Summer movie season is based on the premise that filmmakers know what the public wants. Big production budgets feed into big marketing campaigns feed into blockbuster success—unless they don’t, through some failure of hit-movie theory or practice. The 2015 season produced some notable surprises (Mad Max) along with some huge letdowns (Terminator, Fantastic Four). What can we learn from the results? Here’s what worked, and what didn’t, in the summer of 2015.
What worked: The female badass
Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, Susan Cooper in Spy, Casey Newton in Tomorrowland—this summer marked the debut of a slew of awesome, powerful, female action leads. (Sure, all those movies were directed by men, but it’s a start.) In Furiosa, you had a strong-willed, incredibly resourceful woman who lives without fear. Ilsa Faust is every bit the spy Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is, but with a delicious moral ambiguity added. Susan Cooper may have looked stupid in the trailers, but if you saw Spy, she easily dominates Jason Statham and Jude Law. Then there’s Casey Newton, a true genius who puts herself at danger to save the human race.
Not only did each one of these characters outshine her male counterparts, but Furiosa and Ilsa are probably the two best characters in any movie all summer. They’re way more memorable than Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady in Jurassic World or James Spader’s Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Tomorrowland aside, those movies were hits too. And it was a good summer for female characters outside of genre films. Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck grossed $100 million, and Pitch Perfect 2 almost doubled that, with Elizabeth Banks directing. Though we’re still a long way away from gender equality either behind the camera or in front of it, the summer of 2015 was a step in the right direction.
But is Hollywood aware this worked? Maybe. Next year we’ll meet Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman, several recast X-Men like Storm and Jean Grey, as well as see a full female team of Ghostbusters. It’s a promising next step, especially considering the films that would react to this year’s successful heroines haven’t been made yet.
What didn’t work: High heels
Probably the biggest controversy this summer was over high heels. In Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, the lead character of Claire wears heels throughout the entire movie, despite how much running and jumping she has to do. It was the perfect example of how the film either consciously or subconsciously disrespected the ladies. (The unnecessary, brutal death of a secondary character was a lesser example.) Compare that to Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation where Christopher McQuarrie specifically puts in a shot where Ilsa takes off her heels. McQuarrie had no idea of that the high heel controversy of Jurassic World would be a thing when he was filming, but it’s a prime example of how these days, the smallest things can have the biggest impact.
What worked: Animated family films
After Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, the two biggest films of the summer were the animated family films Inside Out and Minions. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Animated films are an automatic choice for families looking to bring kids to the movies. As Inside Out and Minions were the only two wide-release animated films released this summer, big box office was inevitable.
But the sheer scale of the success in 2015 was something new. Never have two animated movies both grossed over $300 million domestically in the same summer. (And it’s only happened in the same year once before—2013, with Frozen and Despicable Me 2.) Historically, we used to see three or four big animated films per summer, but 2013 produced six, and most of them underperformed, leading to thin rosters last year and this one. Looking ahead, 2016 is scheduled to have three, along with bunch of likely PG- or G-rated live-action stuff. By 2017, we’re already slated to be back to six.
What didn’t work: Superhero movies
The summer of 2015 was a transitional season for superhero movies. It featured three movies—Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Fantastic Four—that ran the gamut of financial success but all shared one thing in common: They didn’t elicit the kind of response their predecessors did.
This ought to give the industry pause. Let’s start with Avengers: Age of Ultron. It obviously made a ton of money (it was the second highest grossing film of the summer, in fact) but did it have the same wow factor as the first Avengers movie? Did fans have the same unabashed passion? I’d argue no. Audiences turned up and enjoyed it, but very few came back multiple times the way they did for The Avengers.
Ant-Man, like the first Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, showed that Marvel Studios could launch a seeming minor character with critical and financial success. In the larger scheme of things, though, Ant-Man will end up being one of their lowest grossing films yet. Maybe that’s because the character is obscure—or maybe, it’s because fans are over the standard origin-story structure that this film brings back. But either way, the film didn’t connect on a larger scale, like Iron Man or Guardians. Where are the Ant-Ony memes and dolls like there were for Rocket and Groot?
Then there was the reboot of Fantastic Four, a huge disappointment financially and especially with critics. Rumor was, if this had been a hit, Fox planned to work on its own connected Marvel universe, bringing the X-Men and Fantastic Four together in a mega-crossover.
This summer of apathy couldn’t have come at a more awkward time for the genre. In 2014, both Marvel and DC announced plans to release 10 new superhero movies films apiece over four years, starting in 2016. (Read more about Marvel’s and DC’s plans at those links).
So next year, Marvel Studios launches Phase 3 of its cinematic universe in May with Captain America: Civil War, followed by Doctor Strange in November; DC starts building its own shared universe with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in March and Suicide Squad in August. Fox, meanwhile, has scheduled two X-Men films: Apocalypse in May and Deadpool in February.
With 20 films coming from Marvel and DC, plus the Fox allotment, there’s certainly room for a disappointment here and there. But nobody wants to start their four-year plan with a letdown. Civil War and Batman v Superman undoubtedly are being made on the presumption of huge success, which means huge risk.
If smaller movies like Doctor Strange or Deadpool don’t deliver, the superhero genre will probably be OK. But if Batman v Superman isn’t a ginormous hit, it could mean some rethinking. It could mean James Wan’s Aquaman doesn’t happen or Ezra Miller never gets to play The Flash. Those films have enough pressure already—which is only compounded by this summer’s superhero films being met with relative apathy.
What worked: International audiences
This is becoming something that works all the time in Hollywood. For most of the films released this summer, there was a remarkable gap between domestic and international box office results.
Inside Out ($342 million) beat Minions ($320 million) domestically but Minions ($670 million) absolutely dominated Inside out ($348 million) internationally. (Minions made nearly $1 billion on a $74 million budget, the kind of ROI studios dream about.) Terminator Genisys won’t break $100 million domestically, but it may well break $400 million internationally. Neither Pixels nor Tomorrowland broke $100 million domestically, but easily did so internationally. And Furious 7, which did a gangbusters $350 million domestic, grossed four times that internationally.
So what’s the disconnect here? In the case of Minions, it’s because those characters transcend language. The whole movie features the main characters talking in gibberish, meaning the story is understandable in every language. Meanwhile, the psychological insights of Inside Out might not translate as easily.
As for the other movies, the consensus is the rest of the world doesn’t get as much spectacle in their theaters as America does. So when something big and boisterous comes out, the world devours it: Jurassic World grossed $640 million domestically, but a staggering $980 million internationally. Quality helps, but these audiences are starved for blockbusters. That means sometimes, the filmmakers and executives can cut corners because they know the movie will make money overseas.
What didn’t need to work: Coherent plots
Sadly, when fans go to the movies these days, they don’t expect everything to match up. They don’t wonder why the D-Rex video monitors don’t record in Jurassic World. Why The Rock steals a helicopter that could save hundreds just to save his own family in San Andreas. How The Terminator can travel through time in 1984, but others can’t do it 30 years later. Or why Scarlett Overkill immediately trusts the Minions with such a big mission. You just buy it, and move on.
A coherent plot has never been necessary for a big hit (example: all the Transformers movies), but it feels like the summer of 2015 rewarded just-go-with-it plotting even more than usual. Jurassic World, an average script at best, was a beast. Minions, which rewards zany humor over common sense, another big hit. Avengers: Age of Ultron, a script that’s so stuffed with plot it’s hard to figure out, was another hit. Furious 7 features four cars falling out of a plane and landing without an issue. That’s not even something NASA can do.
What worked, unless it didn’t: Nostalgia for old hits
The biggest hit of the summer, and likely the year, was Jurassic World. Director Colin Trevorrow more or less took the structure of the original Jurassic Park, put new characters in it, added in a bunch of references and a hybrid dinosaur, and the movie exploded. On paper, that’s what the filmmakers behind Terminator Genisys did too. Took the ideas of the successful original films, spun them around a bit, added characters new, old and voila. Somehow, though, adopting the tried and true formula worked in one case, but not the other.
The most obvious reason why would be to look at the plot of each movie. Jurassic World is incredibly simple to follow. It’s more or less a long chase movie with clearly defined good guys and bad guys. Genisys involves time travel, multiple timelines and several villains whose powers are hard to quantify. No wonder one was successful and the other wasn’t.
But history tells us that’s almost too simple an explanation. Terminator 2 piled as many complications on top of the original Terminator as Genisys did to T2. The unloved Jurassic Park 3 treated the first movie much the same. How come updating the formula worked for Terminator in 1992 but not 2015, and for Jurassic not in 2001 but in 2015?
The answer is both definable and undefinable. Jurassic World feels like the original film, in a way that Terminator Genisys doesn’t. Jurassic’s references, visual cues and music are in there to replicate the sensation of the original movie. The result is that the nostalgia is relaxed, always hanging on the edge of the frame, and only sometimes jumping to the forefront. Genisys is way more in your face. Remember this specific scene from the first Terminator? How about this specific plot point or this minor character from Terminator 2? It was jarring to watch because it looked, but didn’t feel, like a Terminator movie.
What didn’t work: Nostalgia for nothing in particular
Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird, was one of the most fascinating films of the summer. On paper, it had everything going for it. Stellar cast, crew, idea, trailers, the big Disney machine and more. But when it was released, it struggled, and ultimately cost the studios hundreds of millions of dollars.
Obviously, something didn’t work. The film tries to be a fun action film with a strong sense of nostalgia, but misses on both notes. As an adventure movie, it fails by not providing as much escapism and wonder as promised. And as a trip down memory lane, its jet-packs-and-robots vision links back to an antique futurism, without referencing any specific classic story or property. Older adults might have felt connected to the 1950s or ‘60s view of the future, but kids already live in the world these characters are dreaming about.
Contact the author at email@example.com. Top image: Art by Sam Woolley.