a charm that comes across easily in a film no matter the role. This time out, he’s playing a nameless NPC in a video game who has managed to get a glitch in his programming.
I’m adding a new category this year, the franchise sequel. The definition is still nebulous, but anything film that is part of a franchise that uses the same characters and/or situations counts as a sequel. F9: The Fast Saga is a good example of a franchise coming from an original work while No Time to Die is part of the 007 franchise. No Time to Die is also continuing the trend in 007 films of using an original story after the franchise has used almost every title it could from Ian Fleming’s works. It could be argued that some of the Marvel movies are now franchise sequels as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken on a life of its own separate from the comics’ continuity.
The two sequels of original works, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and A Quiet Place Part II are almost opposites in the approach. A Quiet Place Part II got delayed thanks to pandemic lockdowns and was kept waiting on the sidelines until things opened up a bit. The delay didn’t hurt the response, with audiences wanting to follow the family from Part I. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a sequel to Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, released thirty-two years later.
Taking the above into consideration, superheroes aren’t going anywhere any time soon. While people may be getting tired of the name Marvel, the films are staying fresh by being other genres with superheroes added. Black Widow is a spy thriller with superheroes. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is wuxia with superheroes. If one Marvel movie isn’t interesting, the next one might be. As long as the studio avoids continuity lockout, where an audience needs to have watched all of the previous films for a plot point, Marvel can keep going.
The above shows what 2022 could look like, with lockdown returning early in the year before being lifted once again when the number of COVID-19 cases drops. The real surprise was seeing an original work on the list. Granted, it starred Ryan Reynolds, but with 2021 having less than half the releases that 2019 saw, there was room for an original work to sneak in, leaving the possibility open for an original work to reach top ten in 2022.
1) Black Panther – adaptation of a comic.
2) Avengers: Infinity War – sequel to an adaptation of a comic.
3) Incredibles 2 – sequel to an original movie.
4) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – sequel to an adaptation of a novel.
5) Deadpool 2 – sequel to an adaptation of a comic.
6) Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch– adaptation of a children’s book.
7) Mission: Impossible – Fallout – sequel to an adaptation of a TV series
8) Ant-Man and the Wasp – sequel to an adaptation of a comic
9) Solo: A Star Wars Story – sequel/prequel to an original movie.
10) Venom – adaptation of a comic
The first original film on Box Office Mojo’s list is A Quiet Place, coming in at twelfth place. The first remake, A Star Is Born, comes in at eleventh. If people are getting tired of reboots, remakes, and adaptations, the box office isn’t reflecting it. Audiences are still turning out for the adaptations. The breakdown of the top ten includes seven sequels, up from five last year, and five that can trace back to a comic book, down from six last year. The past year was slightly more literary, with two movies that can trace back to books, up from one in 2016.
The takeaway – superheroes aren’t going anywhere yet. Black Panther tapped into an audience overlooked in the past and succeeded, opening the door for more works not featuring white male leads, much as Wonder Woman did last year. This may a signal that Marvel’s Captain Marvel and Valiant’s Faith will find their own audiences and give Marvel Studios the room to go ahead with films featuring characters like the Falcon and Spectrum.
It can be helpful to take a look at the bottom ten movies, again from Box Office Mojo:
10) Henchmen – adaptation of a short film, “Henchmen: Ill Suited” (short film)), released December 7.
9) Half Brothers – very little info found, but may be original.
8) Invisible Hands – documentary.
7) Gangsterdam – French-made original movie.
6) The Breadwinner – original movie, released through Theatrical On Demand.
5) TVTV: Video Revolutionaries – documentary.
4) That Way Madness Lies – documentary, released December 14.
3) Higher Power – original.
2) The Legend of Hallowaiian – original.
1) Realms – original.
The catch with these films is that they were all in limited release, which constrained how much they could earn. The Legend of the Hallowaiian was released to the most theatres, 20, and just for one day as a way to promote its DVD release. Documentaries are usually of limited interest, as are foreign films. The Breadwinner had an unusual means of release, relying on the audience to do the work of getting the film into a theatre. Quality may not be the issue with where the movies fell in the yearly standing. However, there is only just one adaptation. Of the rest, there are three documentaries, five original works, and one that’s unknown but probably original. Adaptations tend to have initial costs, mainly licensing, that are needed up front that a larger studio can front that a smaller one might not. The one adaptation, Henchman, was based on the director’s own original short film, cutting out the middlemen.
Adaptations aren’t going away anytime soon. The audience is still there for them. Studios will bank on that. Superheroes are also popular. There is the possibility that an original superhero movie could be a breakout hit, but it’d have to follow the Marvel method of being a superhero movies crossed with another genre. Otherwise, original works will have to bring something new to theatres, something that an adaptation can’t.
If adaptations ruled the silver screen last year, they dominated this year. The number of popular original movies fell from last year, and there weren’t many to begin with then. Let’s take a look at the top ten from Box Office Mojo’s domestic grosses list for 2017:
1) Star Wars: The Last Jedi – sequel to Star Wars. The Last Jedi has only been out for a little over two weeks.
2) Beauty and the Beast (2017) – live action remake of an animated adaptation of a fairy tale. Disney is having great success with live action remakes of their animated films.
3) Wonder Woman – adaptation of the DC Comics character.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – sequel of the adaptation of the Marvel comic.
5) Spider-Man: Homecoming – reboot of the film franchise adapted from the Marvel comics.
6) It – adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
7) Thor: Ragnarok – sequel of the adaptation of the Marvel character.
8) Despicable Me 3 – sequel of an original animated feature.
9) Logan – adaptation of the Marvel character and sequel in the X-Men film franchise.
10) Justice League – adaptation of the DC comic.
The first thing that jumps out is that there is no original work in that list. The movies are sequels, adaptations, or sequels of adaptations. The second thing is source of the adaptations; superheroes feature in six of the top ten films. Marvel’s characters are well represented, though spread through three different studios, Marvel, Fox, and Sony. Justice League squeaked into the top ten in the last week of the year, edging out The Fate of the Furious, itself a sequel to 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, an original work sharing its name with a 1955 Roger Corman movie. The first non-sequel, non-adaptation film on Box Office Mojo’s list is number twelve, Dunkirk, which is based on the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France in 1940. To find something completely original, not based on even historical events, one must go to number fourteen, Pixar’s Coco.
Breaking the list down a bit more, there are two sequels, five adaptations, and three sequels of adaptations. One adaptation, Beauty and the Beast, is an adaptation of an adaptation. A second, It, comes from a literary source. The rest of the adaptations and all of the sequels to adaptations ultimately come from comic books. Complaints about adaptations tend to be prompted by what is being adapted. Unlike the Fifties, where the bulk of the popular films were adapted from literary sources, this past year saw more popular forms of entertainment adapted. Even Stephen King gets derided for being popular and, thus, not Literature. Studios, though, won’t adapt something unpopular, though they may take a chance on the unknown.
A quick look at the bottom ten of the films in wide release shows that there were seven original films, one sequel, one biopic, and one adaptation. Of the originals, two, Collide and The Comedian were outright bombs unpopular with critics and audiences; two, Good Time and Free Fire had favourable reactions from critics and audiences but didn’t have the market penetration that the top ten did; one, Spirited Away, was in very limited release for one day; and two, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone and The Stray were aimed at religious audiences, limiting their appeal. The latter is the case for the sequel, Kirk Cameron Revive Us 2, which was also in theatres for two days. The biopic, Professor Moulton and the Wonder Women, was also of limited interest, though with the success of Wonder Woman, should have done better. The adaptation, Casablanca, was a re-release for five days to celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary. Calling /Casablanca/ an adaptation is pushing the definition; it was based on a stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, that was never produced.
People are still going out to see adaptations, despite the complaints about the lack of original works. There are original movies being made. Until one makes the same as The Last Jedi, no one will notice. The time isn’t right yet for such a breakout hit. Risk aversion in Hollywood is still running strong. Studios won’t throw an advertising budget behind an unknown film, not when they can back a sure thing. However, quality is still important. Badly done adaptations aren’t going to break even the top twenty.
The short version, adaptations continued to dominate the silver screen. With studios risk adverse, they want to maximize audiences. It’s still not a guarantee of success, but adapting a popular work is one way to draw in a crowd. Couple adapting with popular actors, and studios see a sure thing. The New Teens are looking a lot like the Fifties, where popular adaptations far outnumbered popular adaptations. Let’s break down the top ten films by box office, using the numbers compiled by Box Office Mojo. Remember that popularity isn’t necessarily a sign of quality, just of what is popular.
1) Finding Dory – sequel to the Disney/Pixar original work, Finding Nemo. A surprising entry, given the strength of what follows.
2) Captain America: Civil War – second sequel to Captain America: First Avenger, an adaptation.
3) The Secret Life of Pets – original.
4) The Jungle Book – Disney’s live action remake of its animated adaptation of the story by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Deadpool – adapted from the Marvel character and the most comic book movie ever made*.
6) Zootopia – An original Disney animated movie.
7) Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice – adapted from characters and situations seen in DC Comics.
8) Suicide Squad – another DC Comics adaptation.
9) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – an original movie in the Star Wars franchise.
10) Doctor Strange – adapted from the Marvel comic.
Note that Rogue One and Doctor Strange are still in theatres. The Star Wars prequel could finish 2016 higher in the list and also dominate the 2017 list.
For all the complaints people have about adaptations, audiences went out to see them more than original works. The breakdown has two completely original works, two sequels/prequels to original works, and six adaptations or sequels to adaptations. It’s telling that most of the original works are animated, especially from Disney, who used to plumb animated features from fairy tales. Studios just aren’t going to give up the potential income from popular adaptations, no matter the outcry. At this point, original works will need top talent just to get a budget from studios. Depending on the work, an original may need to go to television just to get noticed. For balance, let’s look at the bottom ten.
10) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker
9) Assassin’s Creed – adaptation of the video game.
8) Snowden – a biopic of Edward Snowden.
7) Mechanic: Resurrection – sequel to the remake, The Mechanic.
6) Manchester by the Sea – original.
5) Free State of Jones – loosely based on a historical event.
4) Blair Witch – remake of The Blair Witch Project.
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – sequel to a movie based on Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in An Age of Uncertainty.
2) Keanu – original.
1) Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life – adapted from Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts.
Note that Assassin’s Creed is still in theatres after being released on December 21. Manchester by the Sea opened in limited release November 18 and had a full release December 16 and is still in theatres.
The bottom ten has four adaptations, two sequels to adaptations, one original work, and two movies based on real events, including the Snowden biopic. Being at the bottom isn’t necessarily a sign of quality. Manchester by the Sea has been nominated for a number of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay, and has been listed on the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of the Year. What the bottom ten show is that adaptations run the gamut of popularity and that we’re still in an era where adaptations outnumber original works. However, with two exceptions, every decade in the history of movies shows that trend. The exceptions were the Eighties and Nineties.
Adaptations aren’t going away any time soon. People are still getting out to see them in theatres. At this point, quality is important; repeat audiences are driving the numbers for several films. For now, expect more original works in unexpected media, like animation or television.
* I’d say “shamelessly the most comic book movie,” but the movie lives in audacity, contributing to its popularity.
As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to see how the year went in terms of adaptations. The History of Adaptations showed that adaptations are normal in Hollywood, not the exception, at least for popular films. And 2015 had adaptations, both successful and not.
Starting with the unsuccessful, we have Jem and the Holograms. The movie failed to get an audience and was pulled after two weeks. However, Universal Studios’ loss on the film, around $3 million, was a drop in the bucket for them. Universal had an amazing year at the box office, with movies such as Jurassic World, Furious 7, Fifty Shades of Grey, Pitch Perfect 2, and Minions. Jem‘s low budget, under $6 million, was a mere ripple on the profit of any one of the movies mentioned. Pulling Jem early protects the property; no one saw the film, so no one will remember what happened in it. The 2015 Fantastic Four, aka Fant4stic, also ran into problems at the box office. While it did make a profit, at least on paper, the word of mouth wasn’t good. Fant4stic had problems with characterization, particularly with Doom, while going to the desaturated colours seen in the Warner Bros. DC Comics adaptations.
With Jem and Fant4stic, the problem came from a poor adaptations. Jem had a generic plot when fans of the original series was expecting more. Fant4stic ran into characterization problems, turning a megalomaniacal would-be world conqueror into a real-world annoyance. Both films failed to take into account the existing works, dashing fan expectations. Jem had the added “bonus” of having almost no advertising. Fant4stic changed the name of Doom back to “Victor von Doom” after fan backlash.
With the successful films, Universal leads the way with Jurassic World, a sequel to an adaptation, and Fifty Shades of Grey, an adaptation. Disney’s new properties, Marvel and Star Wars, have performed well, to say the least. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is still bringing in people and, well, The Force Awakens is a force to be reckoned with. On television, Supergirl has an audience on CBS, joining Arrow and The Flash on the DC Television Universe. The Muppets got a full season ordered. Adaptations are alive and well and superheroes are still around.
There are adaptations being made even now. including the gender-flipped Ghostbusters. We may be reaching the peak of the current cycle, with adaptations being a large percentage of popular movies now. Audiences are getting antsy for something new, so expect the ratio to change in a few years. Universal is leading the way, at least for now, having had fewer blockbuster adaptations than competitors. In the meantime, though, superheroes will dominate.