2016 was a strange year for Hollywood on the box office front. As expected, Walt Disney Studios dominated and Warner Bros. made a comeback, but there were few breakout surprises, let alone new franchises to truly embrace, outside of Deadpool and Bad Moms. (No, true believers, Doctor Strange doesn’t count. Everyone knew it was going to be a hit.) And while movies that were expected to bomb, such as Warcraft and The Legend of Tarzan, did exactly that, they also sort of didn’t, thanks to the wonders of studio accounting and international sales.
Keeping all that in mind, here’s a snapshot of some of the winners and losers at the box office over the past 12 months. (As a reminder, these opinions are informed by global box office, which is key for a movie to actually earn a profit.)
Winner: Walt Disney Studios
Thanks in part to its subsidiaries Pixar, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Studios earned more than $2.5 billion in the US and has four of the five top-grossing films of the year so far. By the time Rogue One finishes its run, Disney will likely have secured all five slots and earned more than $2.6 billion in the US and a whopping $7 billion internationally. In fact, blockbusters such as Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, and The Jungle Book put Disney past the $1 billion domestic mark back in May, the fastest a studio has ever hit that record.
The studio is by far the biggest mouse in Hollywood’s house, and with Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Star Wars: Episode VIII on deck for 2017, it would be a huge surprise if the studio wasn’t No. 1 again next year. The real question is: With money-generating properties like Marvel and Lucasfilm in the Disney stable, can any of its competitors take back the crown anytime soon?
Winner: Amy Adams
Though it’s uncouth to say such things publicly, Hollywood executives will always privately use the excuse that there are not enough “movie star” actresses who can open a movie — that is, their name is above the title, they’re clearly the center of the film’s marketing … basically, the movie lives and dies on their involvement. Twelve months ago, the only names that could be reliably counted on to seriously move the needle were Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep. A notch down, put Charlize Theron, Sandra Bullock, and Scarlett Johansson in the right flick and you have a decent shot at box office gold.
One actress added herself to that list this year: Amy Adams. The five-time Oscar nominee has been part of a ton of hits, from Enchanted toward the beginning of her career to The Fighter and American Hustle but those were not cases of her being called on to carry the picture by herself. That all changed with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which places Adams front and center on all the marketing materials. The critically acclaimed sci-fi hit has so far taken in $89 million domestically and $144 million worldwide.
Granted, Adams’s other release this year, Nocturnal Animals, has been something of a disappointment, but that ensemble piece’s marketing efforts mostly focused on co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Michael Shannon. Adams still isn’t in the Lawrence/Streep stratosphere yet, but she’s one step closer.
Loser: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
I could have listed director Ang Lee here as the “loser,” but I simply couldn’t place that tag on one of the greatest filmmakers of the past 30 years. Financially, though, Billy Lynn was a debacle for Sony Pictures and its financing partners. It earned just $1.7 million stateside and another $29 million internationally. With a cost of $40 million, that’s a disaster for everyone involved.
There’s a lot of blame to go around for the movie’s failure, from the decision to push the 120 frame rate version on the first critics and media who screened the film (the wide-release version was easier to watch) to a marketing campaign that just didn’t hit the mark. But sadly, Lee himself is mostly at fault here. He overthought how to direct the actors in this format, his decision to cast newcomer Joe Alwyn in the lead role was a major mistake, and much of the film’s staging left a lot to be desired. (Just how many scenes can you set in the bleachers of an NFL football stadium?)
Lee has never experienced this sort of combined commercial and critical failure in his career; one can only hope his two Oscars keep him from a stint in the dreaded “movie jail.”
Winners: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad
You thought these two movies would be listed under “losers,” right? Wrong. Critics and some moviegoers may have been disappointed by the two DC Comics tentpoles, but Warner Bros. and theater owners weren’t. Batman v Superman earned $873 million global off a reported $250 million production budget, and Suicide Squad took in $745 million with a $175 million negative cost. Even with marketing budgets around $100 million (or more), both films still likely finished in the black during their theatrical runs (or very close to it). When you look at the straight bottom line, that’s profitable by Hollywood standards, and ensured some WB execs earned their year-end bonuses.
It’s been a pretty fantastic year for the indie distributor every film student in the country dreams of releasing their first film. The Witch took in a fantastic $25 million domestic off a reported $3 million production budget, making it A24’s biggest earner ever after Ex Machina. Sundance player Swiss Army Man earned a solid $4.2 million, and The Lobster was one of the surprise arthouse hits of the summer, taking in $9 million. (Both films had relatively low acquisition prices.)
The jewel of the year, however, is Moonlight, which has made $12.1 million to date and is already significantly profitable off a production budget rumored to be under $2 million (and more moviegoers should arrive after the Oscar nominations are announced at the end of January). Sure, Morris From America and Krishna were financial disappointments, but throw in the fact that last year’s Room made $9 million in the calendar year, and landed the studio its first Best Picture nod and a Best Actress win, and A24 had its best year yet.
Loser: Broadgreen Pictures
At one point many saw Broadgreen Pictures as potentially the next great mini major distributor. A year after scoring a monster arthouse hit last year with A Walk in the Woods, the studio effectively collapsed in 2016. The two “commercial” films it financed, Bad Santa 2 and The Infiltrator, each lost money at the box office. To make matters worse, Broadgreen acted as a distributor for Amazon Studios’ The Dressmaker and The Neon Demon. While there wasn’t much expected of the former, the latter became the first real black eye for Amazon as it opened to just $589,000 in 783 theaters, one of the worst openings in 500 theaters or more this year. To make matters worse, Bleecker Street, which launched around the same time as Broadgreen, has been much more consistent, with Eye in the Sky taking in $18 million in the arthouse circuit this spring. To say many are watching to see how Broadgreen fares in 2017 is an understatement.
Winner: Amazon Studios
Even if it some of the blame can be put on the distributors Amazon Studios partners with to release its films in theaters, the streaming giant had it share of box office misfires in its first full year of existence. In addition to the aforementioned Neon Demon and Dressmaker, potential commercial player Elvis & Nixon had a theatrical run that was anemic at best. That being said, Love and Friendship ($14 million US) and Café Society ($11 million US) were strong arthouse hits. More importantly, Amazon’s major Sundance acquisition, Manchester by the Sea, has already earned $22 million and could hit $35 million by the time Oscar nominations are announced next month. Those three wins go a long way toward boosting Amazon Studios in the battle versus rival Netflix to convince major filmmakers to partner with them.
Winner: The Mermaid
Do you know what the No. 12 grossing film in the world was over the past year? Well, it wasn’t released by Hollywood, that’s for sure. The Mermaid (Mei ren yu) is a Chinese sci-fi fantasy directed by Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle) that took in a staggering $526 million in China alone, making it the first film to make more than $500 million in any nation other than the US. (Only six films have ever made more than $500 million in America.) Wonder why Hollywood is so fixated on trying to conquer this bountiful market of 1.3 billion potential moviegoers? Witness The Mermaid.
Losers: The media that got Warcraft wrong
It was based on a video game. The trailers made it look like a Lord of the Rings rip-off. Universal Pictures delayed it by six months. The industry and mainstream entertainment media (including this writer) had every reason to peg Warcraft as a bomb before it ever hit theaters in the United States — and, to a point, they weren’t wrong. Duncan Jones’s fantasy flick took in just $47 million domestically on a reported $160 million budget. But moviegoers around the world apparently didn’t get the memo that the US wasn’t interested, because they flocked to Warcraft, which earned an additional $386.3 million around the world, including a massive $220 million in China alone. That’s something no one expected a year ago.
Winner: Pretty much anyone who made a horror movie
Horror sells. Like, it really sells. Once again this year, there was a laundry list of horror hits that capitalized in big ways on relatively small budgets. The Conjuring 2 ($320.3 million global, cost just $40 million), Don’t Breathe ($153 million global, cost just $9.9 million), Lights Out ($148.9 million global, cost just $4.9 million), The Purge: Election Year ($118.4 million global, cost just $10 million), Blair Witch ($45.4 million global, cost just $5 million), and the previously mentioned The Witch all were cash cows for their respective studios. So it goes without saying that if you’re looking to break into the business in 2017, coming up with a smart horror pitch is your best bet.
Winner: Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck won in two respects in 2016. First, his take on the Dark Knight in Batman v Superman was respected or popular enough (take your pick) to warrant the development of a solo Batman tale to be directed by the Argo filmmaker. Second, he was the face of Warner Bros.’ thriller The Accountant, which went from a buzzed-about early October misfire to a potential franchise starter: The Gavin O’Connor–directed thriller took in $148.3 million off a $44 million production budget. That’s a solid double for Warner Bros. and proves Affleck still has movie star appeal. Of course, Affleck’s drawing power will be tested with Live by Night next month, but we’ll worry about that a year from now.
Loser: Warren Beatty
Before Rules Don’t Apply arrived in theaters in November, the legendary Warren Beatty had not directed a movie in 18 years. He had not starred in one since before 2001. His passion project about Howard Hughes proved he might have stayed away too long. Even with Lily Collins and future Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich, Apply had one of the worst Thanksgiving openers in history, taking in $1.5 million in more than 2,300 theaters. It’s earned just $3.6 million to date and cost $25 million. We’ll let you do the math on that one.
Winner: Woman-centered movies (because we don’t believe in the term “chick flick”)
Bad Moms and its $179 million global gross (on a $20 million budget) is literally keeping newbie mini major STX Entertainment in business, but there were a number of other successes targeted at female audiences that haven’t gotten the hype they deserve. The Warner Bros. romance Me Before You cost as much as Bad Moms and earned $207 million around the world. Despite negative reviews, both The Girl on the Train and How to Be Single were minor hits, earning $172 million and $112 million respectively. And, yes, Ghostbusters didn’t become the blockbuster Sony Pictures was expecting, but American audiences came through: The Paul Feig–conceived reboot made a more than respectable $128 million in the US (which is in line with most of Feig’s hits), even if the film’s $229 million global take meant it couldn’t quite recoup its $144 million production budget.