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John Scalzi – Things We Learned From the Summer SciFi Box Office


The summer movie season closed up on Monday, breaking box office records (albeit just barely: $4.2 billion compared to last summer’s $4.18 billion — which means that factoring in inflation, slightly fewer tickets were sold this year than last) and becoming a banner season for science fiction and fantasy movies. Depending on whether one wants to lump The Dark Knight into the tally (as “dark superhero fantasy”), seven of the summer’s top ten films were SF/F-based. Geeks can hardly complain about that.

Aside from “big expensive special effects movies make a lot of money in the summer,” what lessons have we learned from the 2008 summer movie season, as they involve science fiction and fantasy movies? Here are a few to consider.

1. Smart is in: What do The Dark Knight and Iron Man have in common, aside from each being based on comic books and each grossing north of $300 million? The answer I’m looking for was that they were both critically lauded for being exceptionally smart films — an accolade unusual enough for summer blockbusters but pretty much unheard of for films in which the hero spends much of his time behind a mask. Both these films had action, adventure and effects up the wazoo, but then, so did Speed Racer, and look where that ended up (on second thought, don’t. It’s too gruesome). Add Wall*E — the best reviewed and most clever major film of the year so far — and its $200 million-plus box office to the mix, and you come to a tantalizing conclusion that yes, actually, intelligence is a value-add to summer sf/f blockbusters. Will Hollywood take this lesson to heart? Almost certainly not. But when three films add up to a billion dollars in domestic box office and the only connecting thread between them is intelligence, it’s more than a sign.

2. Let TV shows stay on TV: Speed Racer and X-Files: I Want to Believe combined grossed about $65 million — or a couple million dollars less than what The Dark Knight made on its opening Friday. The problem: The assumption of an audience that just wasn’t there. In the case of Speed Racer,
the belief seemed to be that Gen-X affection for a kitchsy Japanamation
staple of their seven-year-old selves’ afterschool TV habits would
translate into massive box office. But apparently too few of us
Gen-Xers liked it enough to subject ourselves to two hours of
seizure-inducing Wachowski Brothers stiltedness. With X-Files, the problem was even simpler: All the X-Files audience had long since transferred their allegiance to Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams (and even that’s not enough — see: Serenity).

Speaking of Abrams, how will this sf/f audience rejection of reheated TV affect his Star Trek reboot? I suspect not at all — Star Trek has long since become its own cultural phenomenon, something neither Speed Racer nor X-Files can claim, and Paramount has done a fine job of geek-stoking with its Star Trek pre-release publicity. It’s going to have to stink really bad to fail. But the fact that Abrams is having to reboot Star Trek at all brings us to our next lesson:

3. Even the mighty franchises can fall: George Lucas had the mightiest rejection of the Star Wars universe to date — Star Wars Christmas Special notwithstanding — when his animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie barely snuck past $30 million. On one hand, no one expected Clone Wars to
do the standard-issue Star Wars film business, since the movie was
basically repurposed episodes of the upcoming animated TV series that
will show on Cartoon Network. But on the other, the critical and fan
reaction to the movie was so bad that the Cartoon Network execs can’t
be happy that Lucas has essentially shot the TV series in the foot.
Right about now, they’re probably wishing Lucas had followed lesson two
in this list. The failure of The Clone Wars is not nearly
close to being fatal — this is the franchise that survived the entire
prequel trilogy — but it does remind us that even hardcore fans have
their limits. At least the Star Wars video games are still good.

It’s not only Star Wars that saw a dropoff this summer: Prince Caspian, the second Chronicles of Narnia movie, took in less than half of its predecessor (although that was a still respectable $141 million), the third Mummy film has yet to crack $100 million, which puts it also at about half the gross of its predecessor, and of course there’s the X-Files movie, doing double duty in this entry as well with its $20 million gross.

4. Will Smith + SF = $200 million: I don’t think
there’s ever been a more reliable science fiction/fantasy box office
star than Will Smith; Harrison Ford comes close, but he had two wildly
popular franchises to wrap around him, whereas Will Smith racks up huge
numbers in standalone films ( I Robot , I Am Legend , Hancock) as well as in his Men in Black franchise. All I know is that if I were making a science fiction movie, the first thing I would do would be to pay Will Smith whatever he wanted
to get him in it. Everything else from that point would be easy. As
with everything, Will Smith’s moment on top won’t last. But we’re still
in that moment.

Thus endeth my 2008 summer sf/f lessons. Thoughts? And do you have any lessons to add?

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale, which was released this week. His column appears every Thursday.

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